Never let the photos come before the story

(This post is reposted here from an entry on May 11 on my short-lived Wix blog)

The reason I chose that title for this entry is because of an experience I had yesterday…

I went to a part of town I’d never really explored before near the Kecun subway station.  I’d looked on Google Earth and it looked like my kinda place.  As soon as I’d entered I found this to be true – it was another urban village with a very active and friendly bunch of locals…

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Anyway, I was wandering around snapping away when I stumbled on some guys playing mah jong in someone’s home.  I stood at the door and took a snap to let them know I was there.  When they asked me what I was doing I said “taking photos” and took a couple more.  When I saw they were fine being photographed I stood a while longer in the doorway while they kept going with their game…

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As I was standing there a member of the local police entered and poured himself a drink.  We greeted each other and out he went again.  Well, actually he told me not to take his photo, ’cause he was drinking rice wine on the job (35 proof distilled alcohol), but he was very nice about it.

After I was done with the mah jong game, I continued on my way.  Around the corner I ran into the police officer with his much younger partner sitting at a table.  They invited me to sit and then started asking me questions.  It was not the kind of interrogation I’ve become accustomed to here in China on meeting security personnel, it was a friendly chat initiated by a couple of curious locals.  The conversation progressed and I started to find out a lot of things about how they felt about a wide range of local issues.  Part of me was watching the light slowly disappearing, but the other part of me was smarter than to worry about lost photographic opportunities.  The fact is, the photographs mean nothing without a deeper understanding of what’s behind them.  Listening to a local law enforcement officer tell me about corruption, the local opinion on the national government and a range of controversial issues was an experience that I wouldn’t have given up for the world.  As the conversation ran from politics to food safety to sex to anything you’d never imagine a Chinese police officer to talk with strangers about, I not only understood more about the subjects I shoot, but I also felt closer to the locals.

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As I was walking home after talking with the two officers and the many locals who stopped to chat as they were walking by, I realised just how easy it would have been to miss this experience by just being focussed on taking photos.  I might have captured that elusive perfect shot that shoots me to international fame, and I certainly could have done with some better images from the trip (not really pleased with what I came home with), but I’d never have had the chance to try some homemade Chinese moonshine, and I’m sure next time I go back, I’ll not only have a deeper understanding of the situation and background, but I’ll run into some friendly faces who’ll be glad to see me again.  In the long term, this is what’s likely to produce stronger images, and photographs that demonstrate both an intimate knowledge of the subject as well as a true closeness that just wandering through and observing from the outside could never bring.
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Just had to sneak in this shot from the day at the end ’cause I kinda like it.  Until next time…
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