December 23rd 2011 by Andrew S Gibson
As a photographer staying in China, I’m interested in beautiful landscapes and the way that people in the more remote parts of the country live (I’m planning a trip to Yunnan early next year – I won’t find many of those here in Shanghai). But a photographer who ventured into remote China long before me is Terri Gold. Her work caught my eye some time ago as she has created some beautiful black and white images using a digital camera converted to infrared. She has travelled to China several times, and is a witness to the immense changes that have taken place here over the last twenty years or so.
Recently she returned to the region of Guizhou, after an absence of 14 years, to continue her lifelong project, Still Points in a Turning World, which focuses on Asia’s vanishing tribal heritage. The trip resulted in a body of work called Into the Mists of Time (click on the link to see a slideshow). Terri has an interesting method of working; she uses a digital camera converted to infrared. This gives her black and white images an unusual, but ethereal feel.
How long have you been photographing the tribes of south-east Asia? Which parts of Asia and China have you visited in that time?
My earliest memories are of spinning a globe, always drawn to the last mysterious corners of Asia, the tribal worlds. I began my travels in books with Pearl Buck’s biography, Alexandra David-Néel’s “Magic and Mystery in Tibet”, Isabella Bird’s “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” and Peter Goullart’s “Land Of the Lamas”. I read all the old travelers tales and then as soon as I was old enough I stepped into my dreams. I have traveled extensively in Kham, South Western China, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, The Nagaland, India, Cambodia & Laos. I travel to the tribal villages where the traditions of different millennia co-exist side by side.
Into the mists of time
Tell us a little about your trip to Guizhou. What is the area like? How remote is it and what are conditions like for travellers?
In April 2011, I returned to Guangxi and Guizhou, China, an area rich in minority culture and stunningly beautiful, mountainous and remote. When I was last there in 1997, I visited Miao, Dong and Shui villages that had never received western guests. I wondered how different it would be.
Everywhere we went the people were open to make us welcome and were willing to let us peer into their lives and traditions. The roads and hotels had improved tremendously since 1997 and the Chinese cuisine was diverse, creative and often delicious. Every meal was served on Lazy Susan’s spinning in the center of the table filled with different dishes. It is also possible to set up home stays in many of the villages. Having a charismatic local guide who understands what you are looking for and knows and is respected by the people is essential to being able to really connect.
What changes did you notice between the first time that you visited Guizhou and your most recent visit? How have things improved? Has anything been lost in that time?
Each day our van would climb around hundreds of switchbacks, our faithful driver Chen, his eyes totally focused, honking at each bend. Winding our way through 2000-year-old rice terraces intricately carved into the mountainside, higher and higher into the mists, the landscape green and lush, roads newly built and muddy.
The villagers awaited us with welcome ceremonies that have not changed for generations. The older people are still wearing traditional dress everyday but the next generation only wears these colorful garments for festivals. This is a significant change, for these tribes’ identity is best represented by their intricate textile work. Now the younger generation wants a different life. These are not stagnant societies; there is change in the air. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise of healers and weavers, silversmiths and musicians, poets and saints.
It is predicted that in the next decade, China will experience the largest human migration in the world’s history, from rural to urban. This is the beginning: there is now a real road in this remote mountainous province connecting it to the world.
It will change everything.
What changes have you noticed in China and south-east Asia in general over the years? What do you see as the major challenges in the area over the next few decades?
The city has become a synonym for modernity, the country backwardness.
China is a wild and complex mixture in time and place, ancient and modern all at once,
there is building and construction everywhere from the small tribal villages to the provincial cities and towns we pass through. New roads are being built as well as towering bridges and dams. The homes in the villages are wooden, all built without nails,
whereas in the cities they are concrete and without much charm.
There is a veritable hum of activity. People are enthusiastically pursuing their dreams of a better life and fortune, often ignoring the non-economic aspects of their lives. The enormous challenges will be in building a new equilibrium.
You have an interesting style of photography. Tell us a little about working in infrared.
When I began my photography career I was immediately drawn to the world of infrared imagery and the invisible light spectrum. I like adding the element of surprise that naturally happens when working with light you cannot see.
The photograph is the first step in the process. I shot infrared film for many years and was a Lith printer in the darkroom. Now, I use a digital camera converted to infrared by Lifepixel and the digital darkroom to create the split-toned imagery. Working with infrared light adds an element of mystery when creating the work, which, I feel, suits the subject matter and the timeless quality of the images. The post processing is part of my medium – working extensively in Photoshop, Lightroom and then often painting with encaustic wax and oils on the surface of the prints. This creates work that reads like a photograph, but at the same time depends heavily upon the intervention of my hand.
How would you describe your creative vision? What themes and ideas are you exploring in your photography?
I strive to capture the wonder and grace in the celebrations of life and in the artifacts and architecture that remain. My work is an exploration of our cross-cultural truths; the importance of family, community and ritual and the amazing diversity of its expression.
Cultural diversity is our greatest source of wonder and we keep it alive by learning to embrace our differences and celebrate our common threads.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Phil Borges – He takes beautiful images of indigenous and tribal people while bringing attention to the value of their culture and the challenges they face.
Chris Rainier – I ran into Chris Ranier while photographing in the Nagaland. He captures powerful black and white imagery of indigenous cultures around the globe. He is also working with National Geographic to document the world’s endangered languages and trying to prevent language extinction.
Osa & Martin Johnson – In the early 1920’s these intrepid photographers & explorers trekked the unknown lands of the South Pacific, East & South Africa & Borneo. They photographed the tribes including headhunters, cannibals and the wildlife introducing the first glimpse of those worlds to America. It took tremendous ingenuity to develop large format film on a boat in Borneo.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
“Still Points in a Turning World” is part of a lifelong series. I am always plotting my next adventure. Perhaps Ethiopia is next; I am in the research stage now. I am working with The Buglisi Dance Theatre building a new body of work and also developing a series on Wyoming Cowboys, the spirit of the West. I am currently working on a new website and blog.
Most exciting for me is that I am finally making the time to work on a book project focused on my tribal work. The winter is a great time for that.
You can contact Terri Gold at ttgold [at] aol [dot] com
All photos copyright © Terri Gold. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.