Olivia Martin-McGuire: Seeing Shanghai Through the Eyes of an Artist

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance 

A stimuli-rich city like Shanghai is an artist’s dream; with new opportunities, sensations and impressions continuously presenting themselves as inspiration. Someone who can attest to this is photographer and filmmaker Olivia Martin-McGuire, a Sydney native who now calls the lively city home, along with her husband and two children. Martin-McGuire truly sees Shanghai through the eyes of an artist, taking full advantage of its inimitable charm, friendly community, and unique culture.

How long have you been based in Shanghai? What took you there in the first place?

I have been living in Shanghai for three years now, however I did spend some time here over 10 years ago during an artist-in-residency. This time I came over with my husband’s work. He was the Director of Arts, China, for the British Council, and has just been promoted to Director Arts, North East Asia (much more travelling for him I suspect). 

Why is Shanghai a great place to work and live?

Shanghai is an amazing city, complete with much higher highs and lower lows than Sydney. It is a country of extremes, but ultimately Shanghai is pioneering and upbeat. I often talk to architects or women in senior positions in different industries about the many carrots dangling here, it becomes addictive, it is the new land of opportunities. I know several women who find it hard to leave; they have been here for over a decade and the opportunities are just too good to pass up.

I have met my fair share of people (especially accompanying spouses who have not found an interesting role here) who find Shanghai very hard. The city doesn’t stop for you; everything keeps moving all the time, but that’s also one of its great charms. In the West, the infrastructures and culture are more angular; there are levels and stairs and places to rest. It is more predictable and rational. In China, it is a river that keeps on flowing and rushing and moving. Dare to dive in and you could end up anywhere! It’s an entrepreneur's dream. 

I have met many expats who arrived to Shanghai in one career and are now in a different one; at very senior levels no less. Everything moves very fast here: what takes seven years in another country takes one in Shanghai.

On a more practical note – Shanghai is especially great because of the people and amazing sense of community. We live in The French Concession; a very pretty area with plane trees lining the streets and everyone on bicycles. There are loads of great places to eat and drink and enjoy life too.

How long of a readjustment period did moving to Shanghai require, considering the many cultural differences? 

I would say the first six months were a little crunchy; getting my kids adjusted and finding my own work and place. But I think it is fairly easy to adjust here, as it is very international as well. It is more about the pace, my husband landed and started working 80 hours a week, and that kind of intensity took us all a while to level out and manage. You have to know your boundaries here with work, as the hours can be fairly relentless if you let them. 

Can you tell me a bit about your career as a photography professional and the projects you’re currently working on?

I thought I would be exhibiting and making photo books when I first arrived but very quickly I was offered work with the Australian Financial Review as a photojournalist. I was flown around China shooting various fascinating stories and working with some wonderful Aussie correspondents. I continued doing this and working for other international publications. Everything felt so fascinating, because China is fascinating. Having the opportunity to meet “the richest self-made woman in the world”, or go deep into a coal mine and understand the extremes within the fabric of this country was wonderful. I have loved every minute. It was like falling in love with photography again.

Just over a year in I did a course in documentary filmmaking at AFTRS online, alongside an intensive period in Sydney. I thought this would help with the new demands to shoot video as well as photography for newspapers and editorial work. At the end of the course I pitched a project (that I had been working on photographically and had just been featured in TIME Magazine) to some broadcasters and there was interest. I picked up a wonderful production company in Sydney, Media Stockade (run by women who make a lot of wonderful social impact films), and then I received development funding from Screen Australia. I can’t mention anything now, but things have developed a lot with some exciting news to talk about at the end of the year. Stay tuned! 

I can imagine Shanghai is a stimuli-rich place for someone in a creative field. Do you take inspiration from the city and apply it to your work?

Absolutely! I find the city and the country very inspiring. I am astounded at the difference between the elderly here and in Australia. When I first walked through the parks of Shanghai and watched all the elderly dancing and singing and practicing Tai Chi and doing exercise en masse, it made me teary. A long time ago I had worked in aged care (when I was at uni) and it was very bleak. Certainly, what I observed in my life was that the West only really values the ages between teenage to 30 years. Once you are over 50 people start to get blurry at the edges and eventually disappear. You don’t see them on the streets or in the world much. In China, the elderly are the main people on the streets and in the parks, they are seriously respected and looked up to.

Maybe it’s because of the Communist or Daoist history (or just having so many bloody people here), but there just isn’t space for indulgence. People are not inhibited and do not take themselves as seriously. It is extremely liberating to be free from the intense social constructs of the western world which is based a lot on appearances.

What career opportunities have been presented to you in Shanghai that you otherwise may have not been granted in Australia?  

Moving into filmmaking very fast has been possible because of the access I have to such a riveting country at this time in history. I have also been able to work with amazing publishers and develop ideas with senior commissioners. Also, as I said it is not linear here, things move in different ways and can be faster and more open.

How would you describe the Australian community living and working in Shanghai?

It is a lively community. I know lots of Australians doing interesting things here. There are lots of events and the community is very active. I mix with all sorts and expats and locals so I don’t tend to go to many Australian-only events. Michelle Garnaut and her restaurants are a hub for people and she often brings together amazing Australians. I met many great people through her, she is a hugely important connector and supporter in China for women. 

What’s your favorite leisure activity in Shanghai?   

Low key, simple, healthy stuff, really. Riding our bikes through the streets with the kids, summer outdoor dinners and drinks etc. We do see a lot of cultural performance and art events through my husband’s work as well. I also participate in Michelle’s mentor walks program for women and I go to her literary festival and talks. We’re never at a loss for things to do!