Gallery: A tribute to the 'ordinary' people of China
American photojournalist Tom Carter spent two years backpacking through every province in China -- logging over 56,000 kilometers -- photographing the China few get to see. Now we can, thanks to his book "China: Portrait of a People".
CNNGo stopped Carter before his talk at Glamour Bar to get some insight into this beautiful and groundbreaking 600-page photo collection.
Click the image above to see more pictures from Tom Carter's book, "China: Portrait of a People".
CNNGo: We’ll start with an easy question. What made you decide to do this book?
I had no conception of this book until after I completed my first spin across China. The snapshots I had taken that year were just for fun. But I had amassed such a massive cache of images, that everyone I showed them to urged me to publish them in a book. I researched the idea and saw that while there were already many photography books about China on the market, they were primarily about the famous sites; few if any focused extensively on the people, and none had ever encompassed all 33 provinces. So I contacted a publisher in Hong Kong and got myself a book contract, which was a pleasantly and unexpected turn in my life. But then the perfectionist in me said that if I was going to make a photo book about China, I wanted it to be definitive in its genre. So I grabbed my backpack and camera and did it all over again. By the time "China: Portrait of a People" was published, I had spent two years backpacking a total of 56,000 kilometers through China.
CNNGo: When you were doing this book, did you hope to inspire a wave of camera-toting travelers that are sure to follow in your footsteps?
My book isn’t a typical coffee-table book; it is 640 pages and over 800 photos of life and humanity.— Tom Carter
I hope that my book will have a positive impact on tourism in China, and if I have inspired any timid travelers to stray off the tourist trail and see something of “real” China, then I am very flattered. But also, the purpose of “China: Portrait of a People” is to provide Westerners who haven’t yet been to China with a glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary Chinese: the people who don’t make the international headlines, and the places that don’t appear in corporate coffee table books. In short: the heart and soul of China.
CNNGo: You’re a photojournalist. How do you think photojournalism give people a deeper understanding of China than traditional journalism?
I should preface my answer by stating that while what I do is a form of photojournalism, I am not an accredited journalist. I work entirely freelance, on spec. I have no affiliations with any news agency nor have I ever been to any foreign correspondents club.
This actually worked out to my advantage while creating this book because I was detained by local authorities a great number of times demanding to know why I was taking so many photos of people. They thought I was some trouble-making foreign photojournalist, and rightly so because a great number of Western reporters who come to China are admittedly looking to get a headline. But I wasn’t a photojournalist; I was just a dusty backpacker, which I believe made China even more accessible to me than had I been here on a J-visa [journalist visa].
But as far as your question, I believe that words and images are the yin and yang of reporting; a good story about China should have both. Too often journalists don’t have the page space to physically describe in detail the people and places they are reporting on.
Even novels about China tend to gloss over how Chinese people physically vary from region to region in their facial features and their skin coloring and their body size. For instance, once I had a fan email me saying their favorite about China was Peter Hessler’s "River Town," but that after they saw my photographs they finally had a better sense of the people Hessler was writing about. So that fan went back and read "River Town" again, with "China: Portrait of a People" nearby as a visual reference.
(Interview continues after the photo)
CNNGo: What photo is not in this book that you wish was?
Hmm, it’s a kind of trick question. Of course I could read off a list of Chinese politicians and superstars I would love to photograph. But then that would contradict the theme the book, which is a tribute to the ordinary. And in that respect, there’s really not anything I missed; I saw it all. That said, of the photos I did take, there were some that my publishers refused to print because they might have been construed as “offensive” to the Chinese. Namely, scenes from a Tibetan sky burial -- a Buddhist funeral practice where the deceased are carved up and left to be consumed by scavengers-- and a couple of frisky Shanghai girls in miniskirts flashing me their g-strings as they walked down the street. Maybe for the second edition I can persuade my pub to run those photos.
CNNGo:So what photo that made it into this book has the most meaning for you?
Also a question that catches me up. Truly, every portrait in this book has personal significance to me. These were people I befriended during my travels. I can vividly recall each and every scenario that lead up to taking their pictures. Even today, just looking back at the photos in my book makes me laugh out loud or causes my eyes to warm with affection.
This wasn’t just some project for me, and it was way more than “a book deal.” It was two really special years of my life. Still, I’ll try to answer the question directly.
[Thinks for many minutes.]
The purpose of “China: Portrait of a People” is to provide Westerners who haven’t yet been to China with a glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary Chinese: the people who don’t make the international headlines, and the places that don’t appear in corporate coffee table books. In short: the heart and soul of China. — Tom Carter
I really love the wide-angle shot of the large crowd of men orbiting me in Ningxia. These guys are down-on-their-luck day laborers who sit on the curb all day waiting for work. When they suddenly saw me walk by that morning, it must have been like an alien sighting for them. They were so completely mystified by what I was doing there. Just look at all of their faces in the photo: each one tells such a touching story. I think that photo is my most definitive shot of the Chinese from the round eyes of a waiguoren [foreigner].
CNNGo: Many of your photos are quite intimate, how were you able to get so close to the people and places you photographed?
Ironically, the fact that I was constrained to using a small, point-and-shoot camera was the biggest factor in getting so close to these people. I was as physically near to these people as you see in the photos, often just millimeters away. And I think the Chinese appreciated that proximity, because as any Westerner in China well knows, the idea of personal space here is different than what we know back home. So when I see tourists trying to take picturesfrom their tour bus windows, or some professional photojournalist hiding behind his 200mm zoom lens, I can’t help but shake my head, for they will never experience the kind of intimacy that I had with my subjects.
CNNGo: You backpacked 35,000 miles and visited 200 cities for this book. What are two places you would never want to go again, and two places you would return to in a heart beat?
I would love to revisit Kham (Eastern) Tibet, maybe even walk through it as opposed to the 4WD trip I made the first time, and try living among the nomadic Drokpashepherd settlements who populate those remote mountain ranges. I’d also like to try going back to Xinjiang. I had a fantastic time amongst the Uyghur; it is such a spirited, energetic culture. Though I imagine going back there now might also be a bit heartbreaking, as I heard the government leveled Kashgar’s old town, and what with all the military police stationed in that region now. Never go back? Well, I can name a few luguan [budget boarding houses] where I stayed the night which I will be glad to never have to sleep in again; there’s a good reason why luguan are illegal for foreigners
CNNGo: What was the best food you ate along the way during your trip?
I have been a vegetarian for 15 years now, which regrettably limits my palate and prevents me from trying all the exotic fare that Chinais famous for. But I started eating fish in 2002 while working on a fishing boat up in Alaska. After that, I really got into fish cuisine. I think the best fish I had anywhere in China was either the barbecued fish the Uyghur prepare on the streets in Xinjiang, or the grilled river fish the Dong minority villagers caught and cooked for me in eastern Guizhou. That kind of fresh-caught, home-made fish rivals anything prepared in a restaurant here.
CNNGo: Other than a love of fish, what did you learn about traveling in China that surprised you?
(Interview continues after the photo)
I think this is where I am supposed to say how by living and traveling in China for such an extended period of time, I really learned about Chinese people and their culture. And I did. But what honestly surprised me was how much I wound up learning about myself.
I compare the Tom Carter that arrived in Beijing in 2004 with the Tom Carter who is now sitting in a rural village in Jiangsu in 2010, and one can’t recognize the other. My outlook on the world has been revamped. All my ambitions and dreams and priorities have taken a different course.
My way of thinking and my thought process has really balanced out since coming here. I attribute that to being immersed in a 5,000 year-old culture. But not just China; I firmly believe that world travel in general is the ultimate purifier of the mind and soul.
America ought to enact some kind of requisite travel-abroad program that obliges all high-school graduates to work or teach abroad in a developing country for a year, like a compulsory Peace Corps, maybe even in exchange for future college tuition. The world can become a better place, but first there needs to be more understanding and tolerance between cultures, and that really only occurs with physical on-location presence.
By the time "China: Portrait of a People" was published, I had spent two years backpacking a total of 56,000 kilometers through China.— Tom Carter
CNNGo: Are you still in touch with any of the people you met?
Yes. After my book was published I made it a point of mailing out copies to many of the people whose portraits appear in it. And following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, I was on the phone immediately with the Tibetan pilgrim family I met in Langmusi to make sure they were all safe (they were).
CNNGo: Sure you’ve been asked the same questions again and again during interviews. What’s one question you’d like someone to ask that they haven’t yet? What’s the answer?
This is the question I have been waiting for! [Laughs] Really, what I am really waiting for is an expert book review from an establishment reviewer; someone who really knows their literature, knows their photography and knows their China who will deeply examine and critique the images of "China: Portrait of a People."
My book isn’t a typical coffee-table book; it is 640 pages and over 800 photos of life and humanity. Without giving too much away, I actually included a fair amount of symbolism and subtle pop-culture references in the pictures and text of this book, like little homages and riddles, that the average reader has yet to notice. It would be very flattering to have a professional reviewer identify these nuances in addition to expounding on the technical and cultural concepts of my photographs. But I suppose I’ll have to keep waiting, because these days professional reviewers tend to only review corporate-published books.
"China: Portrait of a People" was released by a small, independent publishing house in Hong Kong named Blacksmith Books. We sent my book out to all the usual New York literary institutions, hoping they would recognize its significance despite its lack of a brand-name publisher, but so far they haven’t shown me any love.
"China: Portrait of a People" with photojournalist Tom Carter, August 8, 4pm, Glamour Bar, 6/F, Five on the Bund, 20 Guangdong Lu, near Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu 广东路20号, 外滩五号6楼, 近中山东一路, +86 21 6350 9988, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.m-theglamourbar.com