On Photography: The Photos I Never Took
It was not until the spring of 2009 that I got serious about photography. If there is any wonder what the catalyst was that drew me towards photography I can point to one thing. On a regular basis I had images imprinted into my mind while experiencing life in China.
The very name of this website speaks to my experience of seeing things that are just part of daily life in China but which stand out to me as odd, absurd, unbelievable and certainly not part of the reality of my family and friends from my home upbringing.
To see people shoveling oily noodles into their mouths as they quickly walked to school or work was a daily sight in Yichang as I made my way to work on foot or by taxi. I didn't know how they managed. I found that the clumpy noodles would splash me when I ate them. The hot oily soup would stain and burn my lips. They somehow managed to do this and avoid all of the body checking, traffic, and mess that is the morning commute on any Chinese street. Alas, I never had a camera handy when I was seeing this. Still, it is an indelible sight in my memory. Just as surrealist painting carry deep psychological meaning, so too can China be viewed.
Another sight that I never photographed was from 2006 while I was working at a high school in Jiangsu Province on the east coast of China. There were rare occasions when we would lose electric power in the classroom. I always taught in the late afternoon before their dinner time. When this happened, the students didn't celebrate this as if it enacted some imaginary rule that exempted them from their studies. Instead they pulled out candles from their desks. A few students had large rescue style flashlights. They then proceeded to fill in their newsprint practice exams by candle light.
Later on, I would joke with other teachers that this was not China. This is Sparta. The deeper romanticized cultural value of the Chinese to achieve greatness through toil, suffering, and personal sacrifice (and consider it a normal part of life) is present in modern society. They praise hardworking people by saying (Ni xinku le 你辛苦了）which doesn't have a direct English equivalent but literally translates to, "You are eating bitterness." Ask a Chinese friend about this and watch as they try to downplay the meaning as just a figurative expression. Read anything about 20th century Chinese history for more than 20 minutes and draw your own conclusion.
Such an image of students studying by candle light as they are still held responsible for their studies despite whatever conditions might pose as an obstacle, is a scene relegated to the past. Today's smartphones have LCD screens and flashlight attachments bright enough to light a group of students' desks with the added benefit of not singeing any eyebrows.