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Travel Story

Camera in the Pack: Finding Photographic Relief in Asia




I never thought it could be so hard to photograph people while travelling. I guess my misperception of it all has to do with the fact that I had never really travelled off the continent before this last summer, and my camera was usually pointed at rock climbers dangling off of the cliffs of Squamish.

I had been all over North America, and even hopped a plane to Cuba, but it wasn’t until last summer that I took flight with only a backpack in tote to try my hand at travel photography. Unbeknownst to me, capturing the intimate, endearing images of people in far-flung places was to remain a mystery for some time.

About the third week of my trip, while I was in Cambodia, I considered giving up. How did photographers get such intimate images of people, when the locals most often ran for cover or shoo’ed me away the moment my camera came out? Of course, looking back, I guess it made sense – my huge contraption of black metal and polished glass was pretty intimidating. And on top of the challenge of not freaking people out, I didn’t want to offend anyone. Despite the zooming capacity of my big lens, I didn’t want to just take and not give back, in whatever small way that might be.

A month later, I discovered a trick. In China, on a trek between villages perched high up in the rice-terraced mountainsides southeast of Longsheng, in Guangxi Province, I had an instructive chance encounter. Coming down from a forested pass into a small grouping of homes, I immediately spied two Zhuang minority youngsters, brothers probably, playing beside what was likely their home.

Their father — I’m guessing — was a stone’s throw away in a small plot of rice, turning the soil. After the kids saw the lou wei (foreigner) approaching, they immediately pulled down their pants, and danced and giggled. Their father, embarrassed I suppose, yelled something their way in a rapid and serious, yet half-chuckling tone. The kids replaced their clothes, but continued to laugh, even started to fall over in their humour.

My attempts in Mandarin at "hellos," "my name is…" and "I’m from Canada" etc. only managed to bump up their amusement. And yet whenever I stopped, their giggles slowed and their eyes cleared — they were waiting for my next move so they could howl even more. This went on for some time, 20 minutes perhaps, during which I remembered I had some cinnamon gum. After a moment’s hesitation, they popped the sticks of gum into their mouths, and began chewing. Laughing stopped momentarily when the supercharged flavour of the gum hit their sensitive gums and their eyes grew to twice their normal size, but after a few chews each, they were back on track. At this point, I unveiled a new item for them to explore — a big, fancy looking piece of high-tech wizardry.