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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

China South

Enticing new opportunities for the cultural photographer are becoming more accessible in these less traveled regions of abundant diversity

China SouthThis Article Features Photo Zoom
China South
The object of the telephoto lens is to surreptitiously capture people with their concentration and expression clearly focused on events of importance to them, gazing into the photographer’s lens. In a village near Kaili, these Gejia performers watch the men of the group play their lusheng pipes. Often, as much as 150-200mm (effective 200-300mm) can be necessary to isolate subjects from a significant viewing distance. However, lenses zoomed to 300mm (effective 480mm) can be too strong to handhold or stop subject motion in lower light as aperture shifts to ƒ/5.6 or smaller.

With the mega-event of the Summer Olympics coming to Beijing this year, a great deal of focus will be on China’s showcase cities as engines of modernization and commerce. Overlooked may be the incredible geography and ethnic diversity, stretching from the 15,000-foot mountains of Yunnan to the karst formations, clustered villages and rice terraces of Guizhou. These two southern Chinese provinces are populated by a range of colorful ethnic groups perhaps equaled nowhere else in the world.

In China, they’re designated as minorities, where in nearby Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, offshoots are often referred to as hill tribes. The Chinese government has identified 55 official minority groups, with the Miao (including Hmong/Mong, Bai, etc.) numbering between nine and 10 million, yet divided into 82 subgroups. The Gejia (who don’t self-identify themselves as Miao) number as few as 50,000. Historically, the minorities have been highly mobile, one example being the Miao, who some say have ancient roots in Lapland.

My first (film) 35mm SLR
was outfitted with a 28mm and an 80-200mm zoom. I toured Europe on summer vacation and never missed the millimeters in between the two. Ever since, I’ve tended to see photo possibilities in terms of either wide or telephoto, only along the way, my idea of a normal wide-angle was more like 20mm or wider. As you can imagine, the transition to digital with early SLRs was painful until manufacturers began making lenses like the 10-22mm (effective 16-35mm) to give me the wide view to which I had grown accustomed. Also along the way, image stabilization was introduced in medium telephoto zooms. The only thing that I’ve added to this basic kit is a second camera body, so that lens swapping is unnecessary.

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china south china south
ABOVE: The market displays at Dali are palettes of color where a telephoto perspective makes a tight composition of sacks of fungi and mushrooms or a 10mm (effective 16mm) wide-angle incorporates a Bai woman arranging her peppers. The selection between telephoto and wide-angle is dependent on how much the surroundings to your central subject constitute clutter or interesting environment.BELOW RIGHT: Caught in the quandary of carefully spending hard-earned money, women shoppers pay little attention to tourist cameras as a 150mm (effective 200mm) isolates one Gejia mother. BELOW LEFT: In Chongan, only a half-day drive from the dancers of the previous page, already the detail of the headdress has changed significantly. Conversely, an extreme wide-angle can put you in such close proximity that subjects are unaware of their inclusion in the picture, as in this close-up of an apple vendor's headdress.
It’s with this unassuming outfit that I recently cruised the villages and markets from Lijiang (Yunnan) to Kaili(Guizhou). Many of my favorite trips have been to the hill tribe regions of Burma and Thailand, and it’s from southern China that many of these tribes once migrated.

Please excuse the cliché, but this is a cultural photographer’s paradise. There’s no other way to express it. The variety, the color, the light and the truly exotic sights are available in few other places in the modern world. But most importantly, the people harbor none of the animosity toward the camera one might experience in Africa or parts of Islam. Still, it pays to keep a low profile. Rather than call attention to yourself with oversized pro cameras with big sensors and the associated big lenses, I prefer to carry the lighter class of SLR with little black lenses. As mentioned earlier, two camera bodies make it possible to switch from wide-angle to telephoto without fumbling with changing lenses, a procedure that not only may cause you to miss the decisive moment, but also may attract the attention of a camera-shy subject.


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