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CHINA: Portrait of a People, a photo book by Tom Carter
Reviewed by Han Liang

altCan anyone tell me how many roads there are in this world? For some, there is only one road, the one they choose to go. They follow someone’s footsteps and become someone else’s footsteps. For others, there are many roads, all to Rome, to fame, to wealth, and finally to death. But for Tom Carter, there is no road. He rarely follows anyone’s footsteps. He makes his own.

Ever since graduation from university, Tom has been a gypsy drifting with camera as his eyes and feet travel the maps. From the self-seeking Latino culture trip in Mexico, Central-America and Cuba to the heart-and-soul-seeking trip to China and the rest of Asia (he hits the ground running for India in the coming two years), he has always been on the road. No matter the county road which took him to the images of striking poverty and hardship of a nineteenth century wasteland or the city street which led him to the avant-garde artists’ portrait of an era of post-modernity. It’s a long way around, far away from the main street.


altHe also left some footsteps, by himself and for himself, which turned out to his first book CHINA: Portrait of a People. “Page-turner” is probably a cliché describing every new book and for that reason I won’t use it to demolish Tom’s book. You may be disappointed by his debut show, if you are looking for National-Geography-style landscapes in China like the Great Wall, Three Gorges and Terra-Cotta Warriors, for Tom is neither a landscapist nor a typical photographer. A photographer of his kind captures the faces of Chinese people—probably every sense of humanity—tears, smiles, gaiety, gloom, pride, prejudice, agony, embarrassment, worry and all the other forms of human emotions.

altI found some interesting comments online on Tom’s photos and his book. A seemingly professional photographer asked: these feel like above average holiday photos taken with a point and shoot. While the composition in some of his photos is good, where’s the sharpness, color, depth of field, and clever use of light? Immediately one of Tom’s defenders fought back: “Don’t be the snob! Depth of field and clever use of light does not a good photographer make. I think it is the whole point of this book: an ordinary guy with an ordinary camera who did a very un-ordinary thing: travel to all provinces in China and take pictures of it all. So you snob photographers can go back to your photo club and discuss depth of field. I’m going to travel like this guy! ”

altChina has so many people with lives so varied and a history so rich and complex that no outsiders can fully grasp—nor perhaps even insiders. But Tom, to some extent, ended this mission impossible with great triumph. Therefore Tom deserves a proud defense and faithful fans. To be honest as Chinese I feel ashamed when I finished reading Tom’s book. It’s partially from him that I want to understand the real China, a China that might be hard to imagine even for Chinese. In his book, I have finally had the chance to pass again and again through the country I live in, to explore its corners and secrets, to look into the eyes of those people who were only passed by chance.

People said Tom’s 640-page book of photography CHINA: Portrait of a People is the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author, but I’m more curious about our hero behind such an epic. As far as I know, Tom is a foreigner who barely speaks Chinese. Yet those people, no matter the showy monks in Henan, the hot pub DJ in Beijing, the guileless coal miner in Shanxi, the sober pilgrim in Tibet, or the angel-like Uigur girl in Xinjiang, they all allowed him to shot in an incredibly short distance, some were even face-to-face. Why? Because they fully trusted him, and he purely “felt the connection between himself and Chinese people”. (This sentence by Tom Carter is a thousand times more powerful than that made by President Obama to President Hu)

altAmerican writer Joseph Epstein once said, “We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide so that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. And as we decide and choose so are our lives formed. ” That’s true with Tom. He made choices, not comprises. He decided what was important to him rather than letting others to point it out for him. He endured the unendurable, like sleeping in flop-houses and on bus station floors throughout his 2-year adventure across China, but still refused to submit his photos of a riot in Hunan to the local police. And now he is making another decision that may form his life in the coming few years, which is to backpack in India, a country where Slumdog Millionaire is more than just an Oscar Award winning film.

altHe “intends to photograph all 35 states/territories and traverse as much of India’s 3.3 million square kilometers as possible. It may take a couple of years, but I won't rest until I have created the definitive India photo book, something any single author has yet to do.” You see? That’s the Tom I know.

I’ve seen him only once on a chilly winter afternoon last January in Beijing. He told me he was leaving, “I’ve seen everything and done everything in China. I want to experience more of the world. I thrive on new experience...that’s my nature.” The 35-year-old laughed like a child, with his baseball cap, T-shirt, jacket and pants which had accompanied him during his two-year novel-like life in China.

altIt’s been several years now, since he left the political life in Washington which he had so deeply believed in, and now he’s getting back on the road again. Maybe someday he’ll settle down, but for now he still has to find his way. There are so many people in this world. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. And there are still others like Tom who takes the long way around, becomes a legend himself.



alt从大学毕业,汤姆就成了流浪的吉普赛。镜头是眼睛的延伸,双脚在地图上行走。 不论是墨西哥,中美洲和古巴的自我发现之旅,还是到中国的心灵发现之旅,或是他即将开始的亚洲之旅(他已经开始了为期两年的印度之旅),汤姆一直在路上。乡间小路带他走入19世纪的贫瘠与苦楚,城市大道引他进入先锋艺术家的后现代画作。不论如何,他总是另辟蹊径,远离主流。




人们说汤姆的摄影集是由单个作者出版、关于当代中国的最全面影集,足足640页厚度。而更让我好奇的是这史诗背后的英雄。据我所知,汤姆只懂一点中文。可他镜头下的人们,无论是表现欲很强的少林和尚,还是火辣的北京酒吧DJ, 不论是一脸朴实的山西矿工,还是天使一般的回族女孩儿,他们都允许汤姆近距离拍照,有时就是面对面。这是为什么?因为他们完全信任汤姆,而汤姆也发自内心地把自己和中国人连在一起。(这句话由汤姆说出来由也许比美国总统奥巴马说给胡锦涛主席更让人信服)





Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 March 2009 20:13

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