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Street Photography in China

Chongqing – A Little Seen Part of China

By Colin Jones

No shortage of people here
Chongqing, China 2004. Sony F717

China is a country that has drawn more and more attention lately for many reasons, but only a few parts of the country are well known by foreigners. Chances are you know someone who has been to Beijing or Hong Kong or one of the other major metropolises that lie along the eastern side of China where many of the cities have been assimilated into the international community. Those who do venture westward into the country often go to Guilin, Yunnan or Xian and further on to Tibet with the major tourist routes, while for a fortunate few they may find themselves in the lesser known and areas in the middle of China.

You have to be ready to climb some stairs in this mountain city.
Chongqing, China, 2008 Leica M6 TTL with 35mm f2 Summicron ver.3 lens, Ilford XP2

One such area is the Chongqing municipality. Known by Chinese for its spicy food and spicy people, the area is situated on hills and mountains dotted with hundreds of small villages that are well isolated, some so well that even the Chongqing people don’t know about them. I’ve lived in Chongqing city for many years and become intimately familiar with its many hidden corners that are easily overlooked by passing tourists and Chinese from other parts of the country. In that time I have taken many photographs of the city and surrounding rural areas with a focus on street life, fast paced changes and normal day to day activities.

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The City

Sorting through the rubble of buildings cleared to make way for modern skyscrapers
is a typical source of income for “countryside people” as they are called here.
Chongqing, China 2007 – Canon 5D with 17-40mm F4 L lens

When a well traveled Norwegian friend of mine first arrived in Chongqing city (hereby Chongqing) he somewhat jokingly mentioned that it is the ugliest city he had ever seen, and with good cause. At first Chongqing seems like a disaster of effortless apartment buildings and gray concrete. With a distinct lack of sunlight or anything green you might think you have entered what could be one of the most depressing places in the world. It’s no wonder his Norwegian language travel guide book said there was no real reason to go to Chongqing except to take a boat somewhere else. He was not very impressed at first and I am sure he wondered why this was the location I insisted be his first stop on his first trip to China.

Workers in a small factory room making machine parts.
Chongqing, China 2006 – Voigtlnder Bessa R2a with Leitz 5cm f3.5 red scale lens, Fuji Superia 200

Chongqing is a melting pot of the surrounding rural areas and neighboring provinces with a population of over 9 million, though this number is in dispute because of the large number of countryside people coming into the city every year. The population is said to be as high as 15 million in the urban areas. Located where the Jialing and Yangtze rivers meet on their course across the country towards Shanghai, this city is major port and magnet for people from the countryside looking for work. It most certainly is not a nice looking place, and sometimes I question why I have stayed here so long. Things in this city are many years behind the likes of Shanghai or Shenzhen and the social dilemmas are evident from the melding of so many different walks of life running unchecked in the city. Trying to explain all the cultural details of this city would be daunting, one could write books on the subject and maybe someday I will.

A bangbang (porter) carries a bed on the side of a street
while a mother holds her child who is using the sidewalk as a toilet.
Chongqing, China 2007 – Ricoh GR Digital

Chongqing is a place that has a lot of the old and the new. Towering skyscrapers next to dilapidated single floor cement houses, new BMW’s parked next to hand pulled food carts covered in cooking oil, women wearing posh clothes directing a porter in dirty ripped shorts where to put her things. This city certainly has enough ironic imagery, but irony aside it’s a place where two major and very different Chinese social structures coexist and proves to be a great opportunity to take some interesting photographs.

Three different types of buildings stand before new construction in the center of town.
Chongqing, China 2008 – Ricoh GR Digital

The people here are all very vocal about what they do, often it seems that people are yelling at each other when they are just having a conversation. The “city people” and those from the countryside are usually well divided socially and economically, yet seem to get along OK here thanks to a rather laid back attitude towards life. Meals often take many hours and it can seem as if you had just eaten before the next meal comes around. Many spend their off time playing cards and Mahjong or sitting around sipping tea and talking with friends. So many people do this in fact that it may seem that no one really works at all, yet somehow things get done here sometimes is a mystery. Yet with this spicy behavior conflictingly mixed with a laid back attitude there is a strange feeling of energy in this city that makes everything work together. When night comes street side markets and restaurants are the great equalizer of the class gap where the very rich and very poor can be seen out enjoying the Chongqing culinary specialties and locally brewed beer. At the end of the day, despite all their differences, the Chongqing people are passionate about living life one day at a time. No need to rush things around here where a late snack often lasts a good part of the night and you never know who you will run into.

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A Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

Old guy taking a good long look at me while sitting in front of a tea house
where the familiar clacking of Mahjong tiles can be heard.
Chongqing, China 2005 – Yashica GSN, Fuji Superia 400

I often find myself in the back alleys of the city in maze like neighborhoods that were never planned, simply built. These are a photographic gold mine where there is no lack of details about everyday life here. Often this is where you have to go to see the old China as things have not changed much in many decades. Sure things like TV’s and computers have found their way into some homes but on the outside things look very much the way they did before the wave of modern development hit this city.

Standing in the morning light reading the paper as a bangbang heads off to work.
Chongqing, China 2008 – Leica M6 TTL with 35mm f2 Summicron ver.3 lens, Ilford XP2

Taking photos in Chongqing really is not so difficult. The people here are usually open to me walking through their neighborhoods and often where part of the street may be part of someone’s house I never encounter problems. Being able to speak Mandarin and some of the local dialect goes a long ways to getting to see even deeper into the lives of the people here. Sometimes a short conversation is enough to get an invite into someone’s house to see a distinct detail they think I would be interested in.

In a tiny makeshift house where 5 people lived a girl shows off her stylish glasses.
Chongqing, China 2006 – Canon 20D with 17-40mm F4 L lens

The above picture I was able to take because I could speak a little to the people around the neighborhood I was in that would eventually become the site of the Chongqing Nail House (more on this later). Despite their heavy Chongqing accents we could talk about things going on and they spoke of how their family had lived in this rotting old house for several generations before when this part of the city was still farm land, and how the grand mother many years before first saw a white person during the second world war.

The Nail House
Chongqing, China 2007 – Yashica GSN, Ilford XP2

Chongqing people are known for being a little stubborn and in 2007 the whole world witnessed some of this attitude. Media in many countries reported on the Chongqing Nail House, the owners of the house not happy with the price that was offered to them for their land and stayed put while construction went on. Now a mall and apartment buildings are being built at the site since the situation was resolved. Before the house was popular in the media however I had already been visiting this neighborhood for a couple years snapping pictures and occasionally getting lunch at a restaurant that was eventually torn down as well.

The wall of an old apartment building had the usual mix of advertisements
for plumbers and fake ID’s.
Chongqing, China, 2008 – Canon 5D with 17-40mm F4 L lens

I think the people here like having their picture taken, a common thing that happens is when I am taking a photo of a little girl the mother comes running out to straighten the child’s clothes or hair so I can have a better picture, all the while everyone around laughing at the situation. Sometimes people will stop what they are doing and pose and for everyone it’s just a lighthearted moment in the day when someone took a picture of someone else. It’s my style to shoot first and ask questions later and I like to capture the moment and people make it easy here to do that…before they start posing that is.

I watched this guy load up this entire truck and took many pictures of it, he didn’t care.
Something to be said about that kind of laid back attitude.
Chongqing, China 2006 – Canon 20D with 17-40mm F4 L lens

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The Rural Areas are Different, But Not

Take the cities people count, add the rural, and the population of Chongqing jumps to over 32 million. Much of what can be said about the city can be said about the areas around it. In the countryside people live very laid back lives and it’s rare to see many people out at a time in the fields working yet somehow things get done. Since the area is mostly mountainous, epic landscapes untouched by heavy development can present themselves when not cloaked by relentless fog and pollution. It is very rare to see a day with blue skies and fluffy white clouds so landscape photography can be a little difficult and you usually have to accept that after a kilometer or two you won’t see very much in the gray.

Paper money burning for the dead and a person walking by in the farms around the city.
Zhongshan, Chongqing, China 2008 – Leica M6 TTL with 35mm f2 Summicron ver.3 lens, Ilford XP2

One of the charming things about the countryside here is the little villages with old wooden houses that can be found near the many rivers. Many of these villages are several hundred to several thousands of years old and make for a good time out with the camera, meandering along endless paths through the mountains until you find yourself at another small village with an obscure name that few know.

Typical interior of a village house in the countryside around Chongqing.
Tanghe, Chongqing, China 2006 –Voigtlander Bessa R2a
with Leitz 5cm f3.5 red scale lens, Ilford XP2

Wandering through these old towns is a deep look into a different time and life of China. Some places don’t even have such modern conveniences as roads but of course there is always the one person in the middle of nowhere that has a karaoke machine and is blaring out some horrid tune in the evening and I find myself with that feeling of being in the city where ironic can be a way of life.

An old style house with a few alterations for tourists.
Zhongshan, Chongqing, China 2008 – Leica M6 TTL
with 35mm f2 Summicron ver.3 lens, Fuji Superia 200

There are a few of the villages that have turned into tourist locations and many of those places have kept some of their old image but also been converted to serve the people who visit there. Normally when a village gets converted for tourism in China it looses much of what made it so special, but somehow much of what you see around Chongqing keeps its spark like the picture above in the most popular of these little tourist villages. The relaxed attitude is the same however, just as with the city, the people here like to take it easy.

People sitting around talking in the afternoon sun, a typical day.
Zhongshan, Chongqing, China 2008 – Leica M6 TTL
with 35mm f2 Summicron ver.3 lens, Ilford XP2

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What’s in The Bag?

For a long time the camera of choice for street photography has been a rangefinder, for me it was no different. I also use many other camera platforms in my work, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes because like many photographers I like to play with different equipment once in a while.

My main kit that I carry around all the time is a Leica M6 TTL or a Voigtlander Bessa R2a depending on my mood. Both cameras are very capable and have their own strengths and weaknesses so they both have a place in my bag. Lenses I use on these cameras are the Carl Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar and 28mm f2.8 Biogon, Voigtlander 35mm f2.5 Skopar, Leica 35mm f2 Summicron version 3 and an old screw mount 50mm f3.5 Elmar red scale.

A boy adds a little jump to make his toy fly higher.
Chongqing, China 2007 – Hasselblad 500C,
Carl Zeiss 50mm f4 Distagon, Kodak Portra 400 VC

Before I started using M mount rangefinders I had an old Canon AE1 with a 50mm f1.8 lens and the much loved Yashica GSN with its spectacular 45mm f1.7 Yashinon lens. I also have a varied assortment of other interesting or classic cameras that I use from time to time including a 100 year old Kodak folding pocket camera I modified to take 120 film and now produces a 6x15cm negative. All this is nice to have when I would like a change of pace.

Ducks off to the BBQ perhaps.
Chongqing, China 2005 – Yashica GSN, Ilford XP2

I also have a Canon digital system and found it to be a great workhorse but lacking in sensation and not until after shooting many tens of thousands of photos with it that I really missed the tactile feeling of older photographic equipment and started to buy into the Leica M mount system and made a transition back to a mostly film workflow. When I don’t want to carry my Canon gear around, which is quite often, a Ricoh GR Digital camera accompanies me. I would love to get a digital rangefinder like the Leica M8 but unfortunately I won’t be able to afford such a tool anytime soon.

Being photographed while taking a bath on the side of the street was making him cranky.
When I put the camera down he was fine,
the moment I picked it back up again he would start bawling.
Longtan, Chongqing, China 2005 – Canon 20D with 70-200mm f2.8 IS L lens

When I am out on the streets I tend to use hyperfocal settings on my rangefinders with the classic setup of 1/125th of a second with aperture set at f8 and focus set at about 2 meters while changing my shutter speed as I move into different light. This is a great way to work on the streets where everything moves fast and is one less thing to think about out there. My Ricoh GR Digital is set up in a similar way using the cameras unique SNAP mode. This kit and way of shooting has been a great companion for wandering the streets and countryside of Chongqing plus the rest of China.

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And so…

My Norwegian friend I mentioned before, he figured out what it is I and others who come to this city and the area around it find so interesting. Despite its chaotic mix of modern and old plus the influences of so many different types of people, something in the city just works. It is one of those places you can leave but think about a lot and return to only to find everything is different but still the same.

August, 2008

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Colin Jones is an American who has been living in Chongqing, China for the past 5 years. He works as a freelance photographer with a focus on photojournalism and commercial photography. When not around the streets of China he likes to dip his fingers in landscape photography around the American Pacific Northwest where he grew up. He can be reached at his email: avotius@yahoo.com


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Concepts: Leica Camera, Chongqing, Camera, People's Republic of China, Yangtze River, Beijing, Ricoh GR Digital, Leica M6

Entities: Hasselblad 500C, mountain city, Beijing, Hong Kong, Guilin, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing Nail House, Canon, GR Digital, Leica, BMW, Kodak, American Pacific, China, Tibet, Leitz, Carl Zeiss, Tanghe, Colin Jones, Voigtlander, Yangtze, Ducks, M8

Tags: Chongqing, China, Leica M6 TTL, Summicron ver.3 lens, China 2008, Chongqing city, cameras, Ricoh GR, countryside people, 35mm, Fuji Superia, Bessa R2a, Canon 20D, Chongqing municipality, red scale lens, Yashica GSN, Ilford, apartment building, heavy chongqing accents, picture, Ricoh GR Digital, Canon 5D, Norwegian friend, small village, rural areas, Carl Zeiss, different types, Nail House, landscape photography, old china, rangefinders, Voigtlnder Bessa R2a, city people, old canon ae1, u2013voigtlander bessa r2a, time playing cards, dirty ripped shorts, old style house, old wooden houses, old apartment building