Thursday, December 27, 2012

Behind the Lens: Tom Carter, China Portrait of a People

We are extremely excited to bring our interview with photojournalist Tom Carter. We had the opportunity to exchange a bevy of emails due to the time difference between the U.S. and China where Tom currently resides.  Since 2004 Tom has lived in China and logged over 35,000 miles forging through the 33 provinces of China.  He is one of the only photojournalists to ever travel this extensively and document his journey.

Tom has proved that it is not the equipment that makes a great photographer, but rather the person 'behind the lens,' just like our series title.  On a meager budget, backpack and simple Olympus C-4000 4-megapixel camera Tom has been able to capture the spirit of the people of China.  He has documented over one-third of the cities and villages in China encountering over 50 different ethnic minorities with their own distinct language, culture and lifestyle.  

Tom's incredible book, 'China: Portrait of a People,' is now in its second printing.  The 638 page book contain over 800 images that reveal a country like never before.  The best-selling book has a five-star rating on Amazon.

Travel photographer Tom Carter (1973) was born and raised in the City of San Francisco.  He graduated with a degree in Political Science from the American University in Washington, D.C. Following a political career with a number of high-profile state and national campaigns, Tom subsequently spent 18 months backpacking down the length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Tom later spent one year in Japan, one year in India, and four years in the People’s Republic of China, travelling extensively throughout the country’s 33 provinces and autonomous regions. The result was his first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, hailed as the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author.

We changed up our usual format for our 'Behind the Lens' series and are pleased to introduce Tom to our readers:

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Portrait of a young girl in Gegentala, Mongolia.
Tom, was there a pivotal moment that inspired you to take on this journey?
I spent 1.5 years backpacking down the entire length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America, so I had the wanderlust in me to continue seeing the world, but I didn’t have the funds, which is why I decided to teach English in China, which was an ideal way to travel AND get paid for it. Once I arrived in China, I felt compelled to travel to all 33 provinces, because a land this vast and rich with history deserves to be drunk in at leisure. It was not until after I completed my 35,000-mile journey that I realized I was one of the only foreigners to have traveled that extensively here.
How would describe your photography?
I would describe my photography as a hybrid of street photography, travel photography and photojournalism.

Are you a self-taught photographer or did you have formal training?
I am entirely self-taught. I am not a technical photographer at all and do not follow any conventions.

How many years have you been a professional photographer?
I hesitate to call myself a professional. I am not accredited nor am I associated with any news agency or publication. If anything, I am a professional vagrant.

Is there a photographer who inspires your style?  Who would that be?
I don’t really follow any contemporary photographers. But I really respect the work the late Eve Arnold did in China.

What is your favorite photo (if you have one) from your journey?
The traditional portrait of a Tibetan family I befriended in Gansu. It speaks volumes about tradition and family – which are two very important aspects of Asian and Chinese cultures.
This is what Tom described as his favorite photo, of a traditional Tibetan family he befriended in Gansu.

What has been the most surprising thing you learned in this experience?
That you don’t need an expensive camera or a computer full of digital software to take good photos.

How did you go about selecting the photos and research that went into the book?
To choose the photos that went into my book, I spent a solid month, morning till night, looking through my hard drive of all the thousands of images that I had taken the past 2 years on the road and selecting the most meaningful ones. The vetting continued like that for several more weeks; a strict process of elimination whereby only the most striking pics made the cut. Of course, every pic was "special" to me personally, and had a story behind it that I wanted to tell.  But in the end I chose - and arranged in order - only those images that formed a linear narrative of my journey across China. Finally, my publisher previewed my final batch and took out the weakest of the pack; 888 images made it in. Without this process, my book might have been twice its size of 640 pages!

How have the people of China reacted to an American who compiled such a thorough photo book about their country?
I'd hoped that my book would make a splash in Mainland China once it was published, because the souvenir shops and airport bookstores here are saturated with all the typical "sunrise over the Great Wall" coffee table books yet have no photo books about Chinese PEOPLE, which is ironic considering the term "People" is used in everything in China. But as fate would have it, my publisher was refused distribution into Mainland China for a number of reasons, including politics. So I guess you could say my book is "banned" here, which is also ironic considering it's my tribute to Chinese society. But the response to my book in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other surrounding regions has been fantastic. Next, I'm hoping we can sell it in Japan and Korea, but as of yet we've had no luck nailing down a Japanese or Korean distributor, nor a foreign rights agent with contacts in those countries.

Has there been a single pivotal moment in this experience for you?
The day "CHINA: Portrait of a People" was published was probably my most pivotal moment in China, because it essentially immortalized my photos and my journey. To be one of the few foreigners in Chinese history to have achieved this is indeed something special.

Stopping traffic in Shanghai
Your Gear

Are you a Canon or Nikon photographer?
My book CHINA: Portrait of a People was shot entirely with an Olympus C-4000. That’s a 4-megapixel camera!  Pro photogs laughed at me at the time, but it was I who had the last laugh once my book became a best seller. Now I am shooting with a Nikon d700. I really could not care less about brands and I don’t have a preference of one over the other, because talent comes from the eye and heart, not the machine.

If you could only have one lens, what would it be?
My Olympus had only one fixed lens, and obviously it was good enough for what I was doing then. But with my d700, I really like my Nikkor 50mm f1.4.
What gear would we find in your camera bag?
Not much. I travel light and I don’t need fancy gear to take good pictures. If anything, batteries are the most important thing to me because sometimes I am not near a power source for days. Memory cards too – lots of memory cards!

Are you a PC or Mac user?
I use a PC.

Children eating in Xijiang

Your Tips and Tricks

What post processing methods do you use?
I am notoriously anti post-processing. I despise HDR and I use Photoshop (7) only for basic levels adjustments and cropping. I can’t understand the current trend of manipulating photos so much they look like video games, and am looking forward to the day when the industry says “Enough!” to post processing.

Do you shoot in Raw or Jpeg?
Both, but since I don’t post process, most of my Raw files go unused.

Best advice you would give your 20-year old self?
Get a degree in photojournalism, intern at a news agency, and go pro. Freelancing sucks!

Best advice you would give a new photographer who wants to take on a task like this?
If you want to be a pro, work at a news agency. If you just like to take photos for fun, then just follow your heart and avoid trends.

Portrait of a young woman in Shanghai

What Else?

What was your worst photography experience in your journey thus far?
While traveling around China, I was threatened with arrest numerous times for taking pictures when I shouldn’t.

What was the best experience in your journey
The thousands of people I met and photographed a long the way. I’ve never met so many nice people!
What would surprise people most about you, whether it is photography related or not?
I don’t require much money to accomplish big things. Too many photographers are co-dependent on fancy gear and big budgets. I am the antithesis of that.

What’s next for you?  Are you working on another book?
I’m working on many other books: photography, illustrated, non-fiction, and fiction. I love literature as much as I love photography, and even though print media is a dying art, I’d still like to leave my legacy in a real, paper book rather than on some website.
What other countries would you want to travel and do an exploration similar to this?
I am currently exploring India. I hope to see it ALL eventually, just like I did China. When I travel somewhere, I like to immerse myself in its culture.

Portrait of an old man in Hohhot, capitol of Inner Mongolia
Please check out these videos on YouTube that show the imagery from Tom Carter:

1 comment:

Thank you for your kind words. We appreciate and read each and every one.