Interview With an American Photojournalist in China
Q&A with Tom Carter, author of CHINA: Portrait of a People
American photojournalist Tom Carter has spent the past four years in the People's Republic of China, traversing all 33 provinces and autonomous regions not just once but twice. The San Francisco native's hardback book, a definitive 900-image volume aptly entitled CHINA: Portrait of a People, was released in 2010 by Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books.
Tom took a day off from travelling to discuss the challenges of taking pictures in China, how he evaded censorship in the tightly-controlled republic, and to share a few insider tips on visiting what is to become the world's largest tourism market.
Your book focuses heavily on photographs of people, from peasants to punk rockers, ethnic groups to entrepreneurs. As a lone foreigner in a faraway country, how did you approach so many strangers, let alone become intimate enough with them to take their portraits?
Most of my photos came about as a natural result of my curiosity and interaction with Chinese people during my travels. It wasn't until the end of my trip that I thought about compiling them into a book. This is a tribute to all the people I met along the way. For the portraits, it just takes a sincere interest in your subjects to get that close. I don't believe in hiding behind a zoom lens; I was actually as near to all those people as you see in the pictures, sometimes just inches away.
The candid life shots, which comprise a good third of the book, were actually more of a challenge. As a foreigner walking down the street in China, all activity stops the moment you are seen, so it's tricky to photograph life before life stops to stare at you.
I don't believe any book can capture the true spirit of a country with only pictures of places. Sure, a photo of a sunset over the Great Wall is nice, but what do you really learn from it? I wanted to show the people, and dispel the stereotype of the Chinese as a homogeneous single nationality.
You must speak the language pretty well.
That's the very first question I always get from other expats I meet in China! It humbles me to admit that my Putonghua borders on offensively poor. I taught English when I first arrived in China, which left me no time to formally study Mandarin. I picked up my entire vocabulary while travelling. I call it Survival Chinese. I can communicate, but I'm usually left out of the gossiping granny circles.
A friendly smile works well when all else fails. I might add, though, that Chinese dialects vary widely by province, so even most nationals have trouble understanding other Chinese outside their own hometowns.
You say you came to China as an English teacher, but four years later you're a published photojournalist and author. Did you plan this career move?
Never, but that's China for you, a real land of opportunity. Teaching was just a means to an end, which was travelling. Out of that first long year on the road sprung my collection of photos, which resulted in a book contract and travel assignments from various periodicals, which brought me full circle back to my second spin around China.
I believe I stand apart from my contemporaries in that I'm not sitting around a cushy foreign correspondents' club "networking" [makes mock quotes with his fingers] and waiting for my next assignment; I'm out on the road finding my own. But maybe that's why Reuters still hasn't called me.
You've had a few run-ins with Chinese censorship of your images and articles. Care to share?
The concept of Freedom of the Press, something the west takes for granted, is still entirely alien in Communist China. The media is state-run and every single word and image that comes in and out of the country needs to be approved by the Ministry of Information. Crazy, huh?
But since I'm an independent freelancer without the backing of any news agency, I lack official journalist credentials. Most of my images I've had to get the hard way, which has often resulted in confrontations with local authorities who view foreign correspondents as a threat.
For example, for the three single frames of coal miners with soot-covered faces that appear in this book, I and my Chinese travelling companion had to spend several days in the mountains of South Shanxi before we were able to sneak into a coal mine, grab a few shots then get the hell out before being caught. Mining is one of the most dangerous and controversial occupations in China, and is entirely off limits to journalists. Some of my best photos are hit-and-run like that.
There's one incident in particular I want to hear about: a peasant riot that you photographed and which almost got you arrested. Tell us about that.
To be caught up in a proletarian uprising – something both foreign and Chinese reporters in China rarely even hear about, due to rapid suppression of information, let alone eye-witness – was extremely frightening but probably one of the book's most powerful images.
I was subsequently "implored" by the local police to hand over all my photos, under penalty of incarceration, but a couple have managed to slip into the book [winks mischievously].
Guerilla-style documentary photography is something you are obviously proud of. Someone said you have "turned mundane daily life in China into a work of art" but one reviewer wrote that your photographs are "an assault on ordinary people who should be left alone." What's your take on such extreme responses?
Which one was the criticism? [Laughs] Actually, I prefer the term ‘street photography', because that's exactly what I do. I'm out pounding the pavement from 6am to 6pm every day, learning about the culture through observation and interaction. Many photojournalists cover their assignments as quickly as possible so they can remove themselves from the elements, but I revel in the elements.
I don't have any technical or artistic preconceptions to my photos. The whole idea of spending an hour setting up a shot and then photoshopping it to death afterwards is not what I'm about. I just capture life as it is, then move on. If the picture turns out crooked, so what! Life is crooked!
I have no desire to make something palatable, even if it means not getting on Getty. On the other hand, any of my photos that are considered beautiful I credit entirely to my subjects. They are the ones who deserve the compliments.
China really is a vast country to explore, and you have been to every corner of it – 33 provinces and over 200 cities and villages. Travelling for a living sounds like a life of leisure, but what's the reality?
You know, for all the tourism I've promoted for China with my photos and travel articles, you'd think the CNTA [China National Tourism Administration] could at least have comped my hotels. But the truth is I've never received a cent in financial backing. During the two years I spent travelling across China, I slept in 15 RMB [2 USD] flophouses with particleboard walls – which are illegal for foreigners to stay in – with the occasional youth hostel or night on a bus station floor.
I taught English for two straight years beforehand so I could save up to travel, and I really had to pinch my pennies to make it last. The upside is that my insolvency resulted in experiences that staying at the Sheraton could never produce.
All travellers are running away from something. What's your excuse?
I come from a long line of nomads – my mother a Danish immigrant of good Viking stock and my father a hybrid Panamanian-Cuban-Italian – so drifting is in my blood. It's my dream to travel the world, take pictures and write about it. I have no intention of succumbing to that thirtysomething syndrome of settling down. The world is my home.
So what day-to-day difficulties did you encounter during your marathon journey across China?
You mean hour-to-hour difficulties. My photos might excite a lot of potential tourists, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the reality of actually travelling in China. The consensus among backpackers is that China is probably the single most challenging country in the world to navigate.
Aside from the obvious language barriers, you have 5,000-year old customs and extreme cultural differences that can be quite vexing for the typical westerner. Most of these nuances are not something that you can catch on film; travellers have to discover them for themselves, and that's part of the fun.
What keeps you going?
I delight in the challenges that a country like China poses to westerners. Sure, I occasionally catch myself pounding the wall in frustration, but the thing about the PRC is that every turn is a new adventure. For me there's nothing worse than being bored, and boredom is just not possible in China. See these lines on my face? They weren't there before.
How did you plan your routes?
I haven't planned a single route since I arrived in China four years ago. I just point myself in a direction, then let life carry me on its current. Not only does every Chinese person you ask where to go have an excitedly different opinion – even about which way is north – but there are so many undiscovered villages that are off the charts. Not to mention that the time it takes to get to these places is often days longer than how it appears on a map, making an itinerary kind of pointless.
Tell us more about surprises along the way, and any dangerous situations you've been in.
Surprises are the rule, not the exception. In addition to clashes with the authorities over my pictures, I've had everything from a near-lethal bout of encephalitis during my first year in China, to getting shanghaied by crooked English schools, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal.
One of my favourites is the time I found myself at the business end of a North Korean machine gun when I accidentally crossed into the DPRK at Changbaishan. These are all stories I can laugh about now, though my mother doesn't think so.
It's said that China is now undergoing the most prolonged period of sustained change in history. How has it changed since you have lived there, and how will it change in the near future?
I think China's most dramatic changes have been brought on by itself and that the now-clichéd term "New China" was something methodically planned out in their boardrooms. The Chinese government is addicted to what I call hyper-urbanization. You've got historic cities like Beijing, where they are bulldozing these ancient hutongs by the hour so they can build office towers, or the 2,000-year-old village of Gongtan in Chongqing that is going to be levelled this summer for a new power plant.
I wrote an article about Gongtan for a local magazine but it was quickly quashed because the censorship bureau said "We don't want to bring any attention to that place." These contrasts in architecture appear in my book because I feel it is imperative to capture this last glimpse of China's old slate rooftops before the skyline becomes pure steel and glass. CHINA: Portrait of a People will probably become a history book, something Chinese people will look at twenty years from now and say "Ah yes, I remember."
It seems like everyone wants to know more about China these days. Do you see more people planning on visiting the country?
China will become the world's largest tourism destination of the next decade, no doubt about it. China's doors were closed for so long that it's only natural the world is curious about what's behind them. What the pictures in Portrait of a People are doing is fuelling this curiosity by offering an intimate glimpse of humanity in China, and scenes of daily life that even publications like National Geographic overlook.
You're something of an authority now on Chinese travel. Can you offer any tips for travellers?
Well, what China wants tourists to see is often at variance with what is actually marvellous about the country. You've got these highly-sheltered tour group packages that cover the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Shaanxi, a boat ride on the Yangtze and shopping in Shanghai [makes yawning noise].
Or you can remove yourself from the souvenir shops and luxury hotels, get a local street map and travel on word-of-mouth. Lonely Planet would go bankrupt if people actually took my travel advice, but you definitely see more of the real China my way.
Finally, what's next for someone who's been everywhere in China?
My publisher and I have been talking about taking the "Portrait of a People" concept to other countries in the region. I would jump at the chance. So I have no idea where I'll be this time next year.