These recent images from my Instagram page have been titled “chasing spirits”, and for the first time I find myself seeing a distinct line running through these street portraits that were taken by me in different Asian countries but solicit the same emotional reaction from me. There is something that draws me in to the internal processes of strangers through the maps of their faces, the history recorded in their eyes and the roadmaps of their lives in every line and wrinkle that cause me to pause and wonder: what drives me to chase these images and irks me to go to more places and stop, look and capture? It’s a strong driving force that never relents and I am hoping that after the chase, the cause may reveal itself. It’s a journey of passion and every moment brings me closer to myself…
As I go through my archives, I relive moments from my past travels and like a magical time travel machine, I find myself there again in the moment, looking into the eyes of other humans, feeling what I felt then and simply connecting.
This is one of the many reasons I love photography, the real connections that are made, human to human, where all the differences melt away.
Day 76 of 365~ Image taken in the remote village of Dayangjie, Yunnan, China
For some of us here on earth, the day begins and ends with physical work, and that brings a simple satisfaction of a hard-earned existence. Every working face I saw during my travels in Yunnan was always ready to break into an unapologizing smile; they possessed a contentment that can be forgotten to us in our boxed offices and multiple screens facing us every waking moment. They commune with nature, the wind, the elements, the land and that rewards them with a sense of belonging. They remember that they are earth dwellers and that simple truth is their fountain of wisdom.
Candid street photography is perhaps my very favorite style when I am out in the streets. Anywhere I travel, I find myself drawn to the human element in the streets and I search for a human connection to create my photograph and my story.
I am often asked about the process of candid portraits and if I were to offer 7 tips it would be these:
Take your time. Often and if the time allows, I try not to do any photography on my first day in a new place. Instead I try to feel the place, walk around, look, listen, observe, admire and investigate.
Slow down. When I walk, I try not to feel any anxiety about having to capture anything. I wait for the inspiration to come to me because I have discovered that it cannot be forced, like all good things in life.
Be polite. I always try to reverse the roles and see how I would feel if someone came at me with a camera aggressively and tried to photograph me without my permission. I am most certainly going to be closed to that intrusion. Instead I smile, I make eye contact and I show genuine interest in my subjects. I back off if unwelcome.
Be prepared. The last thing you want to be doing when seeing a moving moment is to be fiddling with your camera settings and getting flustered. I check my camera before going out, I make sure I am ready for the light conditions and the style of photography I am aiming for.
Be open. Sometimes I might have an expectation as to what I want to photograph on a certain walk, but I am always open to whatever else my inspire me. Patterns, movement, architecture… but being open is much easier said than done and takes a lot of practice.
Take more than one shot. In the digital age, we have the luxury of having room for experimentation. I remember back in the 90s when I was using film, how careful I was with each single frame knowing that I had a limited number of shots before I had to change film. Nowadays, you can take your shot at different angles and make multiple compositions to get the shot that you really want.
Have fun. It is such an incredible joy to me being in the streets, around people, doing what I love doing the most. If you are not enjoying it, you might as well find something else to do 🙂
These are some of my favorite street portraits that I am currently featuring on my instagram feed.
Life is slow in Yunnan. People walk with no rush; the fields can wait. The clouds change form in slow motion; the lush mountains are great company. Even the birds chirp melodically and without strain; it’s just the way it is. In a place like that, a bicycle fits so well for exploring at the speed of the land. I came upon a child and his grandfather walking with their shadows along the rice fields and enjoying the caressing rays of the gentle sun. I got off my bicycle and began photographing them after getting their clear unspoken agreement. Then I saw alarm in their eyes as they gestured towards me; I turned around and watched my bicycle tumble with my second camera and my bag into the rice field. This man with grace, ease and a smile, put his grandson down, helped me lift my now damaged mode of transportation, with its dislocated wheel. He gestured to me and we communicated with my limited Mandarin as he helped carry my bicycle back the other way towards his home, his little grandson following us shyly. The man asked me to wait as he brought out his toolbox and slowly and methodically fixed the wheel and tested it. He smiled and his granddaughter joined them as they posed for a last photograph before I took off feeling lighter, happier, and grateful for the good people who give without counting the cost, who help because it is human to do so.
Every new journey gives me a renewed set of reasons to do what I love to do. I love the art of photography. Time stops when I am in the streets of a new place, meeting people, looking through their eyes, watching them from a distance as they do what they do, and feeling a rising sense of excitement at being part of it all. In my recent trip to the region of Yunnan around Dali, I had a lot of time to reflect and to ponder what it is about photography that keeps me traveling, venturing and adventuring in search of human connection. It came to me one early morning just before sunrise, it is the soul of the place, that is what meets me at those special moments and gives me permission to capture its magic. You may give it any other name you wish, for me, it’s the soul.
Attempting documentary photography and not feeling compassionate love for people would be pointless as far as I am concerned.
I love feeling the humanity in other people’s eyes, to guess at what they are feeling, to lock eyes with them even for a brief moment, to be part of their world for the time I that I am there and later again and again through their photographs.
With each visit to Yunnan, my connections are deepened and I feel compelled to return. Simplicity is a gem in our complex world of today, a fountain of peace to a busy and crowded mind.
After about a 4 hour flight from Shanghai to Kunming in Yunnan and sorting out the small inevitable complications like changing cars, drivers, lunch and settling everyone to a journey of unexpected events, we set off to our first stop on the workshop, the town of Shiping.
After a first night not short of adventure and discovery in the streets of the old town, we set off in the morning with the freedom one gets after leaving a questionable hotel without having to look back.
girl in wagon
All packed, cameras charged, armed with snacks and water bottles we set off only to discover that our bus (that we grew to love) had a flat tire. We were informed that the repairs will take longer than expected. When asked why, the answer was “people in these parts are just not efficient enough”. I swallowed the answered and decided to make the best of a bad situation.
I invited everyone to use the 2 hours to explore and we found ourselves in an unforgettable market! Photo opportunities everywhere, people, children, faces, color, it was wonderful.
on a scale of old to new
During the time there, I was utterly charmed by a group of children who followed me around jumping, giggling, acting silly, jumping into every frame I tried to create. It then dawned in me that the best thing to do would be to just stop trying and instead of capture life, just live it. I played with them and my students photographed them and the whole affair was effervescent and a special gift to start the journey with.
how they stole the show and my heart
Saima and Petra with the children
Photo of me taken by Saima with the children at the market.
It is wonderful to be reliving the adventure in Honghe through the stories and images as I busily plan the next one in Dali this coming June.
In my journeys into the remote villages of China’s Yunnan province, I was moved by the closeness of the older generation with the children of the tribe. Physical proximity seemed to be an easement factor relied upon in raising the children and arming them with needed confidence as they developed. Parents and grandparents went about their busy workdays with toddlers literally tied to their bodies in colorful embroidered sacks.
Something to consider in our modern world where gadgets are slowly taking the place of our warm human hugs.