CHINA: Portrait of a People
by Tom Carter
TRAVEL / PHOTOGRAPHY
Q&A with Tom Carter,
author of CHINA: Portrait of a People
American photojournalist Tom Carter has spent the past four years in the
People’s Republic of China, traversing all 33 provinces and autonomous regions
not just once but twice. The San Francisco native’s hardback book, a definitive
800-image volume aptly entitled CHINA: Portrait of a People, is due out
this winter from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books. Tom took a day off from
travelling to discuss the challenges of taking pictures in China, how he evaded
censorship in the tightly-controlled republic, and to share a few insider tips
on visiting what is to become the world’s largest tourism market.
Your upcoming book focuses heavily on photographs of people, from peasants to
punk rockers, ethnic groups to entrepreneurs. As a lone foreigner in a faraway
country, how did you approach so many strangers, let alone become intimate
enough with them to take their portraits?
Most of my photos came about as a natural result of my curiosity and interaction
with Chinese people during my travels. It wasn't until the end of my trip that I
thought about compiling them into a book. This is a tribute to all the people I
met along the way.
For the portraits, it just takes a sincere interest in your subjects to get that
close. I don't believe in hiding behind a zoom lens; I was actually as near to
all those people as you see in the pictures, sometimes just inches away. The
candid life shots, which comprise a good third of the book, were actually more
of a challenge. As a foreigner walking down the street in China, all activity
stops the moment you are seen, so it’s tricky to photograph life before life
stops to stare at you.
I don’t believe any book can capture the true spirit of a country with only
pictures of places. Sure, a photo of a sunset over the Great Wall is nice, but
what do you really learn from it? I wanted to show the people, and dispel the
stereotype of the Chinese as a homogeneous single nationality.
You must speak the language pretty well.
That's the very first question I always get from other expats I meet in China!
It humbles me to admit that my Putonghua borders on offensively poor. I taught
English when I first arrived in China, which left me no time to formally study
Mandarin. I picked up my entire vocabulary while travelling. I call it Survival
Chinese. I can communicate, but I'm usually left out of the gossiping granny
circles. A friendly smile works well when all else fails. I might add, though,
that Chinese dialects vary widely by province, so even most nationals have
trouble understanding other Chinese outside their own hometowns.
You say you came to China as an English teacher, but four years later you’re a
published photojournalist and author. Did you plan this career move?
Never, but that’s China for you, a real land of opportunity. Teaching was just a
means to an end, which was travelling. Out of that first long year on the road
sprung my collection of photos, which resulted in a book contract and travel
assignments from various periodicals, which brought me full circle back to my
second spin around China. I believe I stand apart from my contemporaries in that
I'm not sitting around a cushy foreign correspondents’ club “networking” [makes
mock quotes with his fingers] and waiting for my next assignment; I'm out on the
road finding my own. But maybe that’s why Reuters still hasn’t called me.
You’ve had a few run-ins with Chinese censorship of your images and articles.
Care to share?
The concept of Freedom of the Press, something the west takes for granted, is
still entirely alien in Communist China. The media is state-run and every single
word and image that comes in and out of the country needs to be approved by the
Ministry of Information. Crazy, huh? But since I’m an independent freelancer
without the backing of any news agency, I lack official journalist credentials.
Most of my images I've had to get the hard way, which has often resulted in
confrontations with local authorities who view foreign correspondents as a
For example, for the three single frames of coal miners with soot-covered faces
that appear in this book, I and my Chinese travelling companion had to spend
several days in the mountains of South Shanxi before we were able to sneak into
a coal mine, grab a few shots then get the hell out before being caught. Mining
is one of the most dangerous and controversial occupations in China, and is
entirely off limits to journalists. Some of my best photos are hit-and-run like
There’s one incident in particular I want to hear about: a peasant riot that you
photographed and which almost got you arrested. Tell us about that.
To be caught up in a proletarian uprising – something both foreign and Chinese
reporters in China rarely even hear about, due to rapid suppression of
information, let alone eye-witness – was extremely frightening but probably one
of the book’s most powerful images. I was subsequently “implored” by the local
police to hand over all my photos, under penalty of incarceration, but a couple
have managed to slip into the book [winks mischievously]. I'm still in China and
would like to be able to leave without a trip to the clink, so it’s not
something I can talk about in further detail, nor can we make the photo public
until the book is on the shelves.
Guerilla-style documentary photography is something you are obviously proud of.
Someone said you have “turned mundane daily life in China into a work of art”
but one reviewer wrote that your photographs are “an assault on ordinary people
who should be left alone.” What's your take on such extreme responses?
Which one was the criticism? [Laughs] Actually, I prefer the term ‘street
photography’, because that's exactly what I do. I'm out pounding the pavement
from 6am to 6pm every day, learning about the culture through observation and
interaction. Many photojournalists cover their assignments as quickly as
possible so they can remove themselves from the elements, but I revel in the
elements. I don’t have any technical or artistic preconceptions to my photos.
The whole idea of spending an hour setting up a shot and then photoshopping it
to death afterwards is not what I'm about. I just capture life as it is, then
move on. If the picture turns out crooked, so what! Life is crooked!
I have no desire to make something palatable, even if it means not getting on
Getty. On the other hand, any of my photos that are considered beautiful I
credit entirely to my subjects. They are the ones who deserve the compliments.
China really is a vast country to explore, and you have been to every corner of
it – 33 provinces and over 200 cities and villages. Travelling for a living
sounds like a life of leisure, but what’s the reality?
You know, for all the tourism I’ve promoted for China with my photos and travel
articles, you’d think the CNTA [China National Tourism Administration] could at
least have comped my hotels. But the truth is I’ve never received a cent in
financial backing. During the two years I spent travelling across China, I slept
in 15 RMB [2 USD] flophouses with particleboard walls – which are illegal for
foreigners to stay in – with the occasional youth hostel or night on a bus
station floor. I taught English for two straight years beforehand so I could
save up to travel, and I really had to pinch my pennies to make it last. The
upside is that my insolvency resulted in experiences that staying at the
Sheraton could never produce.
All travellers are running away from something. What's your excuse?
I come from a long line of nomads – my mother a Danish immigrant of good Viking
stock and my father a hybrid Panamanian-Cuban-Italian – so drifting is in my
blood. It’s my dream to travel the world, take pictures and write about it. I
have no intention of succumbing to that thirtysomething syndrome of settling
down. The world is my home.
So what day-to-day difficulties did you encounter during your marathon journey
You mean hour-to-hour difficulties. My photos might excite a lot of potential
tourists, but I'm not going to sugar-coat the reality of actually travelling in
China. The consensus among backpackers is that China is probably the single most
challenging country in the world to navigate. Aside from the obvious language
barriers, you have 5,000-year old customs and extreme cultural differences that
can be quite vexing for the typical westerner. Most of these nuances are not
something that you can catch on film; travellers have to discover them for
themselves, and that’s part of the fun.
What keeps you going?
I delight in the challenges that a country like China poses to westerners. Sure,
I occasionally catch myself pounding the wall in frustration, but the thing
about the PRC is that every turn is a new adventure. For me there’s nothing
worse than being bored, and boredom is just not possible in China. See these
lines on my face? They weren’t there before.
How did you plan your routes?
I haven’t planned a single route since I arrived in China four years ago. I just
point myself in a direction, then let life carry me on its current. Not only
does every Chinese person you ask where to go have an excitedly different
opinion – even about which way is north – but there are so many undiscovered
villages that are off the charts. Not to mention that the time it takes to get
to these places is often days longer than how it appears on a map, making an
itinerary kind of pointless.
Tell us more about surprises along the way, and any dangerous situations you’ve
Surprises are the rule, not the exception. In addition to clashes with the
authorities over my pictures, I’ve had everything from a near-lethal bout of
encephalitis during my first year in China, to getting shanghaied by crooked
English schools, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. One of my
favourites is the time I found myself at the business end of a North Korean
machine gun when I accidentally crossed into the DPRK at Changbaishan. These are
all stories I can laugh about now, though my mother doesn't think so.
It’s said that China is now undergoing the most prolonged period of sustained
change in history. How has it changed since you have lived there, and how will
it change in the near future?
I think China's most dramatic changes have been brought on by itself and that
the now-clichéd term “New China” was something methodically planned out in their
boardrooms. The Chinese government is addicted to what I call
hyper-urbanization. You’ve got historic cities like Beijing, where they are
bulldozing these ancient hutongs by the hour so they can build office towers, or
the 2,000-year-old village of Gongtan in Chongqing that is going to be levelled
this summer for a new power plant. I wrote an article about Gongtan for a local
magazine but it was quickly quashed because the censorship bureau said “We don’t
want to bring any attention to that place.” These contrasts in architecture
appear in my book because I feel it is imperative to capture this last glimpse
of China’s old slate rooftops before the skyline becomes pure steel and glass.
CHINA: Portrait of a People will probably become a history book,
something Chinese people will look at twenty years from now and say “Ah yes, I
It seems like everyone wants to know more about China these days. Do you see
more people planning on visiting the country?
China will become the world’s largest tourism destination of the next decade, no
doubt about it. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010 are
expected to attract between 50 to 100 million tourists annually. China’s doors
were closed for so long that it’s only natural the world is curious about what’s
behind them. What the pictures in Portrait of a People are doing is
fuelling this curiosity by offering an intimate glimpse of humanity in China,
and scenes of daily life that even publications like National Geographic
You’re something of an authority now on Chinese travel. Can you offer any tips
Well, what China wants tourists to see is often at variance with what is
actually marvellous about the country. You’ve got these highly-sheltered tour
group packages that cover the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors
in Shaanxi, a boat ride on the Yangtze and shopping in Shanghai [makes yawning
noise]. Or you can remove yourself from the souvenir shops and luxury hotels,
get a local street map and travel on word-of-mouth. Lonely Planet would go
bankrupt if people actually took my travel advice, but you definitely see more
of the real China my way.
Finally, what's next for someone who’s been everywhere in China?
My publisher and I have been talking about taking the "Portrait of a People"
concept to other countries in the region. I would jump at the chance. So I have
no idea where I’ll be this time next year.
Tom Carter’s travel articles and pictures have appeared in every major
English-language periodical in China. He is available for interview by phone or
email. Sample photos from CHINA: Portrait of a People can be viewed at
http://www.tomcarter.org (Flash plugin required). High-resolution images for
media use are available for immediate download at
Pete Spurrier at Blacksmith Books – (+852) 2877 7899 –