China street photography can deliver some amazing shots, like nothing you’ve seen before. There’s some pretty crazy stuff in China! Markets, Chinglish, interesting Characters and fashion. Here’s 4 ways you can go beyond nice traveller photos to the kind of street photography a pro would be proud to put in their portfolio.
Street photography is one of the most candid forms of photography, and, while there are many places that allow you to capture some of the most poignant images, China street photography has a richness all its own.
Unfortunately, though, many people are unaware of the social and cultural norms that can influence their experiences with street photography in China.
As a result, they are unable to completely capture that richness. It’s easy to go home with mediocre tourist shots.
Having said that, here are 4 things to remember when taking on street photography in China:
Check With the Locals First
Assuming that you weren’t born and raised and China, when you set out on your quest to photograph some of China’s most compelling scenes, you will be a stranger in a strange land.
That is to say, you will be completely unfamiliar with the culture. Furthermore, the natives will view you as an outsider.
Consequently, you’ll need to tread lightly if you plan on snapping photos of the locals and surrounding structures; after all, there are laws in place which forbid photographing certain things everywhere you go.
In order to prevent any misunderstandings, then, you should make a habit out of checking with locals before you begin taking pictures.
Over the years we’ve lived in China, we find being super excited, supper enthusiastic, and over the top friendly works. Have fun with people, show some image, engage!
Capture the Diversity
China is home to 56 different ethnic groups.
To be fair here, however, the “Fifth National Population Census of 2000” reported that “Han Chinese account for 91.59% of the overall population.”
Even so, if you do the math, you quickly realize that there are millions of Chinese natives who belong to at least one of the other 55 ethnic groups.
Although many of these peoples live apart from each other, there is no reason that you can’t capture images of Chinese natives from a multitude of different ethnic backgrounds. You just have to take the time to seek them out.
Capturing interesting subcultures and tribes takes a great deal of time. It’s best to find a foreigner involved in antropology, or hire an expat photographer who speaks Chinese and who’s come to know people personally in such places. Doing so will gain you access to villages or peoples homes few foreigners have ever seen. You’ll go home with images rich in diversity, images few tourists have.
Get the Urban & Rural Perspectives
Not only does China boast a plethora of different ethnic groups, but it also has a huge rural population.
To be sure, that rural population is shrinking due to urbanization, and the majority of Chinese people live in cites today. Still, rural areas abound in China, and, perhaps, needless to say, rural life differs vastly from urban life.
China’s rural economy, for instance, is “about forestry, fishing, construction, and the production of bricks and cement.” Further still, rural China, unlike urban China, “has large pockets of poverty and deprivation.”
Because of this stark contrast between urban life and rural life in China, documenting only one of these perspectives would seem disingenuous of any street photographer.
China is much bigger than Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong. Get out into remote paddy fields, capture an environment portrait of a farmer in his barn, a labourer walking home in a mud brick house village street.
Venture Off the Beaten Path
If you’ve ever taken a guided tour of a city or monument, you know that these types of tours are usually curated (i.e. censored) in order to paint a pretty picture. It’s not that the government mandates such tours, more the cultural difference between the Chinese tour operator staff, and what they perceive as interesting or clean enough for foreigners.
A good friend of mine is involved in consulting for tour operators, training guides and trying to drive forward change China inbound tourism. In his words,
“It doesn’t matter if you hire Chinese or overseas tour operator, the development and delivery is by the local Chinese operators, who like to keep you inside their prescribed itineraries Even their custom tour is really a shelf product with your name on it. Beware ‘Photography Tours, just about all are standard tours with standard guides, written for search engines”
Such curation, however, can limit you as a photographer; there are many places and peoples that you will not get to see if you don’t sniff out a few hidden gems of your own.
That said, don’t just walk the streets of Beijing or Shanghai in hopes of capturing the most candid pictures. Discover the places that people rarely talk about and go where people seldom go. Get insider help, unless you have weeks and weeks to explore.
Getting the Most out of Street Photography in China
If you haven’t guessed by now, getting the most out of China street photography (or any street photography for that matter) is a matter of immersion, discovery, and a dollop of effort.
In other words, you have to be willing to learn about the country, and research interesting locations. You need to be willing to get lost in backstreets in order to get the best shots.
If you’re not willing to do at least that much, the quality of your photography will suffer for it. Get an insider help, avoid ‘Chinese travel agencies’ or if your going solo on a budget, you’ll need to linger longer, visiting less destinations, spending a few weeks to really uncover interesting areas off the tourist track.
What’s your experience of China street photography? Share with us in the comments, we’d love to see links to your images…