China Trip in Review

So I have made it in and out of China unscathed. To be honest, I had little time to think about the trip in the weeks before I left. Work and family had consumed so much of my time that it drove away any thoughts about exploring a foreign country, and so I landed without many preconceptions.

On arriving in the chaos of Fuzhou I was soon brought back to reality. The sights, sounds and smells were quite an eye-opener. In the past I have travelled through South East Asia and India extensively, but unlike those places there was a found real communication barrier; I could understand and relate to very little. The language is spoken quickly and quite aggressively, and without much accommodation for a foreigner with no language skills in Mandarin. I found it difficult to identify any sounds or markers to help me understand what was happening, which is usually possible with other European languages. Meanwhile the writing, as they say, might as well have been written in Chinese!

As such, I felt quite nervous and anxious at first, as just trying to communicate my way to my overnight hotel before making the trip up to Xiapu seemed like a mountain to climb. But, after 7 full-on days I left feeling settled with the way things are done in China, and once I got the hang of the translation app things became much easier. It was even possible to have a bit of a joke with the locals, or maybe I was the joke. Oh well, if I can bring a smile to somebody's face, even at my expense, then it's worth it!

In terms of the photography, it was something of a mixed bag. As I’ve mentioned in other posts I have been influenced in my career by Michael Kenna's work. Inspired by some of his images, I was going to Xiapu to shoot, at the basic level, sticks in water. Obviously there’s a lot more going on in the images than just the se wooden structures, and like many things in Xiapu, everything I shot revolved around the sea.

 What was immediately disappointing was that there were a lot of staged shoots and hundreds of people willing to shoot them. I was told this was actually quite quiet, as I had arrived only a few days after a typhoon had passed near by Hong Kong. Models were always on hand to be hired should you choose to do so, although one or two places I found to be a little bit pushy, and they were expensive. Plus, the down side to hiring a model is that everybody else gets to shoot them too, without paying (maybe this a Yorkshire gripe). Nobody else seemed to be willing to dip their hands into their pockets!

The weather was hot and humid, but apart from one day of rain it was dry. There were no red skies until the last night and following morning, but as most of you will know I don't search for these specifically. The cloud cover was welcome and provided some atmosphere to the mountains surrounding the bays in the area. I like the way this created layers and depth to the wider scene. A lot of the shooting was heavily dependent on the tide and the speed in which it came in, which makes timings critical. Some locations required times when the water was only half way in, and different bays seemed to have varying degrees of water levels. Situations like this are where it pays to have a local guide. I began the trip with a photographer called Callie Chee . Callie is fluent in Chinese , English and another few languages for good measure. She had arranged everything with regards to the guide and hotel for the first four days before departing, leaving me with the guide.

From research before leaving I was led to believe that Xiapu was a small fishing village. In reality I would regard it to be more like Las Vegas, full of tall housing blocks lit up in multi-coloured flashing lights. The city itself is really just a base to go explore the smaller villages around, with most locations no more than 1 hour away.

What also wasn’t ideal was that most of the shooting locations were from vantage points, either on top of a hill or somebody's house/ new building development that you were required to pay to access. It was all rather commercialised, and as you can see from the image above everybody was shooting the same thing. If a boat or something interesting came along it was like the sound of a machine gun going off with all the shutters firing away at once. Postcard images come to mind. It was hard to move much, with some of the stages only 10 to 15 metres wide, (and if you are shooting with a telephoto that small distance to move around made little difference on long distant subjects). Overall, it was difficult on these staged shoots to try and get any sort of unique image. The guides seemed to think they knew what’s best for you and even go so far as trying to set your tripod up in a specific spot to grab an image that has obviously been taken a thousand times before. In my view, this is a bit of a waste of time, as you aren’t actually producing anything yourself, but just reproducing the same images as everyone else.

The communication barrier with the guide was almost impossible to bridge, and I just left it to him to organize the locations, but on the last day I tried one last time, and through perseverance I got him to understand what I wanted to achieve. We found a few locations with nobody there, places not a first so obvious to shoot but giving me a bit more freedom and opportunity to shoot with more artistic direction and intent.

In summary, would I go back to China? Maybe. The staged shooting felt commercialised and disappointing. I would much rather shoot in a more natural way, with more input into the locations and choosing times with more specificity than the guide wanted. For example, almost everything that was suggested was shooting into the sun, something that I struggle with. I believe a lot of the places would work well in much softer light, at the opposite time of day and would have preferred to explore those possibilities more. Most people seem to pack up when the sun has gone or that blazing red sky has not appeared, but for me this is when I like to start shooting.

Soon after leaving I had little interest in returning, but with greater hindsight, there are a lot of unique opportunities if you can find them. It has shone a light on some other locations in China I was originally interested in. I now know that these images are staged, so I can remove them from my bucket list and spend my time and efforts elsewhere. Don't get me wrong; if staged and straightforward shots are your kind of thing then Xiapu is absolutely perfect. I would also definitely recommend Callie, as her images are beautifully crafted, she knows the area really well, speaks the lingo, and is game for a laugh. Oh and she reminds me of Lara Croft which is the icing on the cake. If you’re preferred method of photography is more exploratory and creative, maybe give Xiapu a miss in favour of somewhere else that isn’t so popular with photography tourists, and with such a reliance on staged images.