Pho­to­graphic mem­o­ries in Guilin, China

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents -

“Leave noth­ing but foot­prints, take noth­ing but pic­tures.”

It makes for re­spon­si­ble trav­el­ling and, for one com­pany, it has be­come a spe­cial­ity.

We find out more.

Travel agen­cies tend to have a hook, a gim­mick. These days, it’s not enough that your tour be straight­for­ward—vis­it­ing sites, eat­ing the lo­cal cui­sine and shop­ping won’t cut it among the mil­len­nial market. They need more. Now, some agen­cies boast of yoga re­treats, where you’re jet­ti­soned to a re­mote ashram to restart your soul. Others have travel pack­ages that will only let you know of the des­ti­na­tion you’ll fly to on the day it­self, all in the name of spon­tane­ity.

For Un­usual Ex­pe­di­tion, its spe­cial­ity is or­gan­is­ing pho­tog­ra­phy tours, which is kinda ex­plana­tory in it­self. The agency’s port­fo­lio is an In­sta­gram click­bait: from the bluetipped roofs of San­torini’s white­washed domi­ciles to the au­ric light show cast by Nor­way’s mid­night sun; all these ex­otic lo­cales will as­suage even the most jaded pho­tog­ra­pher.

For this tour, I fly to Guilin, China; its nat­u­ral scenery is so well-beloved that it be­came a well-known pre­cept: “桂林山

水甲天下!”—Guilin’s moun­tains and wa­ter are the best un­der heaven. This area is sit­u­ated on the west bank of the Li River and it’s sur­rounded by scenic karst to­pog­ra­phy. Weath­ered by the el­e­ments, these car­bon­ate bedrocks made of lime­stone, mar­ble or dolomite turn into unique peaks and do­lines. There is some­thing unique about cap­tur­ing the shad­ows formed when the slanted rays of the sun hit the pock­marked and craggy sur­faces of these karst fea­tures; how the photo pos­sesses depth and char­ac­ter.

Af­ter a lay­over and seven hours of a numb pos­te­rior, I ar­rive at Guilin Liangjiang In­ter­na­tional Air­port. There, I en­dure another two hours of travel be­fore I reach bustling Yang­shuo. What used to be a pro­vin­cial town of ‘scat­tered houses’ that back­pack­ers would pass through is now a re­sort des­ti­na­tion. Inns lit­ter the streets, some an­nounc­ing their va­cancy via gar­ish neon sig­nage, others hid­den be­hind nar­row al­ley­ways like Yang­shuo Fanli Ho­tel. Its architecture con­fuses me. It re­minds me of a Tardis—the ho­tel’s front en­trance boasts noth­ing of its five storeys and many rooms.

Yang­shuo has eater­ies and shops that line its street, but West Street is where you need to be. Tourists and din­ers and bars, oh my. It’s al­most like Chi­nese New Year’s eve in Chi­na­town—you’re jos­tled by the crowd and the mu­sic from pub­lic speak­ers turns into a mush­mouth of sounds and words. Be­fore the sen­sory over­load can oc­cur, I de­cide to head back to my room. Af­ter all, there’s an early start to­mor­row. There will be sev­eral early starts in the days to come. When you travel in a group, you do not want to be the nail that sticks out. Punc­tu­al­ity is a must. No one wants to jeop­ar­dise the catch­ing of the golden hour by be­ing even five min­utes late, es­pe­cially so early in the du­ra­tion of the tour.

And there we were, con­vened in the ho­tel lobby. It’s 4.30am and it’s still dark out. Hours be­fore, the sky had emp­tied rain all over Yang­shuo. The ground is still slick; we care­fully make our way down the un­even steps to board the bus that will take us to a bridge nearby.

Pa­tience is a another trait that’s needed for a photo tour.

Of­ten, you’re just sit­ting around, wait­ing for the mo­ment to oc­cur. Tripods are as­sem­bled, cam­eras face the east. Min­utes pass. And soon, an hour swings by. A group of peo­ple wait for the bus down where we wait. Sev­eral jog­gers pay us no mind as they run past.

I’ve read about Ansel Adams, about how he would tra­verse long dis­tances and heights or wait for the op­por­tune mo­ment be­fore squeez­ing the trig­ger, all just to get the per­fect pic­ture. Now, the cob­webbed welkin and the morn­ing fog wraps tightly around us, so that when morn­ing fi­nally ar­rives, the rays of the sun look like they’re muz­zled be­hind gauze. Maybe there’s still a chance for this to turn around, I think to my­self as the sun makes its nat­u­ral as­cen­sion. Maybe we can re­turn to this spot to­mor­row? But that’s not to be. Mak tells us to get on the bus; this morn­ing’s shoot is a bust.

In­stead of be­ing dis­ap­pointed, ev­ery­body takes it in stride. In­clement weather is par for the course. You can plan down to the minu­tiae but a freak storm can be a span­ner in the works. To have some­thing go ac­cord­ing to plan is like set­ting all the tum­blers in a lock to align. But you’re do­ing it in the dark. Also, you’ve no arms. The founder of Un­usual Ex­pe­di­tion, Joseph Mak, is lead­ing this tour. Af­ter much mus­ing, I’ve de­cided that he looks like lo­cal Me­di­a­corp ac­tor, Chen Han­wei. He strikes me as an ar­tic­u­late beng— speak­ing in a brusque man­ner that’s both en­dear­ing and alarm­ing to non-Sin­ga­pore­ans and us­ing words like ‘non­cha­lance’ in a sen­tence. As a veteran pho­tog­ra­pher, Mak has led sev­eral groups on many pho­tog­ra­phy tours around the world. To­day, he in­tro­duces his two fe­male mod­els for a shoot in Xing­ping Old Town. He tells me that the non-lo­cal mod­els usu­ally know how to pose. One of them, who has a beauty mark near her eye, is some­one Mak hired be­fore and the other is new to this.

Dressed in match­ing qi­paos and car­ry­ing paper um­brel­las, the mod­els start pos­ing by a boarded-up old house. The women know how to speak to the cam­era as they make small ad­just­ments to their pos­ture and where they face. The newer of the two sees a bi­cy­cle parked by another house. She walks up to it and holds on to the han­dles for another round of cam­eras click­ing.

One of the pho­tog­ra­phers is a Cam­bo­dian tech­ni­cian working in Sin­ga­pore. He says he’d rather shoot land­scapes but he’ll give shoot­ing peo­ple a go. Some­one ges­tures for Beauty Mark to stand un­der­neath the green-tiled eave.

The architecture of Xing­ping is as much a char­ac­ter as the mod­els. Recog­nis­able by their slop­ing roofs and carved win­dows, the high walls of the build­ings are as much prag­matic as they are aes­thetic. Called horse­head walls, these Hui de­signs are a de­ter­rent against spread­ing fire es­pe­cially in a densely pop­u­lated neigh­bour­hood like Xing­ping. These Ming and Qing dy­nas­tic build­ings were con­structed over 100 years ago and they still house fam­i­lies. In one of the 48 res­i­dences, we see one that has three elderly women play­ing a sort of rummy game. Ig­nor­ing our pres­ence, they chat and scru­ti­nise

To have some­thing go ac­cord­ing to plan is like set­ting all the tum­blers

in a lock to align.

their Chi­nese char­ac­ter hand of slim ob­long cards. They don’t voice a com­plaint even when we start tak­ing their pic­tures. Ev­ery­body in Xing­ping is used to in­ter­lop­ers. Cor­morant fishing was big in the old days. These trained birds would dive into the wa­ters to catch fish. A snare tied near the vase of the fowl’s throat re­stricts it from swal­low­ing the big­ger fishes, which the fish­er­man would re­trieve from its throat. But bet­ter fishing meth­ods have sur­faced and the pop­u­lar­ity of cor­morant fishing waned due to the low yield of fish in the re­gion. But these fish­er­men, who were raised in this trade, have kept their out­fits, their rafts and their cor­morants just so that they can be utilised in a dif­fer­ent man­ner—mod­el­ling.

When we ap­proach an islet along the Li River, a shoe­less Huang Yue Chuang, a fa­mous face in those cor­morant fishing pic­tures you’ve prob­a­bly seen, is sit­ting on his mod­est-look­ing bam­boo raft. Two cor­morants, black and beady-eyed, stare at us like school delin­quents spoil­ing for a fight. Huang, with his long wispy beard and tooth­less smile, stands to meet us. Then he grabs one of the cor­morants by the neck, dumps it into the dull jade-coloured wa­ters and puts the bird on a stand where it spreads its wings. Huang turns his head to the side as he stands sure­footed and holds his pose as the pho­tog­ra­phers start fir­ing away.

Ev­ery­body in Xing­ping is used to in­ter­lop­ers.

I’m a lit­tle con­flicted. Does the cor­morant ex­pe­ri­ence pain when it has its neck grabbed like that? Does the bird mind when the barest equiv­a­lent of wa­ter­board­ing is per­formed on it? A lit­tle dig­ging re­veals that hold­ing the cor­morant by the neck is ac­tu­ally the gen­tlest method of hold­ing the an­i­mal. Also, it’s not un­com­mon to see a cor­morant dip it­self into the wa­ter as it keeps them hy­drated and while see­ing the bird spread its wings makes for a great photo op, it’s only to dry its wings. Even when the cam­era isn’t trained on them, the fish­er­man would dunk the cor­morant into the wa­ter re­gard­less, just to keep the bird hy­drated.

The cor­morants aren’t the only an­i­mal we had to shoot. There was also an ed­u­cated ox in Tian Xin vil­lage that is able to stop and pose on com­mand, just long enough for us to take a shot. The beast and its han­dler, a farmer (or some­one who dresses like one), slowly make their way over a small stone bridge where they stop to pose. It’s pic­turesque—the re­flec­tion in the wa­ter of the bridge, sky and moun­tain­ous back­ground—it al­most feels like cheat­ing.

I’ve been pon­der­ing about that since the start of the trip. Get­ting a good pho­to­graph usu­ally re­quires equal amounts of tal­ent and dumb luck. But now, cam­era tech has ad­vanced to such a stage where even your smart­phone is able to take a de­cent photo and there are edit­ing tools that can fur­ther en­hance your image. And shots these days are set up for you. Mak has con­nec­tions, stringers all over the world that can get you the props, model and ac­cess to lo­ca­tions. So, is it cheat­ing? That we had the where­withal to snap an image that pro­fes­sion­als used to have to wait for to get? I don’t see it that way. It’s much eas­ier, yes but it’s also harder. With the same sort of avail­able re­sources, ev­ery­body’s pho­tos will look sim­i­lar. Stand­ing in the same spot, tak­ing with the same aper­ture, your photo and others look like the same post­card at the sou­venir shop.

So, that’s where the tal­ent and in­ven­tive­ness comes in. You’re try­ing to set your­self apart from the others. There’s some­thing about go­ing on a pho­tog­ra­phy tour; you’re sud­denly in­jected with this yen to take bet­ter pho­tos. You’re think­ing about how to frame the shots, when to take it. Tak­ing my cue from Henri Cartier-Bres­son, I take a lot of im­promptu shots, try­ing to cap­ture the ‘de­ci­sive mo­ment’. Many are ter­ri­ble but I feel that I cap­ture a few that I am pleased with. Am I a bet­ter pho­tog­ra­pher? I doubt it but it’s a start. On the morn­ing of the fi­nal day of the tour, we are up early to cap­ture the sun­rise at Xiang­gong Moun­tain. The land­mark, sit­u­ated west of the Li River, be­came a pop­u­lar pho­to­graphic spot when an in­trepid pho­tog­ra­pher reached the peak and took a photo of the view and got the bronze in an in­ter­na­tional photo com­pe­ti­tion for his trou­ble. We are told that hard­core pho­togs would ar­rive at 4.30am to se­cure their spots for pho­to­tak­ing. It is four in the a.m., still dark as we as­cend each un­even step of the stair­case. By the time we get to the top, there are al­ready a good num­ber of pho­tog­ra­phers with their cam­eras and their tripods who have claimed their spot.

Some of the peo­ple on the tour try to squeeze through the crowd; some of the pho­tog­ra­phers bark­ing back at them in Man­darin, telling them not to move their tri­pod. Some of the Sin­ga­pore­ans try to pla­cate them—an apol­ogy here, an ex­cuse there—the ten­sion be­comes so thick that you could cut it with any Chi­nese pho­tog­ra­pher’s ra­zor re­tort. A scuf­fle al­most breaks out when an itin­er­ant lo­cal tries to si­dle her way in front of a pho­tog­ra­pher’s spot.

But in wait­ing for the sun to rise, there is noth­ing to do but make con­ver­sa­tion with the other pho­tog­ra­phers. The ice melts as the ex­change gets warmer, with some of them even of­fer­ing tips on how to shoot, what aper­ture to use. The di­a­logue even takes a turn from the pro­fes­sional, ven­tur­ing into top­ics of where one was from, where else has that per­son shot at. A buzzing sound oc­curs over­head; some­one is op­er­at­ing a drone.

I remember the scene re­ally well, even though I didn’t take a pic­ture of it. It made an im­pres­sion on me—when the first rays fi­nally cut through the morn­ing mist and strangers were of one ac­cord as the cho­rus of cam­era clicks rise to a frenzy.

Dusk at Cuip­ing Hill, Yang­shuo.

Lo­cal mod­els at Tian Xin vil­lage. The ox has so much per­son­al­ity that we sus­pect it might get its own movie.

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