Without an H

Photography from south-east Asia by Jon Sanwell

Yuanyang portraits

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Yuanyang is best known for its landscape; the rice terraces attract legions of (mostly Chinese) tourists and photographers.  It’s all very organized, with ticketed viewing stations for the best, or most popular, sunset and sunrise views.  Some of the villages in the area are similarly contrived, newly built, or newly re-built, ‘heritage sites’ where women in ethnic garb wait to demand money from passing snappers.  Like me, for instance.  I’m not claiming to be above all the artifice, but I am aware of it, and it has an effect on my experience and perceptions.  My landscape pictures aren’t any worse for being taken from a wooden platform, but I’d feel a little more smug about them if I’d taken them knee-deep in mud after a four-hour trek.

Some of my favourite portraits from Yuanyang were taken in the town of Luomadian.  It’s not an especially picturesque place, nor is it particularly off the beaten track, but it seems to have been overlooked by the People’s Heritage Preservation Committee, and there were plenty of friendly people happy to indulge the tall, clumsy foreigner with his big camera, foolish smile and hopeless Chinese.  While the landscape in Yuanyang is very similar to places I’ve visited in nearby northern Vietnam, the people I encountered in the town seemed to me to be very much Chinese, or at least Yunnanese, in style and character, and they lacked the resignation apparent in some of the people in the heritage villages.

I’m not on a quest for authenticity.  I’ve little time for people who say, “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller.”  But as a European in Asia, there are some things which make me feel uncomfortable, and I’m trying to acknowledge them here.  Whether the existence of a certain amount of contrivance makes my photographs any better or worse is open to question.  Some of the pictures in this post were taken in unassuming Luomadian, some were taken in a heritage village.  Can you tell the difference?  Does it matter?

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13 Responses to “Yuanyang portraits”

  1. sisteranan

    i think i can tell which subjects are ‘posed’ and which are spontaneous, but i wasn’t there. What i am really struck with is the complete accuracy of your exposures and the resultant color saturations, which are breathtaking. Thank you, some of these photos will stay with me for a long time.

    Reply
  2. dalo2013

    With the great photos, it is clear you have a great rapport with your subjects…and as you say, spoken language may not be important. Great shots.

    Reply
  3. themodernidiot

    if your heart and your subjects’ hearts shows in every one, everything else matters little. we are all residents of the world

    Reply
  4. smallpebbles

    The ONE face shows through all the diversity, lovely that diversity too! And the photos sing! Thanks for the beauty!! …kai

    Reply
  5. Howie Cobb

    Love the colour on the lady’s smock on the last picture. Great set of pictures Jon and I agree with you on the ‘I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller’ standpoint. They are usually the most invasive people.

    Reply
  6. PaulMac

    Incredible pictures as usual, Jon.
    I love the framing in each one, especially the first two by including the doors.

    Reply
  7. Andrew

    Excellent photos. Genuine emotional engagement is the differentiator between posed / paid and natural / spontaneous. Good light helps too. I’m just back from 10 days photography in Cambodia. Very few people expected payment but I did hear the chant “one photo, one dollar”. I made a few donations but never to those who asked. Better to move on. Most people were shocked and grateful if given $5.

    Reply
  8. Whiff

    Interesting stuff. I definitely think your photos have improved over the 4 or 5 years you lived in Vietnam but whose to say if that’s because you gained a greater understanding of the country and its people or just because you had the time to devote to photography and trying to become a better photographer.

    Reply

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