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China : portrait of a people

by Tom Carter

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful.
Travel Photography with Chinese Characteristics   (2011-03-12)


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by JerryChang

To introduce the photography book China: Portrait of a People, it is first important to actualize the mind-baffling amount of challenges travel photographer Tom Carter went up against during his 2-year, 56,000-kilometer quest to photograph China in its entirety.


As explained in the book’s introduction, captions and provincial introductions, Tom arrived in Beijing in 2004 as a foreign expert English language instructor, but quickly found himself “shanghaied.” Realizing that the job ad he had applied to was a scam, Tom had the option of returning to his home in America or pounding the Peking pavement for new employment. He chose to stay. 6 months later, Tom once again found himself at the mercy of China’s elements, this time of the viral sort. He had contracted Encephalitis, a life-threatening disease that attacks the central nervous system. Tom was hospitalized for 10 days and recovered.


After 2 straight years of teaching, Tom decided to hit the road as a “backpacker,” with a personal mission to journey to all 33 provinces and autonomous regions across the country. This trip wound up lasting 2 year and took Tom to over 200 cities and village. During this time, Tom faced gunpoint by North Korean border guards at the DPRK border, where he had accidentally crossed in to atop Changbai Mountain. They let him go in exchange for cigarettes. In Tibet, Tom often found himself stranded in vast deserts or rural mountain ranges with no civilization in site. At Mount Kailash, Tom collapsed from asphyxiation atop the 5,000-meter pass, but was mercifully rescued by a well-acclimatized Tibetan woman, who carried Tom and his gear for the next 8 hours around the kora circuit.


Enter Chongqing city, where Tom was viciously beaten by 3 drunk Chinese men while bemused security guards stood by idly. In Hunan province, Tom was detained by undercover police after he was caught photographing a street riot; his choices were to either hand over the pictures or risk arrest. He was not arrested, however, and the photos appear in his book, leaving the reader to ponder what miracle saved Tom from that conundrum.


To have even just one of these experience befall the average person would have sent them packing and on the first flight to home. Tom not only stuck it out for over 2 years, risking life, limb and liberty, but the result was his new 600-page photography book, China: Portrait of a People. The fact that Tom uses his personal anecdotes as mere footnotes throughout his book rather than the primary point is indicative of his selfless determination to honestly and candidly portray the Chinese not matter how difficult it was for him to do so.


China: Portrait of a People is a triumph in travel photography. Anyone familiar with the genre might be weary of the usual sites and sunsets that publishers throw between two big covers and declare it representative of that country. What Tom Carter has done is take the travel photography genre and chop it back down to its humble origins, back to a time when Photoshop did not exist and photographers were actually passionate about their subjects rather than their paychecks. Tom cares about the Chinese, and his compassion and empathy is apparent in every single portrait of his big book.


Tom Carter’s passion is people. Yes, there are many beautiful vistas and villages throughout this book, but a good majority of the pages are packed with people, just as China itself is. Symbolism? Perhaps.


Behold the Akha minority woman in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region along the Vietnam border in southwest China, her teeth stained red “from a lifetime chewing the narcotic binglang betel nut.” In northwest China’s Xinjiang region, a Uyghur man opts to have his rotten tooth pulled out of his head with a pair of pliers courtesy of a “street-corner dentist.” Langmusi, a Tibetan enclave in northern Sichuan province bordering Tibet: Tom photographs a “Buddhist pilgrim family” in their home – three daughters offer the camera genuine, heart-warming smiles, though mother is laughing so hard her eyes are shut. Over in southeast China, a woman belonging to the “indigenous She minority tribe” of Zhejiang province is outfitted in her most brilliant beads and ceremonial regalia.


But China: Portrait of a People is not all antiquated areas and aboriginal attire. For Shandong province, Tom decided to reveal back-to-back images of New China’s modern underworld, including three drunken “club kids” partying the night away, a sexy go-go disco dancer, two karaoke “xiaojie” on the verge of a passionate kiss, and an intoxicated man passed out in the middle of a street on top of the bicycle he has obviously crashed. In Beijing, Tom meets with an “industrial burn victim who has resorted to begging” because of abhorrent Communist labor laws that refuse to offer worker’s compensation. While in Hong Kong, Tom photographs a heavily-tattooed “triad soldier” (Chinese mafia) from the neck down.


China: Portrait of a People is decidedly the most definitive collection of photos about the PRC that has ever been published. No other book can compare to either the vast page count (638 pages), nor the multitude of scenarios that Tom documented to preserve this tumultuous period in China’s history. Read as many Wikipedia entries as you will, no amount of text will enlighten you to the true face of China as China: Portrait of a People has. It is an essential work of literature that will undoubtedly revolutionize the travel photography genre and lead the field in scholarly works about Sinology.

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