Archive: March 2012

Last Years Travels in China

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles... Chinese Style.


Three days ago I got back from a 24 hour road trip from Beijing, to where I live in western China (no stops… straight).  It was epic.  It was tiring.  It was educational.

I’ve always wanted to make the drive from Beijing home.  Having personally driven through many parts of western China with my friends, I wanted to get a taste of driving from East to West.  You quickly realize that the second you step foot (or tire) outside of the Beijing city limits, rural China looks mostly the same everywhere.  Granted, that’s painting in broad strokes and there are obvious exceptions.  For example, large swathes of the population in ShaanXi Province (陕西) live in these weird mud houses carved out of the sides of the mountains.  However, to the untrained eye, it looks just about the same across the board.

The four hour traffic jam in the middle of nowhere + the totally useless and unprovoked detour through rural Gansu was not so fun. Despite these lengthy delays, it was a great trip.  Travelling via personal car in China is a real treat.  You get to meet some seriously interesting people.  For example, during the 3+ hour traffic jam on the interstate, I met a bunch of Inner Mongolian truck drivers who insisted on telling me “An American, a Chinese, and a Japanese guy all walk into a bar…” jokes.  I only fully understood one of the jokes – and it was completely racial charged.  They also insisted the Mao Zedong was actually born in ShaanXi in a mud carved house (he wasn’t – this is complete misinformation).  The equivalent of if I told them George Washington was Canadian and was famous for flying F-16’s during WWII.  I met a government official who insisted that American’s dont know how to drive and “Why would we ever want to drive through such a poor country?!”  He was a real 工具袋子(google translate it) who quizzed us on Chinese history and then exclaimed, “See, these foreigners know nothing about our country!” Ten minutes later he was forced back into his car after losing a shouting match with Chinese truck drivers centered around the fastest route to western China from Beijing.

I loved every second of it.  You want to experience some real unabashed raw Chinese culture, get stuck in a 100+ kilometer traffic jam!

This trip got me thinking about the last year of my travels in China (minus international travel).  I did some quick math and figured out the following:

  • Distance By Personal Car: 3,074  miles
  • Distance By Train: 2,508  miles
  • Distance By Plane: 10,584 miles

That’s a total of 16,166 miles in one country.  On average I travelled 1,400 miles a month.

It sure feels like a lot, especially now that I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing a lot of work on the east coast (Beijing, TianJin).  I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but it’s been good to look back and visual see where I’ve been in China over the last year.

A quick note:  If you are interested at all what it’s like to be a driver in China, I can’t recommend enough that you read Peter Hessler’s, “Country Driving.” It’s a wildly entertaining book about a different cultures view on something we all do almost daily – Drive.  If interested in China at all, this book is a must read.  Beyond that, it’s hilarious.  Go check it out!

Death Cab for Cutie: Beijing

A growing music scene highlighted by Indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie's first visit to China

(If you have the time, make sure to check out Split Works Media and the Jue Festival for Music and the Arts.  These are the people who are working really hard to promote the arts and music in both Beijing and ShangHai as well as working really hard to bring such amazing acts like Death Cab for Cutie to China.  It does my heart good to know that there are people in China like this.  For both my wife – (Art Director, Art Teacher, Painter, print designer)  and for myself  (photographer, musician, and designer) things like this are huge – and truly important.  They are part of seeing a culture grow and seeing the arts in China valued.  So go check them out!)

The first time I saw Death Cab for Cutie play was in March of 2002. Last weekend (almost ten years to the day) I was in Beijing shooting Death Cab’s first appearance in China as one of the official photographers for my friends over at Split Works Media as part of their annual Jue Festival for Arts and Music.  It was a fantastic experience both as a photographer and a music lover- not to mention as a huge fan of Death Cab for Cutie.

I’ve lived in China for about four years now, mostly working as a photographer in the western parts of this country.  In that entire time I can honestly say that I hadn’t been to one concert that was worth the cost of a taxi ride to the venue.  The culture of music in the west is a far cry from that on the more modernized Chinese coastal areas.  This year I’ve been doing more and more work on the east coast and have been exposed to China’s growing music scene.  For music lovers, it’s abosolutely fantastic – a dynamic, growing, and vibrant music scene.  Something to really get excited about.  For those interested in the culture of it all, it’s equally mesmerizing.  It’s really a special time in China for the culture of music.

As a cultural photographer and music lover, it was a fantastic weekend.

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Guest Post: Baron Batch

Guest writer Baron Batch talks about how humanity and photography go hand in hand

Today’s post comes from my friend Baron Batch.  Baron is a photography, philanthropist, and a professional football player on the side.

I’m glad to have Baron posting today and I’m especially excited about the topic – Humanity and Photography.  If you’ve been following along the last few months you will notice we have talked a lot about humanity and photography and their corrolation (here, here, and here).  Specifically we have talked about how to value humanity when entering new cultures – human first. photographer second.

I was glad to get Baron’s story about working for an NGO in Haiti as a photographer.  His story resonates with many stories I’ve heard of photographers visiting new cultures for the first time and is a strong reminder for us all to value the person over the picture.

To shoot or not to shoot?

That was the question that rubbed my mind raw like a pebble in a shoe as I walked nervously through the streets of Port Au Prince Haiti in January of 2011. The thought of pulling my camera out made me uncomfortable. Realistically the camera I was using was worth more than most Haitians make in a lifetime – and when you’re a foreigner the locals know it. Even though I was black like the rest of the Haitians, they looked at me the same as all the other foreigners – with a stare that simply said, “How dare you?”

My hands and mind were in conflict with my heart as I continued to walk though the streets of this unfamiliar world. This was unlike anything that I had ever seen or experienced, and I’m sure that my facial expressions showed it. Actually, I know that my facial expressions showed because of how the locals looked at me.  It was a look of disgust blended finely with obvious anger. “Snap out of it Baron, you aren’t at the zoo.” Is what I kept telling myself as I walked. “These are people. This is where these people live.

I thought. “This is their home. You are a visitor here.”

I was on the trip to document a medical team photographically – it was my sole purpose on the trip. We had come to Port Au Prince to do some trading in the city, and I had yet to photograph anything. We passed collapsed buildings, churches, and schools that I recognized from other photos that I had seen on CNN and other mainstream news outlets. The photographer in me said, “Pull out your camera right now and get that shot!” But my heart simply said, “Don’t.”

I began to take out my camera and disregarded every fiber of my being that was screaming for me to put it away. Before I got my camera completely out of my bag, I witnessed something I will never forget… something that will forever give me perspective on the importance of respecting others and valuing humanity before anything else.

As I began to pull the camera from my bag I heard a scream followed by a barrage of words that I didn’t understand. I quickly looked up, startled, at the commotion only to see a Haitian woman leaning out  her window screaming at a group of Americans. She was screaming in Haitian Creole. I don’t understand Haitian Creole one bit, but a pissed of demeanor is universal. I stared across the street as the woman continued to yell at the Americans all while they continued to take pictures. Not sure what was taking place I turned to our translator and asked “Why is she so mad? What did those Americans do to piss her off? What’s she saying to them?

Our translator replied, “She is angry because they are taking pictures by her old house that was destroyed in the quake. She says that her family is still under the rubble. She just wanted the Americans to go away.”I looked up and I could see that the Haitian woman had streams coming down her face.Then it hit me. The Americans across the street were not only posing for pictures by a woman’s home that had been destroyed, they were walking on the graves of her entire family.

I put my camera back in the bag and didn’t take it out again the entire time we were in Port Au Prince. I didn’t take a single photograph there.
Human decency and photography should go hand in hand for this reason. Especially when you are the visitor. I’d like to say that I knew this before experiencing this story, but that would be a lie. In all honesty I was about to go walk on the graves of the Haitian woman’s entire family oblivious to the fact that they rested under the rubble. I’m glad that I didn’t. What I learned that day is to never let your humanity be compromised. That is a truth that I’ll always carry with me no matter where I go, especially with my camera.

We are all humans before anything else. If you miss this one simple point you have missed everything. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. And it’s for sure bigger than a single photograph.