In the late summer of 2017, I got the opportunity to visit Ningbo for work. Though I had been to China the prior year, nothing had prepared me for life amongst the sometimes enigmatic (to me at least) “Chinaman”. Needless to say, being there for an entire year was a much…. much different experience.
It is not news that the Chinese have a particular view of foreigners, especially black people. I stuck out like a black dot in a vast field of snow viewed from an earth-orbiting satellite. For the entire year during my stay, I got the exact same stares and finger pointing, day in day out. Not entirely used to the newfound intense attention, I used photography to cope. It was where I truly developed my taste for photography. I also discovered myself.
Initially, it was a defense mechanism. I would sometimes catch passer by’s secretly snapping photos of me or even following me while recording me then act as though they were completely oblivious to my presence once I caught them. I thought to myself “well, give them a taste of their own medicine, stick a camera in their faces! That’ll teach them!”. Strangely enough, though, I soon discovered I wasn’t as bold of a street photographer as I thought I was or as bold as the person I actually was back home. See, true street photography often requires an intrusive level of shamelessness that would allow a willing “tog” to capture some amazing candid stuff. Unconsciously, I started with a series of crosswalk chronicles or even what I called “the faceless people of China”.
Sure to some extent, I was happy with the crappy faceless photos I was getting, but I felt disconnected with the people and most likely they were in the same boat. During that same period, I took a serious interest in the work of Henry Cartier Bresson. I quickly realized that in order to achieve a higher level in my “photographic journey”, I would have to get over that wall, that invisible yet present fear. So I decided to use that wall to my advantage. I hit the streets with the intention of making all sorts of connections. You look at me, I’m asking you to let me take a photograph. Now, for the record let me state that though I was on this I don’t give a f*ck warpath, they did not make it easy. Yet another wall dropped down like a care package and stopped me in my tracks: they wanted to take photos of me but refused to be photographed… What?!
Somehow I found this challenge amusing. It developed this sense of communicative finesse in me that I was rather proud of. I became much more observant, much more cunning so to speak, rather manipulative. I enjoyed the various expressions I got; surprise, anger, joy, insecurity.
I shared a lot of those traits and I never really knew or at least admitted it to myself. But by overcoming these barriers, I was able to experience some of the greatest joys of my life. I met amazing people, shared meals with complete strangers, faced some pretty harsh preconceived notions about China’s way of life, all of which developed an even more insatiable appetite for more journeys of self-discovery. Because through photography, through people, I discover myself.