More BTS …

Even though my workshops are photo centric, several have accompanied me on these photographic sojourns over the past 5 years everything from pro-level camera and even with a point-and-shoot camera and still had an enjoyable time in opening up new perspectives on local culture and how to make more memorable human connections. You will also find how to make more compelling travel photos as well! You will also learn how to interact within the local environment that allows you to be both present and invisible at the same time!

And, along the way, you just may discover a deeper appreciation for the world around you as being more inviting and welcoming in places you thought were only in storybooks. New friendships formed. New perspectives gained. Refreshed outlook on humanity … all through the lens that’s met with open arms and warmed hearts.

Come join a rewarding journey into a magical world of the visual language. You’ll soon realize it’s easier than you think!

 

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BTS …

… aka Behind The Scenes. Just to give you a little idea of how we roll during a given workshop, there are many opportunities to learn (cultural and photographic), have fun interacting with local culture around us and making endearing human connections that stay with you for a lifetime!

These BTS images were from a journey into Tibetan life somewhere in the deep throws of Yunnan Province.

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Above are a few images captured by past participant, Penn Austin … Thanks Penn!

A Photographic Journey

China is rapidly changing. Ancient cultures are losing ground to modernized society as the country yearns to step onto the world’s stage as a leader in industry, technology and the modern cultural scene. With its rural heritage dating back a several thousand years, even with today’s breakneck speed at which China is growing, you can still find cultural gems in the far reaches of the country’s lesser traveled paths. Even these areas are fast embracing the consumeristic values of the western world in search of monetary and materialistic treasures.

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Village life on the border

Central Stupa, Jinghong

Out of all the provinces in mainland China, as mentioned on a few prior posts, my most loved province is wondrous Yunnan. Great weather all year ’round – even in the hot humid months mainly b/c of the clean air quality. Big industry polluting provinces seem to have skipped this province as a whole which gives way for perfect weather. Yunnan is often associated with a coined term of endearment “above the clouds” for its heavenly formed clouds and vast landscapes. Yunnan is home to China’s 2 most picturesque rice terraces – Yuanyang and Dongchuan, photographed by the millions. Yunnan is also a place of diversity … but wait … aren’t all Chinese people, just Chinese people? After all … don’t we all look alike? If you grew up in the west like I did, that’s what our limited education system would have us believing. After living in China for a few years, I began to understand and recognize the suptle facial characteristics of people – at least from a regional perspective. Shorter from the south, taller in the north – in a general sense. Facial features too. This one is a bit more difficult to explain, more with bone structure, eyes, skin coloration and the like.

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Yu la, 56 yrs old, Huayao Dai woman , Mannuwo village

Far from ignorant belief, of the 54 chinese ethnicities, Yunnan inhabits a wide range of ethnicities from the Han, Miao, Yi, Dai, Bai, Zhuang, Tibetan, Hani, Hui and to a lesser degree Ahka, Jinuo and Kongge peoples each with their own language (not dialect) and ancient cultural history. More than this, Yunnan is an agriculturally rich environment as well, producing the country’s best tea, coffee and a myriad array of fruits and vegetables – many unfamiliar to western palettes. This is what draws me to Yunnan … people and culture. This is what drew me yet again to a special zone not far from the Myanmar/Burma and Laos border. This is Xishuangbanna.

Gracious Ahka ethnic minorities playing temporary hosts

Upon landing at the surprisingly large airport (of maybe 10-15 gates) of Jinghong, the architecture leads you to believe you’re in SE Asia somewhere. Being a border area, strong cross0ver influences in landscape, food, culture, architecture and people confuse the senses as you know you’re still in Mainland China. Temples, for instance, are right out of Thailand/Myanmar complete with elephant statues and tall slender golden stupas. Even the festive dress suits the backdrop. It’s a bit strange having pineapple thai sticky rice and other traditional SE Asian dishes in what you know is still China.

Various ethnic groups at the weekly market.

Before entering this buffer zone, there was a “border crossing” much like they have from state to state in the US, except this border was manned by several of China’s Army complete with full-on battle armor. Pulling us over, having to show Passports, we were asked to get out of the car whilst an over zealous trooper questioned our entry into the zone. Apparently, there’s a huge drug traffic problem crossing the border into China so I guess they’re a bit squeamish about anyone who doesn’t look the part of a local. After a few telephone calls, taking lots of photos of us and our IDs as well as our Guides, they finally allowed passage after about 30mins.

Heading closer towards the border in the ensuing 2 days, deep into what appeared to mostly be jungle and miles upon miles of growing tea, sugar cane, bananas, mountain rice, the bumpy dirt roads seemed endless. Gladly, our Guide knew every turn and switchback as we flawlessly found village after village of the Ahka, Dai and Bulang people. The deeper we went, the more “raw” it got. Villages became more sparsely spaced, ‘roads’ got worse (at times having to get out and help push our car through the deeply rutted mud), dwellings became more primitive. So too does the food. From the familiar to the unfamiliar, if you can sometimes get past our own insecurities around what’s food vs. what isn’t (as a western palette goes), you’ll come away with a richer more fulfilling experience. What’s so different? In the west, we domestic just about everything except cows, pigs and chickens – our main source of meat. Here, chickens & fish run/swim freely  about until they’re called upon, an occasional dog and squirrels, worms and ‘rats’ (actually guinea pigs to more precise) are considered staples along with a whole host of plant-based stalks, stems and leaves prepared in ways we’ve never thought of are both delicious and nutritious – all grown wild and organic. This is real food. What makes going to the supermarket so natural? It’s all very much a part of the brief immersion of life as it was centuries ago.

Small, but proud Kongge & Jinuo people

As a natural light (preferred) shooter, I have the ability to shoot from sunrise to (past) sunset. In fact, I love midday photography as I head indoors for portrait opportunities. All I have to do (with a bit of finagling) is use light beams darting in from near darkness inside traditional huts as windows and doors are my friends. And, when that’s not enough, I make light by either adding a bit of it via flash and/or grabbing light from outside and bouncing it off of a reflector – whatever it takes to spill creative lighting on my subject. This challenges your knowledge and limitations of how the camera works in harmony with certain settings which must be done in a few seconds as the light changes as quickly as a mosquito bites (of which there are plenty here in this tropical wonderland).

Friendly Bulang people

Road to Shangri-la

Glistening gold in the morning sunlight

Glistening gold in the morning sunlight

The word “Shangri-la” conjures up much mystique; perhaps it was romanticized in James Hilton’s novel, ‘Lost Horizon’. Some might think of it as a mythical place that doesn’t exist in real life or thought of as some sort of idyllic Xanadu or sorts. Whatever the origin or meaning to you, I’ve come to find

Peaceful daybreak, my Shangri-la.

Peaceful daybreak, my Shangri-la.

that Shangri-la belongs in the mind, body and spirit of those who have the slightest bit of intrepid curiosity to find what moves them to a place of peace.

For now, I have found that place.

Working the wheat fields

Working the wheat fields

I’ve found my Shangri-la in one of the more remote places you’ll ever visit in western Mainland China. I first set out on a photographic mission to capture Chinese minorities where the age old ways of life still exist but are threatened with each passing generation as the young flock away from these special places to the big cities in search of a more modern life and the potential for riches

Following the Kora

Following the Kora

beyond what their parents and parents before them could ever achieve. This to me, is THE lost horizon …

… several centuries of local tradition

Way out west life

Way out west life

that is slowly giving way to the lure of smart phones, non-traditional clothing and lifestyles far from what was once considered sacred and mystical. From the moment I arrived in my Shangri-la, I just knew this was going to be a special place to do my photographic work. What I didn’t anticipate was about to unfold before my eyes and heart in the ensuing 4 days.

Up and out before the sun creeps

Meet Anye ... a true warrior

Meet Anye … a true warrior

closer and closer to the surrounding mountain top horizon, you are immediately hit with the realization that you are in a spiritual presence of a calm, quiet and introspective peacefulness deeply beckoning to surface at the first break of daylight. Was it because of the high altitude? Could be. Perhaps it was an attempt to walking along the Kora – a circumambulation around a sacred site – in this case the local Monastery, was (albeit) only performed one time around myself, LT1contrary to the 108 times around to complete the traditional pilgrimage for the day.

Capturing images of daily sacred rituals of Tibetan life of the past, present and (hopefully) future was done under a self-imposed guideline of having a presence without being present .. meaning, being respectfully at a distance far LT2enough away as to not disturb them during their prayer while having the presence of mind in being somewhat invisible – not an easy task in the slightest. I recently moved from a DSLR to a mirrorless kit for a number of reasons, but a by-product is the electronic shutter. I can turn it off/on at will. The Fujifilm X-T1 is my go to kit for things like this. Turning LT3on the electronic shutter, I am now able to shoot stealthy up close and personal and having the luxury of absolutely no shutter sound to bother those around me is an huge bonus. This along with my now favorite single focal length 27mm lens affords close ups and wide area shots just by using my feet to zoom back and forth. Shooting wide open at F2 also allows me to go lower in ISO to help keep my images clean and virtually noise free.

Enough of the gear-head speak … with the proper tools, I was able to be nimble, stealth-like and efficient enabling me to capture memorable moments. Venues with such character and spiritual meaning were extremely difficult to photograph; mainly because of the low light. Creatively, this challenged your knowledge of both camera, surroundings and general anticipation of the people’s movement in order to nail the shot with some sort of sharpness and evocative mood capture.

The dc2Tibetan way of life is hard. It’s seemingly hard way of life as Nomadic migrants that follow the direction of the changing seasons and it’s deep roots into the various selective Tibetan sect followings makes one hope for a convergence and balance in allowing them to choose their own destiny and future as opposed to it being dictated upon by the mightier powers that be who want to control this ancient way of life. Don’t get me wrong – contrary to what we all think (of Tibetans), Tibetans are NOT defined by outside world views as a bunch of passive robe wearing

Exchanging stories, exchanging cultures.

Exchanging stories, exchanging cultures.

Buddha-hugging pacifists. They were once considered fearless warriors of the region. They had to be. Attacks from the east and west of their land, even today, have threatened the unique Tibetan way of life.

Though my time was short here, it felt like an eternity as I was initially dropped off in somewhat of a present day Tibetan way of life working my way backward to what ancient Tibetan ways of life were like and is still being practiced today. Tomorrow may be a different story as more and more of the youth strive to reach the modern conveniences so dearly sought after. What I came away with was a renewed sense of understanding and respect for Tibetan ways of life. I hope tradition overcomes the quest for modern pressures for a people who are endearingly hospitable and curious about what the other side of the world is doing. Nearing the end of our Shangri-la journey,  one of the more heartfelt moments was our numerous attempts to give a small token offering in appreciation for allowing our brief intrusion into their home while sipping Yak butter tea. The refusal of our offering was reasoned by telling us “… you’ve come a long way to get here, you need this offering (small monetary offering) to get back home …” If this doesn’t leave a lump in your throat, nothing will … I hope to return one of these days, but am afraid I will find a different Shangri-la.

Rape & Massacre.

RNK1There’s something about human tragedy that allures people to certain places. Is it out of morbid curiosity? Are we Voyeurs by nature? Perhaps a bit of both. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to understand from visiting places where such sorrow and human atrocities occurred in the past is more

Almost Rodin-like sculptures line the entryway to the museum.

Rodin-like sculptures line the entryway to the museum.

in the lines of education. Named as museums or memorials – call them what you will; Be it the former Khmer Rouge’s S21 prison and Killing Fields in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, the Auschwitz incinerator compound or other places where mass human genocide has taken place in recent history, they’re truly places of remembrance, in my humble opinion.

.. says all.

.. says all.

Having recently toured the original location in Nanjing or Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall or less affectionately called Memorial for Compatriots killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression, the moment you step foot onto the grounds you’re met with this huge gravel covered area with stark (and dark colored) angular building beckoning you inside. From the time

刘, Liu or as in my case Lew, names of fallen clansmen

刘, Liu or as in my case Lew, names of fallen clansmen

you enter, the dimly lit descent underground passageway immediately changes your mood to a solemn one. You can just feel a little something taking over your senses. The opening hall is also dimly lit with names of those who lost their lives during the short 6 week siege by Japanese Armed Forces in 1937 who slaughter over 300,000 Chinese! 6 weeks! If my math is right, that’s on average of

The museum is also an archeological find/dig area where a lot of the killing and tortures occurred.

The museum is also an archeological find/dig area where a lot of the killing and tortures occurred.

7100 people/day! Now, thats evil as evil is! Of course, strolling deeper into the room, I find a block of 刘 characters, which is my last name. Doing a quick count, there were nearly 4000. Seems like a lot … and it is, but there were at least double if not triple the amount of 王’s (Wang or Wong) surnames on the opposite side of the room.

All throughout the underground halls it amazed me to find how well documented everything was. Not

Photos of many survivors

Photos of many survivors

mere words, person recounts or articles of torture, but photographs! To think that during the War Crimes Tribunals, the Japanese government of the time fervently denied such claims as genocide, murder, rape and torture of the Chinese Nationals. But, in the end, we all know the truth came out. It’s no wonder why the Chinese still have a distaste for the Japanese as a whole – from the Government all the way down to the People, the lao bai xing. I

A calling for Peace.

A calling for Peace.

think on a everyday basis, all is cool and no real ill feelings are present, but when nationalistic events occur, b/n the two countries, Chinese nationalist pride kicks in the propaganda machine of hatred rings through. I can hardly blame them in a way, right? Heck, at the recent summit in China when Xijin Ping shook hands with Japan’s PM, Abe, if Ping’s eyes could speak and body language read, it told still the hurt and dislike to this day.

RNK10

A hope for growth through this experience of human tragedy.

Upon the volumes and volumes of photos, firsthand recounts of survivors, words such as Devils, Aggressors, Inhumane, Slaughter, Terrified, Brutality and Horror to name a few were freely used as the patriotic propaganda machine was spinning its wheels in high gear. Granted, rightfully so, but after reading it over and over again it became clear of the choice keywords’ insertion was by design. Designed to create dislike and possibly hatred for what was done to their very own People on their very own soil.

When putting together this visit, this location was not on the list of

Strings of 1000 Japanese Cranes, calling for long life and recovery.

Strings of 1000 Japanese folded paper Cranes, calling for long life and recovery.

recommended sites to visit. Upon inquiry, I was asked, “… oh, the ‘sad place, you want to go the sad place’?” At first I wasn’t quite sure what this reference was, but quickly realizing the parallel innuendo. Sad as it is, I still believe it important to perhaps forgive to some degree, but most importantly to never forget. By doing so, we can be hopeful that these are lessons learned in how not to conduct ourselves as world citizens, don’t you?

Village life: Chengyang

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

A road trip to little known places in China presents itself with many challenges as much as photographic opportunities. This combination, from my experience, has been the most rewarding. A friend once told me that any place worth going to isn’t an easy journey (or something like that) – how true this is. If access is too easy, everybody visits and changes the place forever. Local folks become jaded as Tourists flock in droves, spilling money into the area which

Wind and Rain Bridge connecting the village to the rest of the world

Wind and Rain Bridge connecting the village to the rest of the world

creates a certain greed amongst them (villagers). No fault, it’s just the nature of the capitalist beast. The purity is lost. The curiosity is lost. Old world China is lost. Making the journey to a small village called Chengyang consists of a group of smaller villages – about 8 or so where life is simple. Most everyone farms in this rural village high in the Guizhou mountains. The village is inhabited by the Dong

From high above the village

From high above the village

ethnicity with just a smattering of Han. I think the Dong have a Han look and often can’t tell the difference between them. Tucked in a valley partially encircled by a narrow river that meanders around the village which provides much needed water for their crops. One morning while walking around the outer part of the village along the river, many folks were cooking in open air fires with these humongous woks aboutcy4 a meter wide and artfully stirring their contents with long broom handled shovel-like spatulas. Walking up to the group, some took notice but didn’t say a thing and continue about themselves. Taking a seat on a bench with the rest of them, I began to blend in (so I think). Standing, moving towards the cooking and standing in between two giant woks, I begin to photograph the activity. With only a couple of looks, one of the men offer the broom handle and motion to help stir the food cooking in the wok itself. I happily oblige. While cy5stirring, it felt like I was shoveling cement or dirt – mainly because of the enormity of the contents and spatula. After handing the shovel back to the cook tending to what looked like intestines and pork meat, I was offered what looked like a egg-drop soup from a huge vat. I had to accept. From the first sip, the strong taste of Baijiu was apparent; Baijiu is

Competitive spirit to sell their wares

Competitive spirit to sell their wares

Chinese moonshine. I’m sure the alcohol was largely cooked off, but that distinct sweet taste overpowered the rest of the ingredients. I finish the bowl, thanked them and moved on after having sampled one of the other dishes just being completed – freshly scooped and pulled out of the wok and into these 5 gallon plastic buckets for serving. Not the most elegant serving platters, but

Traditional Dong performance

Traditional Dong performance

they were preparing for a huge celebration for many many people. Continuing on through the village area, we were treated to a traditional Dong musical performance; cool looking instruments, but the bamboo pipe flutes seemed out of tune or something (at least to me) – a very unique sound for sure. There was quite a bit of activity in another smaller village nearby where they were preparing cy9what looked like mud in a couple of grain pools. From what I was told Jackie Chan was also visiting this place to make a movie and they were making a mud pool out of wheat flour and water – everyone seemed excited as there was a lot of chatter and laughter. Something tells me this isn’t just because of the movie itself. Very friendly folks. As I reached a platform

Sunset.

Sunset.

area that appeared to be a central part of the village, local elderly women swarmed me in their attempts to sell their handicrafts. Much competition indeed as one spoke up and said, “2 for 1 (price)” much to the odd looks from the others. After it was clear that I wasn’t going to buy, they left me alone even though I was sitting right amongst to them; no buy, no here! I was totally invisible at that point. I’ve got a feeling that this wonderful place will soon be overrun by Chinese tourism soon. Sure glad I had to the chance to visit when I did …

Post sunset.

Post sunset.