My Home: Part 1

Stories from western China: Part 1 - An introduction

It’s been a strange past few months.  Because of political, social, and governmental ‘issues‘ (read: problems, protests, and tensions) here in western China I’ve spent more time in front of the computer working as a designer and web developer than I have as a photographer – a nice little carry over from a previous career.  Other than shooting a few local jobs and lots of time on the east coast of China working and shooting, it’s been a slow and somewhat frustrating time to live here.

Being one of the only permanently-based (and open with the government) photographers in the Tibetan areas of western China lends itself to certain stresses, troubles, and limitations – one of those being they tend to let me know when it’s ‘safe‘ for me to go out and do my job.  Safe meaning when they are comfortable with the thought of a foreign photographer.  All other times they expect me to find something else to do.  Roll with the punches and keep my head down, I guess.

I’m happy to say that things are gradually returning to a state of normal.  I now have a huge list of projects I’m working on.  Down time, while frustrating as a story teller, creator, and income earner, is certainly hard. But it can also be great to help us gain perspective and think about the stories that we want to tell.  Such was the case for me.

I’m happy to announce one of many personal projects designed to explore the many nuances, stories, and people of my home in western China.  These are stories I’ve been watching unfold for years and haven’t had the 关系 (relationships, trust, understanding, local rapport, etc) to pursue appropriately all while being sensitive to the unique cultures of this place .  I couldn’t be more excited to start!  Listed below are a few captions for the posted images, many of which will be explored further in the coming weeks.

  • Xiàngqí /象棋/ Chinese Chess – Literally translated means “Elephant Game.”  This is one of the most interesting cultural games you will find in China.  Literally on any given day you can find dozens of old men around playing this game.  It’s a fantastically rich game that encompasses a large swath of Chinese social culture.
  • Confucius Wall Slogans – I find these everywhere throughout China.  These are painted slogans, both large and small, that convey what the Chinese government feels is a slogan to promote ‘social harmony.’
  • BaoZi/包子 / Chinese Dumplings – So much food culture, it’s so hard to know where to begin.  This is one of my favorites and one of the most common foods you will run across in China.  Worth exploring further.
  • Temples:  Daoist, Buddhist, unidentified… we’ve got them.
  • Common workers: Man, is there a story to be told here.

Hope you join me over the next few months as many of these stories unfold.

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Hillman Curtis

The life of Hillman Curtis - A life worth studying...


“Be prepared to reinvent yourself.  Be prepared to go out on a limb occasionally… and be prepared to do the thing that you feel strongly about, that maybe other people don’t…”

I had a great blog post lined up for today – that was until I read that one of my idols, Hillman Curtis (site here) passed away just a few days ago.  I tend to get news like this on a delay here in China.  Even if you’re not sure who Hillman Curtis is, there is a good chance you’ve seen his work.  The creative world has truly lost a great mind and an enormously generous creator – a person who impacted me greatly as both a designer and a photographer.

I remember several years back at a friends house, I first saw Hillman’s book, MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. I was so impressed that I went home that same day and ordered copies of the book for every designer friend I could think of.  That book continues to be an inspiration for me and I’m deeply saddened to hear of Hillman’s passing.

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Sent from my iPhone

ThinkTank April 2012 Deals

Think Tank Photo's April 2012 Special Offers


Think Tank is one of the best companies around, and one that I’m extremely happy to be partnered with on all of our workshops.  I’m absolutely in love with their products.  My friend Brian (best name ever) over at Think Tank HQ let me know about a pretty fantastic deal they have going on through the end of April.  This deal is for the padded Pro Speed Belt that you can get for a limited time while buying the StreetWalker® Pro or StreetWalker® HardDrive (Check out my review here).

You can read the whole press release below:

Think Tank Photo announces a special offer on their popular StreetWalker™ backpacks.  When you buy one of Think Tank’s spacious and comfortableStreetWalker® Pro or StreetWalker® HardDrive backpacks by April 30, 2012, you will receive a padded Pro Speed Belt™ for free!

The Pro Speed Belt makes the StreetWalker backpacks even more comfortable and provides greater support for the weight on your back.   This padded belt also allows you to attach Think Tank’s modular bags to the belt line.  In doing so, you will have quick access to your lenses or accessories instead of having to take the backpack off to retrieve your camera gear.

With Think Tank’s StreetWalker backpacks’ slim vertical profile, you can navigate crowded places while still being able to access professional photographic equipment.  The backpacks include a monopod/tripod mounting system, a contoured harness and air channel, and lots of pockets and organizers.  Women in particular will appreciate the StreetWalker’s very narrow and vertical profile, especially when combined with the shoulder harness design.

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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!