Third in the series - I’m sharing some of my favorite images from Asia and the stories behind getting those shots.
This is one of the first photos I ever took in China, captured during my first week here. I’d moved into a neighborhood near the Liuzhou train station and it was a bit rough - both the neighborhood and the apartment. I was experiencing an overload of culture shock and the one thing I was having the hardest time with - was the staring. At that time there weren’t many foreigners in Liuzhou. There still aren’t really, but in the 2006 version of Liuzhou it was rare to see a waiguoren - 外国人 (foreigner). It was reasonable to assume that for most of my neighbors, if not all, I was the first foreigner they’d ever seen up close and in person.
Everywhere I went I was noticed and stared at. I was a unicorn. The reactions varied… shocked mouth agape, giggling, confusion, distrust, even fear. A lot of it was surely simple curiosity. I mean some people wold stop dead in their tracks, turn around and follow me for blocks! In the grocery store, folks would walk right up to me and peruse the contents of my shopping cart. Some teens and younger adults would be brave enough to try out their middle school English… but mostly it was just stares. Long stares.
This little boy was my neighbor and this photo is from the day we met. His reaction… was priceless. He was with his grandmother in the courtyard, busily playing in the dirt like little boys do. Grandma saw me coming and excitedly exclaimed, “Look! A laowai - 老外”, (another slightly more pejorative word for foreigner). At the time my Chinese was pretty much non-existent but I did know what laowai meant so I stopped in an attempt to be friendly. The boy turned around and after the briefest moment of confusion, started to laugh uncontrollably. Luckily I had a camera. His laughing was so over the top hysterical and contagious, grandma and I both lost it as well. From the first day I’ve always titled this photo Joy. The boy’s unfiltered reaction made it somewhat easier to adjust to everyone else’s reactions.
I moved out of the neighborhood after a few months but I remember the time spent there fondly. It was as a period of great personal growth. mystery and uncertainty. I wasn’t sure what the future held, but I knew it was certainly going to be an adventure. Foreigners in China are no longer the rarity they used to be and while I still solicit some stares, it’s nowhere near as prevalent as it was when I first arrived. Perhaps I’ve simply become accustomed to the reactions and no longer notice them as much.
This photo is almost certainly the most stolen, copied, plagiarized, used without permission image I have. At one time there were hundreds of memes using this image. I found it being used in at least four advertising campaigns and eventually got some money out of that. I was in Pran Buri, Thailand a couple of years ago, walking through an alley and saw this shot being used in an ad for baby formula. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. I tried to track down the company but they had apparently gone out of business. A quick google image search this afternoon still returned more than 12 pages of entries. I used to spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to stop using the photo but I eventually came to look at it differently. I think it’s probably difficult for most folks to look at this photo and not smile, and if seeing it spreads a little Joy - then I’m happy.
This boy is probably in his mid-teens now. Over the years I’ve thought about him from time to time. I even went back to the old neighborhood a few years ago with a print, but nobody remembered him. Last year I drove by the old apartment and the whole complex had been torn down. Life rolls on.
The photo was made with a borrowed Nikon D40 and the Nikkor 135mm ƒ/2.8 lens, shot at 1/400, ƒ/5.0 and ISO 800. At the time I was looking to upgrade from my old Sigma SD10. I tried a number of cameras over a few months before eventually settling on the Canon 5D. I’ll continue to share more of my favorites here, revealing the story behind the shots. If there is something in my portfolio you’d like to know more about, just leave a note in the comments.
Liuzhou - May 14, 2019