Meet the Nighttime Shopkeepers of the Shanghai’s Side Streets

Within the bustling city of Shanghai, photographer Florian W. Mueller photographs night workers in the streets that surround the glamourous centre. Entitled Nightshift Shanghai, Florian’s award-winning series tells the story of urban Shanghai.


Last time we met Florian he was photographing buildings against clear blue skies.

When the night gets too warm and humid, the locals continue to live, play, sleep, sell their inventory, or just hang out. Within Florian’s photographs, you can expect to see the behind-the-scenes lifestyle of the local people. You’ll see anything from people lounging in front of their shops, getting together in groups to play games, or working shirtless to combat the heat.


We caught up with the photographer to get the story behind his latest series.

THE PLUS: This series is quite different from Singularity. Do you think your photography style has changed over the years?
Florian Mueller:
No, not really. Well, it’s always a process and an evolution. But even if there is a big difference between Singularity and Nightshift at first glance, the process of finding such motifs and series is comparable.

At the end of August 2018 I was in Shanghai to produce pictures together with Porsche China for the Photofairs Shanghai. While we were scouting and taking pictures across the city during the day, I spent the evening and early night with my friend David in the streets away from the glamorous shopping malls and flagship stores of the luxury brands. Often just a block away, these shopkeepers sell everything people need for their daily lives, from food to paint and flowers to cigarettes and shoes. Each shopkeeper only has a very little booth – space is expensive in Shanghai. Fascinated by the partly bright and neon colours and the chaotic-looking interiors, I met satisfied people who often sit in front of their shops. They would be chatting, playing Mahjong, dancing and sleeping. In some pictures you really have to look for the shop owner in the chaos.


TP: What story are you trying to tell through this series?
Nightshift Shanghai reflects the quiet but genuine face of a city that is constantly changing like no other to spruce up even more, but also likes to hide its less striking side. But I think this face of the city is beautiful because it’s authentic. The people are authentic and friendly and welcoming. Sometimes they asked me to join them for a tea or a beer, even if we only could communicate with hands and feet. And a smile.

I was very lucky to have company of my buddy David. He is, like me, more interested in strolling through a city to learn and see the authentic faces of a city on our own than sitting in a rooftop bar and sipping on Cocktails. Don’t get me wrong, I like that part of travelling too. So we sneaked into all these streets in the late evening and night.


TP: How do you think the neon lights and vibrant colours in your pictures help capture the Shanghai culture?
It is all about the differences. On one hand you have the traditional Chinese architecture and lampions and dragons on the other hand you are overwhelmed by these neon advertisings and colours. And, as said before, you see the differences in the population: Rich kids driving fancy cars and wearing designer labels and then the people in my Nightshift series. Who were happy too, but living a more traditional way. You can feel this diversity everywhere – a city captured between tradition and the modern. Maybe this is reflected by the different lights in my series. Neon and LED lights inside the shops and orange sodium vapour lamp outside. It was quite a job to find the balance.


TP: How was your time overall in Shanghai? What do you like most about the city?
I love it there. The food, the people, the buildings. It was fantastic. Of course, at a certain point it is very loud and you need a break. But then you jump again into the streets and alleys and you are amazed again…


TP: You said before, you used a Nikon D800E camera for your work. Did you use the same camera for these shots? 
No, this time I shot with a Nikon D850 and mostly with the Nikon 24-70mm 1:2,8 E ED VR which gave me a bit more freedom to shot during the night because of the VR and the possibility to shoot great pictures at ISO 3600 and more.

TP: How did the people of Shanghai react when you were taking photos?
Mostly they waved, smiled, later on, at my second visit, when I came a bit closer, they invited me for a tea or a beer. Some were annoyed and covered their eyes or turned away. But I did not use these pictures.


TP: What is your view on street photography? 
It depends. I am not a big fan of photographers sticking their cameras right into the face of someone. On the other hand you get the best pictures when the people do not recognize they were photographed. Usually I take my picture(s) and when they see me, I smile and wave at them. Sometimes this is the beginning of a little chat.

TP: What interests you about street photography on the whole?
I think in street photography there are now lots of sub-genres. Like “candid street photography” for example works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, street portraits (mostly focused on portraits of people on the street, instead of the environment – either with or without permission like Diane Arbus or Bruce Gilden). And you have urban landscapes with or without people in them (think Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld, etc), still life street photography (sometimes with a funny or a socio-cultural character, think Martin Parr or William Eggleston) and some more genres. All these genres and subgenres show us humanity and society around us.


TP: Where next?
I hope to get to Japan, especially to Tokyo, this year. I think there are some places, people scenes that might give me the opportunity to return with amazing pictures and impressions.
Some pictures and series are planned long and meticulously, are almost in final form in the head leaving just the execution of the actual shots themselves. Other series emerge from the moment and evolve by themselves: Like Nightshift. Here it was a first look, a first photo, which immediately tied me up and never let go. Such things are difficult to plan. In English there is a nice word for it: serendipity – finding something that you have not been looking for. It is these moments that make me love my job like nothing else.