A month ago I was approached by freelance copywriter and journalist, Lucy Grewcock to join her in Wuyishan in Fujian Province, China, on assignment for the South China Morning Post. As circumstances would have it, I could not join her on the weekend she was visiting the region, so I traveled there independently while she wrote up her experience.
A photographic "treasure-hunt" became what was on order. One in which I was to follow in Lucy's footsteps and attempt to match her experiences with my images. I knew she wanted images to support the concept of a: "5 things one must do when in Wuyishan " feature, and I was emailed a proposed list. As the publication date drew nearer, it was clear that this was to be a sort of "Amazing Race Wuyishan", where I rushed around this gorgeous landscape and ancient town, ticking off the '5 things' as a series of photographic opportunities. Great fun! I wouldn't have traded this opportunity for all the tea in China.
Wuyishan is one of the famous tea-growing regions of China, which became immediately apparent almost as soon as my taxi cruised through the outer suburbs of the old town. It seemed that everywhere and everyone but everyone, was an integral part of the process involved in bringing tea from the remotest crags, outcrops or plateaus to the fine porcelain tea bowls of the end tea-connoisseur user. Not so surprisingly therefore, my list-driven itinerary and subsequent ideas for locations were to take me through all parts of this tea production process. I took the journey that the very tea leaves took. Starting way up in the surrounding highlands and passing down through the hands of the many expert people involved in processing it, refining it, packaging and marketing it and . . .well, enjoying it. Being a hardened coffee drinker, I wasn't expecting a road-to Damascus experience on that issue, so I was a in for a surprise there too.
This list I'd been given, i discovered, didn't just represent a list of suggested photographic locations but soon was to become more of a: "What Can I Learn as a Travel Photographer? -List". As it occurred to me that each of the categories on it became a sort of lesson in itself within the itinerary, that was to be plotted upon my learning curve. So, just what was on that list then?
First item up :
(Lesson Learned: Have a Detailed Itinerary).
With only two days at my disposal, this seemed like a daunting prospect; as where exactly to hike to ? Without losing out on other opportunities? In these situations it's always best to consult with a local. This meant a sit down meeting. Even though it went against all of my usual natural instincts just to get started, get out there and make it happen. There I sat in my hotel reception; with my inner dynamo wound, knees-jigging, squirming in my seat and watching part of that first sunny morning drift by while poring over maps and guides. I did this with the very capable and helpful Jenny Zhang from CITS Travel and thank goodness that I did! Her local knowledge and experience ( as well as good nature), sequenced my movements with the precision of an air traffic controller; as well as taking away my anxieties and preventing me from becoming that headless-chicken photographer. Issues such as: potentially crowded areas, timings for events (such as raft trips, cultural shows, performances), distance times, waiting times, opening times of parks, shops and museums and golden hour light / sunset, best-times-to-be -standing [here] at; were all carefully factored in.
Being a tourist in China is sometimes like being engaged in a factory process. Hiking, it turned out, was at times an experience as thoroughly regulated as crowd control outside a sports stadium or railway station taxi queue. Stone pathways and fenced and channeled routes up and down the steep crags reminded me that I was always on a prescribed route. I suppose this is done to deal with the sheer volume of people, as much as it is to preserve the surrounding tea plantations and the environment. It was important to get shots which both acknowledged this and included the stunning landscape, as well as shots which were just about being "wild and free". Again local knowledge combined with the needs of my inner mountain goat, prompted me to leave the path, ignore the "no-entry" signs; and follow a tea plantation workers trail. My belligerent behaviour paid off and although i was off- itinerary for a while, I felt pleased with the results.
Next on the agenda:
Breathtaking UNESCO Beauty
(Lesson Learned: Separate Emotion from Logic).
One of the things I am most guilty of as a photographer is to remain caught up in the feeling; in that moment of shooting, of having taken a "lovely" shot. That excitement, the warm fuzzy-feeling of having captured something wonderful in a moment of time is a quite natural emotional response. Too often the act of taking a photograph can continue to obscure our judgement regarding the quality of the photograph later. Here is where logic has to step in and help us to detach. Below is an example of what I mean. I love to get lost in photographs that appear to say a lot, but in actuality say nothing. They may be beautifully technically shot but that is often all they are:
Another problem I had was taking photographs that did not say enough about Wuyishan in Fujian Province, China itself. Some of my images may have captured, again with technical competency, a well-composed scene which depicted an activity happening somewhere sunny in Asia . . perhaps. An example below:
Logic demands that the brief must drive the creation of the images. The assignment is not only about creating well composed, quirky or technically well executed shots. The brief is about telling others about a specific location in Southern China. Logic demands that each image, where possible, should provide enough visual clues to support the feeling that we are in that unique location. Below is a better example to help illustrate my point:
In this image we are being given a visual checklist of clues that may help the viewer pick up upon a few Wuyishan-specific features. The terraces of tea bushes in the background, the sheer rock faces descending to Nine Bend Stream, the style of bamboo raft, the peaks in the background, the bamboo groves - all of which help to tell us where we are. Photographer Garry Winogrand said: “Every photograph is a battle of form versus content” It is too easy to forget the content while being distracted by the form in travel photography.
Usually it is good to leave your photos for a period of time before going back to review and begin editing them - a practice that Garry Winogrand used to his advantage. Following this assignment There wasn't the luxury of time for me to be able to "forget" my shots for a while. So I sought the next best way to help me to detach from my photographs: i showed them to a variety of people and asked for honest, brutal criticism.
Garry Winogrand: Every photograph is a battle of form versus content.
The third item is my favourite:
A Cracking Cuppa
(Lesson Learned: Get Closer).
Consider the difference between the two images below:
In the first we are observers to an activity and we can feel that we are almost like spectators at an organised event. In the second we in are in the scene with the players. We have a rapport with the person picking tea. We can sense there has been a breaking of ice and some kind of communication. Although the second photograph was not selected largely due to its cliched feel, it does serve to illustrate the point that we should get closer to our subject. That may mean overcoming the fear of approaching and photographing strangers. Martin Parr said: "I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it’s the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don’t find it easy. I don’t announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone’s photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it’s the one thing that gives the game away. I don’t try and hide what I’m doing – that would be folly." For more on this read my article: Completed Encounters . Getting closer and thereby involving oneself more fully in something requires more than technical skill and they do say that: travel opens your mind - it pays to be open to people and to the things going on around you. So It was through this experience that I became interested in drinking tea again, along side being able to catch shots like this:
Spending part of an afternoon taking tea this way -was not only relaxing but allowed for me to get settled into a comfort zone with a group of people. Thus you get physically as well as emotionally closer to your subjects- out of which further shots become possible later.
Sometimes a few tight, close -up and /or abstract shots can say a lot more about a subject than several photographs can. In the following shot there is something about the rich colours, and variety of textures which tell us about the ritualistic and intimate nature of tea served traditionally here.
Robert Capa : If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
Next on my list was:
(Lesson Learned: Work All of The Angles and Anticipate)
We've all been there. You spend a long concentrated period of time working at recording and capturing something such as a stage performance. You position yourself in front of the stage and stay shooting throughout the performance in what is billed (in your mind) as a 'main event". As the show comes to end - you begin to wrap things up yourself and put the lens cap back on in an I'm done here gesture. What you haven't realised, is that on the periphery of this 'main event' -something else quite spectacular has been going on and that you've missed it, simply because you spent too long overworking something and not changing your position. This happens so frequently when taking travel photographs. So often we become captivated by a 'main event scene' and work it for too long from the same safe positions or angles.
The first example below is satisfactory as a pleasing landscape scene. However what follows is so much more satisfying and it was improved upon by spotting the man off to the right side of the temple preparing his mule train to walk out to the plantations nearby.
With some anticipation, as well as shouting out to him like a madman: "ni chi na li? " as he moved off - I was able to run ahead of him and catch this:
People going about their lives in an environment is nearly always more interesting (to me) than a standard shot of that environment, no matter how attractive it may be.
By following this monk back around behind a screen in this mountain temple- I am rewarded by a more intimate and better-lit portrait:
The take-away point is: when traveling - never put that lens cap back on, until you have worked a scene completely. You are always looking for opportunities presenting themselves which enhance the already interesting.
Martin Parr: I feel that a strong image should be both interesting from a visual standpoint and meaningful from a humanistic standpoint.
Last on my learning curve was:
Outdoor Adventure for Kids and Big Kids
(Lesson Learned: Be Socially Conscious).
As just about everything seemed like an adventure to me because I am big kid at heart, yet this category proved to be the most challenging in generating even one or two solid images for. I reasoned that because I didn't have a lot of time and that I didn't have any passion for golf (which was one more of the attractions drawing people to Wuyishan), that I would drop that option in favour of shooting on or from the river. That way I could maximise the use of the potential time remaining, as well as perhaps generating more shots for the other categories. Bamboo Rafting it was then!
It had been important to witness this activity from as many different perspectives as possible and to keep referring to it as often as it presented itself. Since rafting is hard to avoid in Wuyishan,I had already collected quite a few ariel perspectives from bridges and from the Heavenly peak itself.
The rafting "station" where you go to board your raft, is in fact just like a railway station in size and format. It's one of the most popular tourist activities and was therefore built up in people's expectations.
Now all that was left was for me to do was to tip the boatman (apparently a common practice anyway, even if you are not vying for a front seat on the raft), settle into my cane chair and take in what's around about me from this peculiar vantage point. I wasn't aware how limiting being in that chair would be. Not to be deterred by this, I began to see that it was fascinating to observe others from up close during a sustained period. Others seated alongside and others on other rafts coming alongside and others on the banks. People's reactions to the passing scenery and to the continuous banter offered by the boatman became just as fascinating as the scrolling montage of scenery. Indeed people relaxing this way gave up all sorts of opportunities to record quite socially telling images. In other words; the tourists themselves became more interesting than the locations. I took advantage of their equally fixed positions from mine and used much of this opportunity to make shots of my fellow tourists.
Joel Meyerowitz: I had a social responsibility to tell it as it is.
Now that the article: "Steeped in History" has been published, it is interesting to reflect on what images that the editors chose from the selection that i sent them and how those images matched or not with Lucy's writing.
My experience working on this assignment seemed to once more mirror the Wuyishan tea's progress. Just as the tea undergoes its protracted journey; processing and transformation as it passes through the stages from bush to cup, so too did my photographs as they passed through their journey of shooting, editing, post processing, further selecting and on until their final printing. It reminds me that photography and indeed writing for that matter, like the production of fine tea, is a craft. A craft which is dependent as much upon the tastes of the end user, as it is upon the intentions of the publisher and its original creator.
Here is the article, as it appeared in South China Morning Post's 48 Hours Magazine on 12 june 2014 and posted with permission: