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China: Portrait of a People

Photojournalist Tom Carter spent two years capturing China’s people and their lives through his camera lenses.

By Mike Revzin / August 27, 2010


In China: Portrait of a People, Tom Carter shows us that there are actually dozens of Chinas.

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The American photojournalist spent two years traveling 35,000 miles through every province of China by bus, boat, train, mule, motorcycle, and on foot.

What he found is a country with dramatic regional differences. There are 56 major ethnic groups, each with its own language and customs. The climate ranges from the bitter cold northeast – near North Korea and Siberia – to tropical areas adjacent to Vietnam.

In this softcover book (900 photos, fitted into a compact 6” by 6 “ format), each province has its own chapter with a brief introduction. Some describe the region’s history, others tell the first-person story of a local resident, and yet others recount the author’s travel adventures.

Here’s what Carter writes of his winter visit to Heilongjiang Province, near Siberia: “I never in my life felt colder,” he says, adding that two elderly women, seeing him shaking uncontrollably on a bus, wrapped him in their coats.

Some photo captions are just a couple of words, others offer more details. For example, a photo of a smiling woman in Anhui Province says, “Poultry farmer slits a chicken’s throat, and has fun while doing it. The blood is saved, left to coagulate, and eaten as a nutritious snack.”

Carter’s photos and descriptions capture everything from stunning scenery to the warmth of family life to the sleazy sex trade to the growing discontent with government policies.

In Hubei Province, for instance, an antidevelopment protest banner declares that the locals “won’t give their land to rich people.”

Economic reforms have improved the lives of most Chinese, but have also increased the gap between rich and poor, as Carter notes in his comment on Shanghai: “This is truly a market-driven municipality, where chic Chinese toast their newly made fortunes with cocktails that cost more than a peasant farmer’s monthly income.”

In Hangzhou, “A street cleaner, whose annual salary is US$800, is caught daydreaming in front of a luxury-car dealer.”

There are shocking photos, as well, such as those showing deformed beggars and a sidewalk dentist in Xinjiang pulling a patient’s tooth with a pair of pliers.
Some of Carter’s best works are photos of the old and the young.

Among the old are “gossiping grannies” in an old Shanghai neighborhood, a 94-year-old woman who has never left her village and gap-toothed peasants.
A youngster with pink hair and teenagers with nose rings are among scenes showing dramatic departures from the days of Maoist conformity.

A couple of shots are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face: A little girl grinning as she feeds her baby sister a mouthful of rice with her chopsticks and a baby getting a ride on a pushcart full of fruit.

Sometimes it is the contrast between the young and the old that is most intriguing – such as a photo of a modern teenaged girl shopping, placed next to a photo of an elderly woman whose feet were bound in childhood.

There are some shots that could have been taken generations ago – of farmers carrying heavy burdens on shoulder poles or guiding plows pulled by water buffalo.

Carter captures scenes that attest to the variety of religions in China – veiled Muslim women of the northwest, a Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim prostrating himself, and a Chinese Catholic woman weeping in front of an effigy of the Virgin Mary.

Most of the writing is clever, such as Carter’s description of a popular national park in Sichuan Province, where “chaotic convoys of tour buses carry around droves of red hat-wearing Chinese tour groups trapped in their diesel prisons.” Once in a while, however, there is phrasing that seems to come from a dull social studies textbook: “As a result of 5,000 years of geographical expansion and assimilation, China has come to recognize 56 official Chinese nationalities within its boundaries.”

And one quibble: the introductory pages are printed in white text on red paper, making them a bit difficult to read.

The first-person stories of local people and the regional histories would have made nice additions to every chapter. More important, Carter’s adventures were so remarkable, it would be nice to hear of his experiences in every province, rather than just in a select few.

Perhaps his next project could be a companion book to this volume – with a full narrative of what he had to go through to take these remarkable photographs.

Mike Revzin is a journalist who worked in China.

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