where the writers are
US-China Institute interviews Tom Carter
Interview of me

In a new series, USCT interviews photographers and photojournalists exploring China's modern transformation. Tom Carter takes us on a visual journey of the country's people and homes.

What was the initial inspiration for your China journey? What first took you to the country?

To be completely candid, I did not come to China out of any epiphany or desire to experience Chinese culture. Growing up in San Francisco City, I thought I had enough of the Chinese. But I love to travel, and, after returning from an 18-month sojourn down the length of Latin America, I found myself insolvent yet itching to get back on the road. A Craigslist ad looking for English teachers to come to China was my best, nay, only option for this broke backpacker. The ad turned out to be a scam, but I stuck it out and eventually came to love it here.

What are some of the major challenges unique to photography work in China? Technical problems, logistics, cultural barriers?

Aside from all the fake Nikon and Cannon dealerships? China is extremely photographic-friendly. Real people, that is; the Communist government and their police despise foreign photographers and will spare no effort to dissuade you from snapping pics of anything that may “tarnish China’s image.” I’ve been threatened with arrest, detained, had my camera smacked out of my hand, everything! Nonetheless, I do side with the Communists against those “parachute photojournalists” who come in to China just to get a bunch of negative imagery so that they can sell their story, then leave without ever seeing the beautiful side of China. There needs to be more balanced coverage of China.

What gear do you carry? One all-important item (aside from your camera)?

All 888 photos that appear in my book CHINA: Portrait of a People were taken with an old 4-megapixel Olympus digicam. It forced me to get as close to the people as you see them in my shots, and to rely on my eye and instinct rather than technology. That camera eventually died on me, so I spent all my book royalties on a Nikon d700 with prime glass, which I am using to photograph my next book INDIA: Portrait of a People. I feel like Terminator carrying this massive machine around; the shots are awesome, but in a way I do miss my old-school gear.

As for one all-important item, I’d say a book. The Chinese are not exactly voracious readers, not even in their own language, and coming across an English-language book in China is as rare today as I’m sure it was in 1969, when all books were being burned at the behest of Mao.

Traversing China requires adaptability. Does extended travel in China require certain skills? A specific mindset? What makes a good China traveler?

I think long-term travel in any developing country requires patience, an open mind, a good sense of humor, and even more patience. I found this as true of India as in China. China has been around for 5,000 years, and India almost as long; they are not in a hurry to do anything, unlike we westerners who want everything yesterday. It’s easier to say than do, but to be in China long-term, you absolutely must learn to think like the Chinese – which is usually the exact opposite of our own logic. 7 years later, I still catch myself gritting my teeth in frustration on a regular basis; it has been a long lesson in patience.

You sought to capture the diversity of China and its people. Instead, what were the common threads that you encountered throughout the country?

Many of China’s common threads have in fact been imposed on the people by the Communist government and the majority Han nationality, otherwise I think China would have fractured into numerous nations centuries ago. For example, there is an artificial air of patriotism here, whereby the Chinese boast in public that they “love China” (a phrase found in every single song about the country), but privately, beneath the surface, there is this seething unrest that will eventually rip the country apart. This is especially true of the ethnic minorities (such as the Tibetans and the Uyghur), who have been unwillingly inculcated into Chinese culture despite the profound fact that they are not Chinese.

The focus of your book was China’s people. Throughout your years in the country, have you seen any instances of noticeable changes in people’s attitudes or behavior? Specifically towards you? Across different provinces?

The past ten years in China has been what I have coined “The Change Dynasty,” when the country has witnessed its most rapid period of progress and development in 5,000 years of history. The zenith of this change was exactly at the time I was photographing my book, circa 2004-2008, whereby the Communist government began bulldozing all of its ancient tenements in Beijing and Shanghai so that they could build skyscrapers, and leveling entire villages in the rural regions to construct power plants. Around this same time, Chinese people also began to dress differently; they wanted to dress just like us. There was a profusion of western fashion, and knockoffs suddenly flooded the markets. Attitudes also changed; urban residents became more haughty and disdainful of others, and, in conjunction with the country’s widening regional and economic disparity, the rural populous more resentful. Yet it is the peasantry who are the most genial and accepting of foreigners. They seem to instinctively know that westerners genuinely respect and admire their agrarian way of life, whereas there is an innate understanding amongst villagers that urban Chinese are only out to exploit them.

What is it that draws you to focus on people? What are you hoping to explore or uncover through your work?

As a pseudo-sociologist, I am fascinated by people’s behavior. This ties in directly with my photography, because it allows me to venture deep into different cultures. But there’s also an aesthetic appeal. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than the human form, especially a face. I rarely if ever use zoom lenses when photographing people; my 50mm f/1.4 is absolutely ideal for getting up close and personal with people.

How open are people to being photographed? Any differences across regions?

Chinese people adore being photographed; the idea of having their picture taken is still a relatively new and novel concept to them. Of course I am speaking generally; there are plenty of middle-class and “second generation” Chinese who don’t want their photo taken, but these people, dressed in American apparel, don’t make for good pictures anyhow, so it evens out. Go into any village or remote region in China, and you’ll draw the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen once the camera comes out. I always try to mail a print of their picture to people later on; I have even sent copies of my book out to some of my more special subjects.

As a photographer/journalist, what have been the most trying experiences you’ve encountered in China? Any problems with police?

The government is hyper-sensitive about what photos are taken here. For example, a little known law makes it illegal to photograph drying laundry in Shanghai, because the Communists want the world to believe that urban Chinese use modern appliances like electric clothes dryers despite the fact that 99% of them don’t. You are also not allowed to photograph sleeping construction workers, because in theory they should be working around the clock to transform China into a superpower, but in actuality all Chinese, even office workers, take 3-hour naps in the middle of the day. I was also detained by the police after capturing a peasant riot on film; hundreds of people were beating up a corrupt police officer, and I just happened to be there when it happened. An hour later, a squad of secret police tracked me down and strong-armed me into deleting all my photos. Or so they thought; a few of the pictures appear in my book.

How much research do you do about a place before traveling there? Do you have a set plan of where/what to explore?

Never. For 2 straight years I wandered a total of 35,000 miles across all 33 provinces in China like a vagrant; each day I woke up and wondered where I should go next. Sometimes I pointed blindly to a spot on a map, other times I would chat with locals or other backpackers for advice. I know this is a very unorthodox way to travel, but I consider myself an explorer and have come to value the journey even more than the destination.

A lot of “unique” transportation options throughout the country. What has been the most fascinating way to travel around China? Any strange tales of exhausted yaks, blown engines, or broken propellers?

High-speed trains did not exist in China when I first started my adventure, and to be honest, I’m glad they didn’t, because what can you see of the country when everything is a blur? The hard-seat on the peasant train was the norm for me, as were 3rd-class micro-buses. I recall with a shudder a three-day sleeper bus (like a dormitory on wheels) across western Tibet from Lhasa to Ali; I’ve never had to inhale more second-hand cigarette smoke my whole life. That bus broke down in the middle of the night in the middle of a desert; I had to get out and help. I’ve also hitched rides on the back of tractors, and have done a whole lot of walking in the middle of nowhere. To China’s credit, their railway network is extensive, but to their discredit, they have recently begun to replace peasant trains with bullet trains, which only the wealthy can afford, in an effort to discourage migratory workers, further propagating their open class-warfare. Sadly, we now know how unreliable China’s high-speed train technology is.

You have undoubtedly taken several lessons from your experiences. What is your best piece of advice for aspiring photographers and China travelers?

For photographers, it would be to leave your zoom lens in your hotel room and go out with the least range possible. This will force you to interact with the people, which they will appreciate. If you are shooting from 200mm away, you will be highly suspect and probably find stones being thrown at you. As for travelers in general, get off the tourist trail as quickly as possible and forge your own path through China. The most interesting aspects of China are in the places China’s National Tourism Administration don't want you to see.

What are you currently working on? Future plans or projects in China?

I was in India for a whole year photographing my next book, but I ran out of funds and had to return to China. Right now I am living in a farm village in rural southeast China with my fiancée and her family, as insolvent as I was when I arrived here in 2004. To generate income, I am simultaneously working on a few different book projects about China, including editing an anthology of short stories written by expats in China, which I expect to be published before the new year. But I do hope to get back on the road with my camera just as soon as I can. If I was a rich boy, na-nanana-nanana-na…

USC US-China Institute
Peter Winter