A camera is perhaps the best instrument that you can give a shy person in a foreign country. Taking a good picture, a picture that you have really thought about, forces you to connect with the world around you. It is a very personal experience. I’m not talking about those fools who walk around shooting everything they see with a telephoto lens. That works, but it’s just too distant. And truly, it is nice to ask the people you are shooting if they are okay with it, at least if you are really trying to get in close. Close is what you need if you want to see those fine details in between the lines. I hate asking people if I can take their picture. I am awkward and shy in English, and who knows how I sound in Chinese, but the camera provides a reason for discussion. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they look at me with confusion, but most of the time a conversation results.
When you think about it all, it would be wrong not to talk to those who are in your photos. How could you possibly understand what you are looking at, with so much information contained in the lives of the people around you? If you don’t speak to them, you are only getting a small piece of that greater picture. I am not here just to take pictures, I am here to tell a story, but there needs to be something to tell, and this is where a conversation is a must.
There is a world within each of these people that I pass along the street, a living link to the deeper elements of culture that I so desire to understand. I passed a man in a hutong and watched as he cut and bundled long green shoots that resembled chives. I asked him what they were, and, learning a name that I have now forgotten, proceeded to ask what they were used for. I’m not sure what he explained, but I think it is safe to assume he said “they are used for everything”. To him, this was everyday. To me, this was amazement.
I find myself saturated with questions that I would never have had while at home, strange wonderings about this alien place in which I find myself. Coming back home last night, I spoke for quite a while with our taxi driver. I asked him how long he had been a driver, and what he thought about Obama and the United States. Of course, he offered us cigarettes and asked how I felt about Beijing. Do the Chinese around me have the same questions that I have about them? I don’t suspect so, except for the individuals who I have actually subjected to my strange inquiries. I doubt that the man sorting a pile of odd green shoots finds much mystery in his job (is he a full time shoot-bundler?), and yet I’m sure that it was very odd for him to hear that I was interested in the workings of his task.