The summer project was set just as I was preparing for my trip to China, so I began to explore how I could incorporate the Beijing experience into some form of art photo assignment to meet the brief. With the schedule very intense on the trip there was little scope or time for anything meticulously pre planned, however opportunities I was certain would arise during our travels and excursions if I could decide on a theme. Initial inspiration for the project came from Susan Sontag. This is perhaps an unusual source for me as I was struggling to read her book – On Photography – and much of it was making little sense. This I’m sure was in part to the lack of sleep since arriving in Beijing mostly due to the jet lag (7 hours time difference) but at least some of my difficulty was due to the book being somewhat of a task. The section of the book that inspired me and set me on a course to follow was about the rise of the cheap portable camera and the parallel rise in popular tourism. Sontag was describing how tourists travel to exotic places, stand in front of a landmark, turn their back on the landmark whilst someone takes their photo with the landmark in the background. A quick look around me at any of the sights we were visiting confirmed that the practice was still exercised by many people from all over the world.
Immediately I thought of Nigel Gimmers work, ‘Nigel Doll’ where Nigel replaced himself with a doll constructed to look like him, at lots of landmark places thus taking the posed tourist photo in a new direction. In Nigel’s case he was obviously at the landmarks as he took the photographs of his doll, but he had substituted himself for a facsimile.
I liked this idea but didn’t have a Graham Doll to substitute myself with so I decided to carry on observing to see if a solution would present itself. On a trip to the Emperors Forbidden City my project moved forward. Whilst watching my fellow travellers from the University I observed that ‘well practiced’ little ritual of posing in front of a landmark and noted that there was a variation not described by Sontag. This involves stretching your arm at full length whilst holding your own camera or camera phone pointing towards you and taking the picture yourself of yourself. There were some tourists who had a short attachable stick that allowed them to move their camera further away from their faces thus adding more background in their photo. The ‘selfie’ had apparently evolved.
Continuing to watch my posing fellows, three students grouped together to try and take a group selfie, when suddenly three more people jumped into the photo at the last second. This is called ‘bombing’. An internet search revealed some great bombed photos but some of the best were from animals jumping in at the last moment. I was astounded that in many of these animal bomb photos the interjecting animal appeared to be smiling, mimicking the behaviour of humans!
With an absolute plethora of tourists to watch and several different locations to visit over the next few days I began looking for variations on the bombing theme. An interesting twist came when I noticed Chinese tourists were bombing our university students selfies. The Chinese love posing with Europeans and on several occasions one, two, three or four joined in our poses whilst their friends took the photo.
So taking stock of the idea to date, the project photos would be of the famous locations we were visiting in China with someone or something bombing the photo. The big question was who or what would bomb the photo. I considered asking a fellow traveller on my trip to be the bomber but whilst that may work I couldn’t guarantee that the same student would be available every time I needed them. I also had issues with the message I wanted to convey in the pictures as I wanted the pictures to say something and a Beds Uni student face (or other part of the body as I considered that too) wasn’t giving the right kind of message. The trip was about China and I quickly concluded the bombing ‘thing’ needed to be something Chinese. The solution came from a call home. My wife is a teacher of small children and uses props to help her charges grasp some of the more difficult concepts. One tool she has used before was to use a cuddly toy given to a teacher who was travelling abroad during the holidays who then photographed it in all the places she visited. The toy on holiday, almost a new variation on ‘Nigel Doll’. A quick conversation later and we concluded the panda was the most recognisable animal from China. A stuffed toy panda would be my bomber, all I had to do was find a shop that sold one.
The next trip was to the Great Wall and to my delight all the tourist shops at the base of the wall were filled with black and white stuffed toy pandas. The next problem though was the message. What did I want these photos to say, important as this would dictate how the panda was photographed. The initial approach to this was to leave the panda on the wall and see if tourists would interact with it. Disappointingly 95% of tourists ignored it, 100% didn’t touch it. Still this was hardly a bombing photo either.
To try out the idea further I started positioning the panda as if he was bombing the photo, peering around a wall or tree but the best results came from positioning him at the bottom of the frame where my hand couldn’t be seen. This was a bit like taking a selfie in reverse with the toy at arms length and the camera to my eye. In some pictures the panda was out of focus whilst the landscape was sharp and this gave me my idea for the message.
The Giant Panda (and its cousin the Red Panda) are endangered species. Nearly all of these iconic animals habitat has been destroyed by man either by construction or farming and whilst conservation plans are starting to help its now restricted to only 20 or so isolated patches of mountain forest in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces whereas it once roamed freely across mountainous China and northern Vietnam.( http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/giant_panda/panda/where_panda_lives_habitat/ ) A visit to the Beijing Zoo gave me the final piece of the puzzle. The Giant Panda on show was in an inside enclosure with the whole of one wall made of glass allowing the tourist to see him. Due to the low light in the enclosure everyone who wants a photo of the panda has to use a flash. The panda endures this barrage of paparazzi photography constantly between 9am and 5pm six days a week. When you add in the pollution and the humidity in Beijing (the panda is a mountain creature) I felt ashamed to be human.
It was then that I realised the panda isn’t the focus of the Chinese, China is focussed on showing the world its industrial achievements. The Palace pagodas and the Birds Nest stadium and various other location in my photos are all in sharp focus, whereas the out of focus panda who’s face appears in the corner of each the photos reflects the priorities of almost every nation in the world. Mans achievements take priority over nature. Its as if the panda is saying, don’t forget me……
PANDA BOMB 1. Great Wall
2. Emperors Summer Palace
3. Temple of Heaven
4. Pagoda overlooking the Forbidden City
7. Birds Nest Stadium