Rodney Evans: Kids living in cities like Shanghai are going to have a different kind of advantage

Photo credit: Yang Xiaozhe from Time Out Shanghai 

Photo credit: Yang Xiaozhe from Time Out Shanghai 

Rodney Evans is the owner of Central Studios in Shanghai, a photographic studio near bustling Xintiandi – a stimuli-rich location where much fashion and advertising photography is shot.

Rodney’s first foray into China was in 2005 when he was invited to show his photography work in an exhibition held by Tourism Australia. After the completion of his month-long trip, he admits that he knew within about a fortnight that he’d be back.

Working alongside his fashion-designer wife Natasha, these two creative expats built both a business and a family in Shanghai, initially aiming to stay just five years. Now, nearly ten years later with no imminent plans to leave, Rodney is the first to admit that “life is pretty good in Shanghai.”

Advance recently spoke to Rodney about his journey from Sydney to Shanghai – including how he started his business, raising a child in a foreign country, and the one thing that changed his relationship with the city.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

What originally brought you to Shanghai?

At around the same time I was invited to show my work through Tourism Australia, I had heard murmurings about things going on in China, so I thought it was a good opportunity to check it out. Also at that time I was looking to get out of Australia for a change of scenery and a different experience. I thought I always had Spain in my mind, but then the opportunity to come to China came up, so I just took it. China was really still quite raw back in 2005 – it was exciting.

What was your impression of Shanghai the first time you visited?

My first impression of China was that it was nothing like a Bruce Lee film. I didn't fully understand the differences between the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects, so I was taken aback by the way in which people were speaking. Then in Shanghai, it was a different language altogether; the Shanghainese dialect. It was a good couple of years before I was comfortable with the language.

How did learning the language change your relationship with Shanghai?

It changed it dramatically. When I first moved – as a photographer in a new country – I had a lot of spare time on my hands. I made a concerted effort to use that time to learn the language and get a little bit of a foundation. When I opened my business nine years ago, it was a real boost to my language skills, being forced to communicate with clients.

I don't think I could have done what I'm doing if I didn't speak the language, or, at least, it would have been a hell of a lot harder. I still actually don't speak Shanghainese, which is a problem. It's one of my resolutions, to try and get some Shanghainese under my belt!

What was the impetus behind starting Central Studios and what are you currently working on?

I was pretty lucky the way that this all came about. I had a small photography studio when I was in Sydney and always loved the idea of building a bigger one. When I first moved over here I was working in another business. We were looking at coming up with a business plan to take over a whole floor and build a studio, and then the financial crisis came and so that was put on hold. Over the next couple of months, the space became available and the landlords approached me and asked me if I wanted to take it. My wife had just moved to Shanghai, and we said each other, “What are doing in China if we're not going to try something big?” We bit the bullet and took the space. It's 1000 square meters in a warehouse building in a major location, right in the heart of Shanghai.

We’ve now evolved into an integrated production company and we do a lot of video and photo productions for advertising and fashion clients. It's quite varied the work we do, and it keeps us busy.

Do you have any favourite projects you prefer to work on? Any particular industries or clients?

We work with some of the world's biggest brands and they're all exciting in their own right. We did a really cool commercial with a hip hop artist at the end of last year for the Chinese New Year campaign.

I’m lucky that I get to travel for work, and we've got a few projects coming up in various places from Malaysia to London.

How have your professional opportunities expanded as a photographer in Shanghai? Could you have done something like this in Australia?

I think if I was in Australia it would be very hard for us to get access to some of the brands we work with in China, being a much smaller market and far more competitive. Over here we’re working with brands from Coca-Cola, to GAP, to Old Navy to Jaguar.

How come those brands don't go to Australia?

It’s usually because Australian demographics often look like American demographics, so they can usually get away with using American ad-sets. The thing about China is that content really needs to be localised for a lot of the brands, so it's not good enough just to use a global campaign here. Whereas Australia they can kind of get away with it because it's culturally similar to a lot of other western countries.

Your wife Natasha also working in a creative field as a fashion designer, does your work ever intercept?

We do work quite a bit together. She’s a partner in the studios so very much involved in the look and feel of the space – the UX, so to speak. Aesthetics are very high on her agenda, so thankfully she can help keep that side of things polished. I'm a little more involved with the execution side of things.

When you initially moved over, did you have plans to stay there this long?

We joked when we first opened the business that we'd have it for five years and then get out. But even after five years we then joked that we were putting together another five-year plan and then get out. But the business has kept growing and we're now almost at 10 years and life is pretty good in Shanghai.

Although now, after having a child, we're definitely thinking more seriously about what are we going to do. We definitely would want him to go to high school in Australia, to have access to a great environment and outdoor living.

Do you feel any pressure that your son is not having an Australian upbringing? Or do you feel the opposite – that he's getting an international education?

I think it's a bit of both. On the one hand, yes – especially in Shanghai where open space is a rarity and we don’t have access to the amazing beaches that we grew up with. On the other hand, my son is five and a half and is fluent in both Chinese and English, and will always have an international network with all the other expat kids and families that are living here. I think a lot of kids living in cities like Shanghai are going to have a different kind of advantage with employment.

Do you take much inspiration from Shanghai, a very stimuli-rich city, and apply it to your work?

The work that we do needs to be relevant. With such a focus on social media content, everyone is always trying to create real stories or find the next best role model. There's a big push to using authentic talent and authentic stories, so a big part of what we do is to stay culturally connected to what’s going on in the city and being able to present that back to clients and provide the right solutions.

What are some of your favourite things to do as a leisure actvity in Shanghai?

Leisure-wise, on weekends it's all about trying to spend time with the boy. Now that he's at an age where he is becoming more and more independent, it's exciting to see him grow. He is a fan of skateboarding so we’ll go to the local skate park if it’s a nice day. It's starting to get warm, so we always try to spend some time outdoors when we can. 

I'm a member of Entrepreneurs's Organization - EO, which is a global network of entrepreneurs with a very strong chapter here.  Membership provides access to a lot of interesting learning events as well as plenty of social activities. There's a very vibrant and dynamic entrepreneurial community in Shanghai which is also part of the attraction of living here.