Travel photographer Tom Carter spent 2 straight years traveling 35,000 miles across all 33 provinces in China to create his groundbreaking photography book CHINA: Portrait of a People. Kay Bratt sits down with Tom to discuss western misconceptions of Chinese culture, the difference between China’s rural and urban schools, and the challenges of being a foreign photographer in a Communist-controlled police state.
Tom, some of the images you captured are amazing. [scroll to bottom of post to view]. Before you came to China, what impressions did you have of the country and its people, and how have these impressions stood up?
I was born and raised in the City of San Francisco, which has the largest Chinese population in North America, so Chinese cultural has always been present in my life. But despite San Francisco’s multicultural reputation the Chinese tended to be isolationists by nature: they had their own neighborhoods and Chinese kids hung out in “their” corner of the school yard. This of course added to the intrigue and made me even more curious, like sneaking into the Chinatown projects to buy illegal fireworks, or befriending the Chinese (my first crush was an eight year-old Chinese girl who sat next to me named Claudine Wong, who is now kind of famous). But this distance between “us” and the Chinese distorted itself into certain stereotypes, which I was just as guilty party to as anyone. I wrote in my introduction to CHINA: Portrait of a People that it literally took traveling across the world and then throughout the entire country before I would come to understand the Chinese. Yeah, some of my original general conceptions have been reinforced since coming here, but more importantly I understand WHY: I understand why the little old Chinese ladies on the 38 Geary line always pushed and shoved to get on first; I understand why China-Born-Chinese had such a notorious reputation behind the wheel of a car; and now I understand why the Chinese in San Francisco didn’t mingle with other folks. I have since come to recognize that the key to global harmony is in understanding, because without that element then we are guilty of ignorance, and I can think of no worse fate for a society or an individual than to be ignorant. So it is my most sincere hope that, if nothing else, CHINA: Portrait of a People will serve as a visual conduit for global understanding and awareness of Chinese culture. Plus, it’ll look cool on your coffee table.
What inspired you to travel all 33 provinces and autonomous regions in China?
I think world exploration is in my blood. My mother is from Denmark, a direct descendant of the Vikings, and my father was born in Panama, so there’s this long family history of migration. I love to wander; it’s my absolute dream to drift around the Earth, take pictures and write about it. I came to China as an English teacher, and I worked like the devil for two straight years, saving all my RMB with the goal of eventually hitting the China road. When I left Beijing to start my trip, I didn’t have any kind of itinerary beyond the next day. I tramped around from province to province – yes, just like Caine in Kung Fu, walking from place to place, meeting people, getting in adventures. Tibet was the 5th region I visited during that journey, and I had this fantasy of marrying into a Tibetan Drokpa shepherd family because their nomadic life would have suited me perfectly. Anyways, it wasn’t until I finished my first spin around China that I had compiled this massive cache of photos. I was introduced to my publisher (Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong), who specializes in Asian-themed books, and the rest is literary history.
You got your start in China teaching English, which is a popular vocation for western expats in China. Did you feel that you were actually making a difference in the classroom?
My first year in China (Shandong province), I taught 1,500 primary school students, grades 1-5, all alone; no teaching assistant, no translator, no book. It was a true baptism by fire – and I absolutely loved it, which is strange for me because I despised all my teachers when I was a kid. However, I now am a firm believer that teaching children just might be the hardest profession in the world…after coal mining. But the warmth and love that radiated from those students was like a solar-spiritual energy that kept me going and pushed me to make a difference in their lives. But that was in 2004, before China had reached its economic zenith and the spoiled 2nd generation took over. Middle-class Chinese students these days are less motivated to learn due to a lethal combination of their parent’s new liquidity and the Communist government’s ruinous one-child policy. Rural China has yet to be infected, I mean affected, by the economy, so in terms of making a real difference, countryside schools are probably the best place for a teacher to be.
When you are traveling across such a large country as China with such a variety of different landscapes as well as peoples and languages, do you always feel like you are in China, or does each province have a unique atmosphere that distinguishes it as place in its own right?
That’s exactly the myth that I intend CHINA: Portrait of a People to dispel–China as a homogeneous culture and country. We as westerners are accustomed to thinking of the Chinese as a single race with common physical attributes and uniform customs, when the actuality is that China is comprised of 56 different ethnicities each drawing from bloodlines that run deep and long outside of China. For example, the Mongols and Manchu of north China, the Hui and Uyghur (Muslims) in the northwest, the She in the southeast, Tibetans, the Zhuang, Miao, Yi, Dong, Yao and Hani in minority-rich southwest China. Not to mention all the unrecognized subgroups such as the Hakka of south China and Macanese (Portuguese/Chinese) from Macau. The Han government is doing their best to extend their influence across China’s indigenous population, so we will unfortunately see a lot of these ethnic minorities, or at least their folk customs, eventually phased out. I was very conscious to include as much of a photographic variety of ethnic minorities as I could in CHINA: Portrait of a People, for the fact that China is this beautiful prism of racial amalgamation that most westerns are oblivious of.
Given the pace of change of China’s economy, do you think that your book captures a snapshot of China that, while still valid in a historical perspective, will be unrepresentative of China in five or ten year’s time? Or do you think that through the photography of people, you have been able to capture an essence of Chinese culture that is changing more gradually?
There are already dozens of published books about China’s history that offer a visual timeline between the Cultural Revolution to the new millennium. But today’s China is going through the single greatest period of change in its 5,000-year history – what I have coined ‘The Change Dynasty.” CHINA: Portrait of a People definitively captures this fascinating era of transition, showing the country and its people in a state of flux that has never been and will never be again. China’s development and progress is moving forward at such a break-neck pace that the timing of my photography was uncanny, and lucky! My book focuses heavily on people, and readers will notice the stark regional disparity between the residents of urban China and the villagers of rural China. I also included a number of architectural photos from around the country showing the last remnants of Old China – slate-roof tenements being leveled against rising steal-and-glass skylines. The best example of this was Gongtan, a 1,700 year-old river village in Chongqing. I was able to photograph these ancient homes just before they were submerged in the Wu Jiang so that the government could build a power plant. I have heart-breaking images of Gongtan residents moving centuries-worth of family furniture on boats down the river. Today there’s nothing but water over Gongtan. For this reason alone, I believe CHINA: Portrait of a People has considerable historical value.
Has much of your work been censored? How does censorship work for a photographer based in China; is there a secret policeman following you around wherever you go?
I’m reminded of Eve Arnold, who was the very first foreign photographer allowed into post-Cultural Revolution China back in 1979. It took her over a decade before her visa was approved. At the remarkable age of 67 she traveled around China for half a year taking pictures – but she was shadowed her entire trip by government spooks. Her photographs were brilliant, but you are left wondering what she might have accomplished had she been left to explore China unattended. It’s a new century now, but in many ways nothing has changed. China is one of the most heavily-surveyed countries and boasts the largest secret police force in the world, so in essence, yes, most foreign correspondents in China are followed. Print, broadcast and online Chinese media are 100% controlled by the state. Red propaganda is as raging as ever, as is the suppression of online information by the Great Firewall of China (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, most blogs, and occasionally even Google and Wikipedia, are all blocked in China by the Golden Shield Project). Foreign correspondents are required to register in Beijing and provide a media itinerary so that the Ministry of Public Security can monitor their whereabouts; certain locations and coverage of certain affairs are very off limits to the foreign press (e.g. coal mines, AIDS villages and property confiscation). If a foreigner in China shoots something that the Ministry of State Security considers “sensitive,” then your film will be confiscated, period. The West tends to be highly critical of China’s censorship laws, however it is imperative that we at least acknowledge the Chinese government’s perspective on this issue: foreign journalists have this bad habit of vilifying China, focusing only on controversy because it makes for good copy. We are all guilty of it to varying degrees. But if 1 billion peasants were to find out about all the civil liberties injustices and land disputes that continue to be perpetrated by authorities across China, there would unquestionably be a second Chinese revolution. Therefore, the Communist Party of China believes that it is in their best interests to keep the people of their eponymous republic collectively uninformed. What government in the world doesn’t want to preserve their position of power?
Has your photography brought you into dangerous situations or trouble with the authorities or anyone else?
The beauty of being an independent freelance photographer in China is that I drift like a ghost from province to Chinese province. The Ministry of State Security doesn’t know that Tom Carter even exists. But I’ve also had my share of run-ins with local public security bureaus. In small-town Hunan I just happened to witness an uprising of several hundred peasants against the police. There’s no greater offenses in China than political dissidence and social disorder; for a foreign photographer to capture such a moment on film is once in a lifetime. But before I could get the hell out of dodge, I was detained by plainclothes police, who demanded I turn over my photos of the riot or be incarcerated. I tried arguing the new State Council Decree 477 (Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists) but that drew blank looks. Apparently nobody sent them the memo.
Has being a foreign photographer closed opportunities for you or served to open doors that local photographers cannot pass through?
For all of China’s strict regulations, foreigners are undeniably given special treatment and exemption by both the government and the people, treatment that Chinese citizens, and especially Chinese reporters, are not granted. As a result, many westerners who come to China subconsciously develop a sort of God Complex because they can act with immunity. Foreign journalists are especially prone to this because they tend to think they know what’s best for China, and that through reporting they are saviors of the “suppressed” Chinese people. So here’s this mob of white people with notepads and cameras trying to “expose” the dark side of China “for its own good,” then at the end of the day they get together at a foreign correspondents club bitching about censorship and wondering why the government doesn’t recognize their “rights” to reporting. After thousands of years of isolation, the Chinese have opened their venerable doors to the west and given us vast latitude to explore, yet very few foreign journalists want to use that access to show China’s loveliness. Sure, CHINA: Portrait of a People includes some controversial images of Chinese counterculture, but it was my primary objective to accurately portray China exactly as I saw it during my 2-year journey across the country, and that China is mostly beautiful.
Does a foreigner need to speak Chinese or have an interpreter to take good photos in China?
Chinese people are extremely impressed by foreigners who have the slightest grasp of their language. You can be speaking like an infant, but they will still rave about how great your language abilities are. It’s very encouraging. I think anyone coming to China should be familiar with at least a semblance of Putonghua (standard Mandarin), because a little goes a long way here. My Mandarin is admittedly bad, as I have never had any formal education on learning the language. I picked up my entire vocabulary on the streets of China, chatting with locals and out of dire necessity. But it has been my first-hand experience that learning Chinese is a bit futile when it comes to traveling, because the range of dialects throughout the country is so vast. Even most Chinese people can’t communicate to well with each other outside of their respective hometowns. As for photography, some of my most special images came about out of a mutual curiosity that my subjects and I had for each other that might have been diluted had we been able to properly understand each other. And after all, isn’t that the point of photography, to communicate without words?
What have you been up to since CHINA: Portrait of a People, and what does the future hold in store for Tom Carter?
After my book was published, I spent 1 year working in Japan, followed by another epic year backpacking across all of India to photograph my next book. However I ran out of money before I could complete that project, so I returned to China, where I am presently living in a rural village deep in the countryside. I am completely isolated by all the progress, development and break-neck economy I witnessed in the big cities; life here is a page right out of The Good Earth, which has been very inspiring to my creativity. So, while I await a generous benefactor to send me back to India, I’ve been working simultaneously on a few new book projects about China. God willing and the Yangtze River don’t rise, those will all hopefully be published next year,
Purchase CHINA: Portrait of a People on Amazon
Follow Tom Carter on Facebook
See more of Tom’s photos on Youtube
I appreciate Tom taking the time out to guest blog today. To really show my appreciation, I’m going to do a drawing on Wednesday, November 30 and the winner will win a copy of Tom Carter’s China; Portrait of a People. This will be a wonderful addition to your books about China. The second winner will get an autographed copy of my latest full-length book, Chasing China; A Daughter’s Quest for Truth.
To get in the drawing, simply go to China; Portrait of a People fan page and ‘like’ it, add a comment to wall thread started for this post. Then head on over to the Kay Bratt fan page and do the same. Simple! Then return here to this blog post and comment that you have liked/commented at both pages. Drawing will be on November 30, 2011.
*Photography copyright by Tom Carter. [Single photo showing Tom Carter, credit to Eelco Florijn]