Kids and mangoes in Guangzhou

On this trip to Chebei urban village in Guangzhou there was no surveillance, no drinking police officers, no mouth-painting calligraphers. Although I didn’t collect any fascinating stories this time, I did manage to come home with some photos I don’t mind, one in particular that I quite like. This one:

Chebei girl

I was walking through the village when I saw her lying on the counter of a dry-cleaning store. The day was humid and I was dripping with sweat, so I guess she may have been laying on the cool countertop simply because it was too hot to be doing anything else. I like the pink teddy bear mirroring her by lying on the bench in the background. The girl swung around and I took a second shot.

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A lot of people say they don’t have the confidence to take photos of strangers, particularly when they are up close and obvious to the subjects. I’ve discovered that as long as you are friendly and open, around 80% of people will not have an issue with you (although some may ask that you don’t take their photo, and the percentage varies with different people and places). But really, I believe what really matters is how you feel about what you’re doing. If you believe people will be suspicious of you, that affects the way you approach them and also some subconscious cues like body language and facial expressions, and guess what… you’ll look shady and they WILL be suspicious of you. It’s a bit of a vicious circle. Just relax and enjoy interacting with people and you’ll be fine.

Of course the other issue can be losing the natural feel once people are aware of your presence (I’m driven crazy by rabbit ears/peace signs here in China on 4 out of 5 trips), but often if you persist shooting, they’ll get sick of it after a while and eventually return to their normal selves. In this way you can return to being invisible and really capture the reality of life wherever you are.

Anyway, I’ve digressed. Another shot from that day’s wandering where at a stretch one could see a repeated motif is the one below. To my eyes, the pipe to the right mirrors the father and daughter to the left.

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Subsequent images I took on that day capture slices of life in Guangzhou’s urban villages, but none were particularly strong visually or in terms of vivid storytelling…

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I wasn’t really feeling the vibe that day, but I pressed on for another hour or so. Sometimes that’s when the magic happens. Sadly that wasn’t the case that day, and I started to head home. As I was leaving the village, I noticed a small group of people gathered below one of the mango trees that line the roads in many parts of Guangzhou. On closer inspection I found that one of them was using a long pole with a net on the end to pick the ripening mangoes which he then shared with the young couple with him, along with their son and an elderly woman and her grandson.

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It didn’t produce any earth-shatteringly great photos, but I thought I’d share the kind of things that I see on my travels that don’t necessarily end up on my website or make it as anything I’d really call “photography”. It’s moments like these – glimpses into the everyday world here in China – that make my time here more rewarding. I hope to not get so caught up in the quest for perfect photos that I don’t experience the world happening around me!

Anyway, I did kinda like one of the kids whose parents were collecting the mangoes, so I snapped a couple of shots while I was there…

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I sometimes wonder why 80% of the photos I take in China have kids in them, as I don’t set out specifically to shoot children. I think it’s because they seem to be less affected by seeing the camera than adults – they often remain natural and you can see the true child unchanged by the presence of a camera.

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But strangely, my favourite of the kid is the one below. He looks kinda lonely, while the woman in the background takes her grandson off to some other place.

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In the end he got some mangoes, so he felt better.

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I headed for the subway from there, passing through the edge of the village again, feeling quite disillusioned at the lack of good images captured on the day. But then I reminded myself that it’s not just about great photos. Interacting with the locals, tasting more of the mundane things they experience day to day, and getting a stronger feel for the place will not only increase my understanding of the people I’m shooting, but also give a greater depth to any elaboration I give to the stories should any images be displayed publicly at any stage.

I snapped one more shot of a kid in one of the alleys just before jumping on the subway and heading home.

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The kid made me think a lot of myself at that time – full of potential but feeling intimidated and unsure. But I know bad days happen, and I know I’m only at the start of the growth process as a photographer. The best thing for me to do is just keep snapping (and there’s always that first photo – I was pleased with that one).

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