A photographic dialogue with the East: the experiences in China of Joan Villaplana, the director of the new Postgraduate Course in Photography and Visual Language

Western and Easter cultures have always been, and always will be, compared in all artistic and cultural realms: literature, painting, music, etc., and the same happens with photography. While some continue believing that the West is superior, others decide to travel to those distant places to find out about the philosophy and techniques of one of the most ancestral cultures, China. Joan Villaplana, the of the new Postgraduate Course in Photography and Visual Culture, is one of the latter.

Last September he travelled to China to present the exhibition Back and Forth at the International Photography Festival of Pingyao and he seems to have enjoyed himself, as he has returned. China, he says, “is fascinating, endless and always different”. The exchange of points of view between the eastern and western approach to photography as a visual language is the main reason behind Joan’s second trip. Also, with this new experience he sought to find out more about the country’s photography, discovering its way of dealing with a range of issues in China and seeing how professionals, teachers and students work on the other side of the world.

His time in the Asian country has been fruitful. Joan has given several workshops and lectures at some of the most important Chinese universities in the field of visual expression (Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication and Inner Mongolia University). As well as photography, his talks have centred on important concepts such as knowledge, reality and the sublime.

For the photographer, cross-disciplinary work and the dialogue between a range of languages are key when learning and experiencing photography. Both are important in the Postgraduate Course in Photography and Visual Language, which begins in October this year. “Today, anyone can take a photo, but few are photographers”, says Joan, and because of this, the course will teach the keys to become one: the tools and techniques of the discipline and its expressive and narrative consequences.

Viaje China, Joan Villaplana, Director Curso de Postgrado de Fotografía y Lenguaje Visual, IED Photography, IED Master Madrid

Joan Villaplana has just returned from a very inspiring trip and we have chanted to him to find out about his experiences and the new course he is going to direct.

What is your personal and professional relationship with China? Why have you become so closely connected to this very different country?
I visited China last September, and attended the International Photography Festival in Pingyao. We presented the Back and Forth exhibition, a display which established a dialogue between the projects of several students and teachers of the European Master of Contemporary Photography at the IED Madrid. I was invited to an international education and photography symposium and shared some ideas and methodologies with colleagues from a range of Chinese universities, who were very interested in the dialogue between humanistic thought and visual creation. This is something I have always worked on as a teacher and it is very important in China. We found this connection so we decided to explore it. I was invited to the University of Tianjin, and I have begun to visit them regularly to give lectures and workshops. This is also something I have begun to do at other universities. This exchange of views between the East and the West is very important. There is a cultural abyss between us and it is always enriching to explore it.

What are the main differences between the Western and Eastern approach to photography as a visual language?
It seems that there is a trend in China which over here we would describe as classical, especially in the field of documentary photography. Other trends are more Avant garde, but it is tricky to judge them from our perspective, as they have a different view of history, progress and time. In any case, the trends we could define as the most Avant garde are interesting, but sometimes they aim to continue with Western discourses and that is boring and insipid. It is always more interesting to look at the way they develop photography from the tradition of its visual languages. There are many people in China, a lot of work and a lot of talent, and what I am most interested in is the way they combine their traditional aesthetics with a contemporary language like photography. When this happens it is fascinating, both in terms of the language, the narrative capacity of a single image and the exhibition or book presentation. Their capacity to create objects on the basis of photography is incredibly interesting. And we all know how amazing their crafts are.

How has Chinese photography and your experience there influenced your work as an artist? And as a teacher?
I am exploring it to find out where it comes together with our photography. As for the lessons I have given there on aesthetics, I have begun to research the classical sense of beauty and study the relationship between the concept of beauty in the East and the West. To do so I have visited the mythical Huang and Lu mountains, which symbolise beauty in traditional landscape painting and photography. I have begun a photography and videographic project there, as they are unique and irresistible places

In October, the new Postgraduate Course in Photography and Visual Language will begin, under your direction. To whom is it aimed and what does it consist of?
It is a course aimed at students who wish to begin practicing photography on a solid foundation of visual language. We will explore all the professional tools and digital technology on the basis of their expressive and narrative functionality. Any professional and artist must understand their tools and techniques, as otherwise they will be unable to communicate whatever they wish to express.
In the same way it is pointless to understand techniques if we do not comprehend their expressive and narrative consequences. This course will also focus on cross-curricular work and today’s visual languages. We all know there are connections between all disciplines and tools. One cannot be a photographer without being aware of what is happening in other visual disciplines. We will also explore the limits of the discipline. The course is aimed at people who come from other artistic or professional realms and want to get to know the photographic language and at those who want to get started in this discipline. It will allow them to continue their projects or delve into the field further with the Master of Professional Photography or the European Master of Contemporary Photography.

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