Guizhou (Only A Month Late)

I know I’m late but…

At the end of March I went back to China, only this time the Tufts group travelled to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. And while I had been to Beijing and Shanghai a month earlier, somehow this was more ‘real’ China than before. I thought that because I had already been to China that culture shock would not be so bad, but it was still a slap in the face. One of the poorer regions of China, poverty is a lot more visible than Beijing.  

We were part of a tour group, with the Tufts students taking up 80% of the spots; I feel bad for the few other women who were stuck with the loud Americans. Our tour guide did not speak english, but for some reason we still had to pay her. I would’ve liked to have known what I was looking at as we drove through the countryside but most of the time I just ended up sleeping. The first day we drove 3 hours out to a government-sponsored minority village, which was uncomfortable at times. The first thing we saw was rows of older women dancing; or rather shuffling their feet to the dissonant, spine-tingling music being produced by some kind of devilish chinese violin. I honestly thought one of the women was going to cry, the look on her face was so upsetting. Luckily, we quickly moved on.

just casually hammering some dough

just casually hammering some dough

Next we saw a show, where chinese singers and musicians acted out, as far as I could tell, the story of a drunken feast. Well, turns out that is a common event here, as we were ushered into a local home (super cool) and promptly forced to drink some rice wine with our lunch. The women working (living?) there literally brought the cup up to your mouth and if you didn’t open up they probably would’ve poured it down your chin. My friend and I, trying to avoid these mandatory noontime shots, finished ours before they had worked down the table. Our hosts were undeterred however, and simply refilled our cups and made us drink anyway. Oh well.

Inside a local home

Inside a local home

We walked up to the top of this village to a pretty unbelievable view; the mountains in this region are surreal. On the way up we passed a elderly lady strolling down the hill with her arms behind her back. When we looked back, my friends and I swore she was holding a submachine gun behind her back. We were too far away to tell if it was real, but I wasn’t about to find out. Only in China.

Village

The Village From the Top

The Village

The Village

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At night back at the hotel we went to the grocery store to grab some beers and stumbled upon these gems:

PBR World War II Veteran Edition Beer

PBR World War II Veteran Edition Beer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, those are PBR cans commemorating the American Veterans in WWII. Again, only in China. The next day we drove (only 2 hours this time) to walk through what I’m convinced was Jurassic Park. It was this awesome park with 365 steps (1 for each day of the year) across the water through spires of rock and giant ferns.

If I were a dinosaur, I'd live here

If I were a dinosaur, I’d live here

Next we visited Huangguoshu Waterfall, a 255-foot tall cascade with an awesome cave where you can basically walk underneath the thundering curtain of water. Again, surreal is about the only way I can describe it.

looking out from the cave

looking out from the cave

Huangguoshu Falls

Huangguoshu Falls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few other oddities during the trip:

– Immediately after exiting the airport, Vera wasted no time in telling us where we could buy some dog meat. I looked for dog jerky as a souvenir but no luck.

– Everyone smokes cigarettes, everywhere. In the elevator, at the restaurants, in the hotel lobby. Even at 7 am during breakfast people were smoking cigarettes. Yum!

– I received a fortune cookie said, “You will have further progress in your career.” Still waiting for that one to pan out…

– In general, bathrooms are a bit of an adventure, and half of the time you are standing or squatting in a puddle of well…something. A lot of the time I felt better not washing my hands (yes, that bad).

It was a short trip, but pretty eye-opening and based on the looks people were giving us, not many westerners get to this part of China. I consider myself privileged to see how ‘real’ China operates. Plus not so bad when the view outside the bus window consistently looked like this:

typical geography

typical geography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t know if I’ll ever be back to China, but I won’t forget it.

1 Roll of Film, 3 Countries

At the bottom of the Great Wall of China, in the back of a souvenir shop, there was a glass case with old boxes of film collecting dust. Naturally I bought one, an ancient roll of AGFACOLOR XRG 100. The box was faded and dusty, and I’m pretty sure the inside had at least 2 spiders living in it. Oh, and it expired in 1992. Not to mention, I’m sure that film has sat there for the last 20 years completely unrefrigerated, through the 10-degree winters and 90-degree summers of China. Expired film does funny things, not to mention film that expired 20 years ago and has been subjected to extreme temperature swings. But  as I’ve said many times, this is what makes film so fun – there is still a sense of adventure and mystery every time you get a roll developed.

So not only was this film special because of it’s age and unpredictability, it ended up staying in my camera as I travelled from China, back to Hong Kong, and finally to Vietnam, before the last frame was exposed. Which brings us to another cool part about shooting with traditional film: 1 roll can contain information spanning several weeks or months, and every frame has the potential to be exposed somewhere totally different. The same can be said of digital pictures on a memory card, except a roll of film has a physical element that digital cameras cannot approach.

There’s the antiques market in Beijing, which was full of strange instruments, flasks, Chinese arts and crafts, and an infinite number of Mao posters. The next frames show a hike up to Lantau Peak in Hong Kong, where the fog rolled in so thickly we couldn’t see anything, and I almost forgot that the airport was around the corner. And the last few frames are from the first day in Hanoi during my trip to Vietnam, which I will get to in my next post. Stay Tuned.

On the Prospect of Being in a Chinese Family’s Vacation Photo Album

It’s been over a week since I returned from China, and life is busier than ever (I even have some homework to do). After developing, scanning, and editing the 5 rolls of film I shot while in the mainland, I’m going to do my best to describe my ridiculous, sleep-deprived, cold, and overwhelming week in China.

Shanghai was first. We arrived on new years eve, and after a couple quick touristy sights we went to a restaurant for a new years ‘feast’. For all of you who were wondering, jellyfish does NOT taste anything like jelly or fish; it’s crunchy (ew). Luckily, the pepper beef and steamed cabbage was insanely good, so we didn’t starve. That night the group went out and were seduced by a deal where it was 100 RMB (16 USD) for an open bar and entry to 2 clubs. I mean what could possibly go wrong with 15 20-something-year-old Americans in a Shanghai nightclub with an open bar on Chinese New Years Eve? I won’t bore you with the details but it involved a lot of dancing, stuffed snakes, cigarette burns, and an extravagant (and potentially unsafe) amount of fireworks being set off in the street at midnight. In fact, from that night on, it was normal for people to launch fireworks whenever and wherever they wanted. The first few nights we kept thinking the city was under attack, but by the end of the trip they had become so common that I was beginning to wonder if China had permanently ruined 4th of July for me.

Despite our successful first night, the rest of our time in Shanghai was kind of a bust. Because of the holiday, everything was shut down the next day, and on Monday the museums and other cultural areas were still closed. Shanghai has undergone extreme growth in the past 20 years or so, and you can tell a lot of thought went into the planning of the city. Even so we heard horror stories of the traffic jams, and apparently despite the 4-lane highways and well designed roads drivers still sit in 2 hours of traffic regularly.

Up next: Beijing. I was unsure how much I would like Beijing, but I have to say it was amazing. Our four days there were a whirlwind of amazing food, ancient temples, bartering for knock-off Ralph Lauren shirts and propaganda posters, unsuccessfully googling “Tiananmen Square,” bizzarre modern art, more delicious food, climbing the great wall, sledding across a frozen lake using fire pokers to push ourselves, and fighting through swarms of chinese trying to follow our tour guide as she led us into oncoming traffic. For some reason I thought that because I had already been in Hong Kong, the culture shock wouldn’t be so intense, but it was just as extreme (maybe more) as when I first landed in HK. It’s just hard to get used to driving past giant Apple stores, Maserati dealerships, Gucci stores and Burberry shops, then turning a corner and finding yourself at an ancient temple gate.

After a while it was difficult to express anymore astonishment at our surroundings. “OK, China” became a common response as we just accepted whatever ridiculousness was thrust in front of us. Mao looked back at us from our money and on every corner you could find someone wearing a big furry hat with a red star on the front. People asked to take pictures with us, and I’m pretty sure my friend was proposed to by a waiter. One parent even thrust his daughter into our arms, claiming it was her homework to have her picture taken with foreigners. She looked terrified. I can’t help but wonder how many of us will end up in a family album somewhere. I could go on, but there is too much, so here is a list of some remaining highlights:

– green tea + oreo blizzards at Dairy Queen. Seriously delicious and they don’t exist anywhere else

-communist puns: “Mao Money, Mao Problems” and “Commi Maybe” (I can’t take credit for either of those)

– FOOD: the best kung pow chicken ever, bullfrog, delicious tofu, pumpkin cakes, some fusion that I could never classify, and a million other things I can’t remember. More adventurous people ate scorpions and grasshoppers at the street stalls

– Getting in the elevator and seeing the chinese news station showing footage of the Russian comet and thinking that north korea had launched a missile and freaking out

– The Great Wall. One of those things that neither words nor photos can do justice. Oh, and to get down we took a GIANT METAL SLIDE. It’s awesome and fast and guards jump out and yell at you to slow down (ha).

Check the pictures below.

Hong Kong

10 days ago I debarked a plane, bleary-eyed from spending 16 continuous hours trapped inside a metal tube that managed to be impressively large and sufficiently cramped at the same time. I had lost an entire day of my life, thanks to the mechanisms by which our earth rotates the sun. Yet that one lost day suddenly paled in comparison to the realization that I would spend the next 5 and a half months of my life in the place I had just arrived: Hong Kong.

Part of the reason it has taken me so long to sit down and write since I’ve arrived here is that for almost a year, the concept of studying abroad in HK was no more than a vague abstraction, a small speck on the horizon that I felt I would never actually get to. Perhaps that is why since moving into my dorm not a morning has gone by where I haven’t awoke with the sudden realization that this is indeed my current reality.

If I try really hard, sometimes I can convince myself I’m back in my room in Somerville, or even in a dorm room of a friend. But then I get out of bed and the view out my window (below) shatters any illusions that remain.

View from my WindowThis is not to say that I am unhappy. On the contrary, when I look out that window every morning, I cannot help but feel a smile creep onto my face as I shake my head in wonder. And I don’t think these feelings of awe will diminish any time in the near future.

Friends and family back home have asked me to describe Hong Kong. Well frankly, that is impossible. Even pictures, which I might even argue is my preferred medium of communicating the true nature of a place, cannot do HK justice. Sadly, this response does not please anyone, so I had to come up with something.

If you can imagine the tallest buildings in New York City, shoved them closer together on the side of a mountain that rises out of the ocean, and replaced the tidy grid of streets with raised highways and curving, circuitous roads filled with taxis, buses, mopeds, and 7 million people rushing around as fast as they can, you’re getting close. But you’re still missing the dull groan of traffic, the background ticking of the crosswalks that overlap each other to create syncopated city music, and the ever-present grinding of construction. Then there are are the medley of smells that will assault, if not overpower your nose. Many will make you stop and look around desperately for the source, trying to remember it for the next meal. Just as often you will cringe in horror as your eyes water and you swear you’ll never smell anything again.

Sometimes you turn a corner and there is a hill rising straight up into the sky with stairs so steep you don’t know why they even bothered. Random patches of overgrown vegetation and bamboo are common, and trees grow sideways between the buildings that threaten to block out the mountains. Mercedes, Ferraris, BMW’s and Porsches zoom around the minibuses. Old ladies walk tiny pomeranians and other floofy dogs down the crowded streets. On every corner someone is selling something they claim came from the ocean but you can’t figure out why anyone would want to put it anywhere near their mouth.

And even if you can imagine all that, you’re still not here.

There is much more for me to discuss, like elevator and escalator culture, the fact that people here might be more materialistic than in the U.S (at least some of them), struggling with chopsticks, and the memory-sucking blackhole that is LKF. Oh yeah and Hong Kong University, where I’m supposed to be studying for the semester…

Stay tuned.

9-eyes

Everyone knows about google street view, Google’s project of creating a panoramic view from every possible point on Google Maps. The project, which started in 2007, uses cars, bicycles, trolleys, and snowmobiles with cameras and GPS devices mounted to each vehicle as they traverse the globe. Pretty amazing if you think about it, and just another example of Google’s huge presence in our world. From a photography point of view it’s fascinating because the aesthetic and strategy is very similar to street photography, except that in this case the camera is entirely neutral and is merely responding to a predetermined set of directions. There is no human bias that decides when the pictures are being taken. This makes Jon Rafman’s hand-picked collection of street view photographs all the more interesting.  In his website 9-eyes, he presents a lengthy string of these incredible photographs, which document everything from wild horses to prostitutes and much much more. The images Rafman has put together show great natural beauty and surprising human moments, if not sometimes both in the same frame. In one picture a tiny baby has been apparently left alone in front of a Gucci store. In another, a very slow moving man shows up twice in the same frame, a result of the software which puts the pictures together. There are several pictures of drug busts and car crashes, and just as many have people giving the middle finger or showing their bare asses. There is much to be said about these photographs, but what I like to believe is that this project shows something inherently powerful and beautiful about the practice of photography. That even when it is essentially a random, mechanized process, a camera still has the ability to show us something wonderful, something tragic, something poignant and revealing. On the other hand, perhaps this only enforces the idea that there are no “artists” in photography, only button-pushers. Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see how the concept of photography as art continues to develop.

UPDATE: Time’s Lightbox website posted a short article and series of photos from artists who use google street view in their work, including Rafman’s 9eyes project. Just remember you read it here first!

Block Island

I’ve gone to Block Island every year of my life that I can remember. I treat it like a second home and I cherish every moment I get out there. I will forever associate it with my family and the ocean. During my time out there I have amassed  many memories and many photographs too. Looking back on my photographs from the many years of visiting the island provides an interesting timeline of my progress as a photographer and shows how my interests/style have changed. Below is a gallery with photographs from 2005 until present day.

Ugallery

Flickr

Lost Film

Glad to see Durant put away the Heat in Game 1 and wipe that smirk of Lebron’s face. Just wanted to be sure that got out there. Anyway, I developed a bunch of film earlier this week, including a roll from way back in December that somehow was put on the back shelf until now. Always fun to find some moments you forgot about. Here are a few frames from this lost film of mine.