Postcard from China: Xintiandi

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You have reached the archive of articles posted on my personal blog. This blog is no longer updated, but you can read my latest articles at my new website The Creative Photographer and find my photography ebooks at my new store.

Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Xintiandi, Shanghai, China

Things have been a bit quiet on this blog for the last few weeks. I had hoped to post some photos as we travelled around China, but found myself too busy and too tired at the end of the day to be able to do so – particularly with China’s internet restrictions which make accessing my website more difficult than it should be.

However, we’re now back in Shanghai, which is kind of a home base for us, and I have the time to write about our experiences and show you some photos. I’m going to try something a little different from what I usually do and post a new image every day, with some of my thoughts about it and the things I have learned travelling around China. Internet permitting – the limited internet here means I only have sporadic access to my website.

To recap – I am staying for a little over a month in China with my wife. We’ll be in Shanghai around half that time. We have just spent two weeks travelling to the cities of Xi’an, Beijing and Hangzhou, which are where I was most active with my camera. Those cities are far more photogenic than Shanghai (for the type of photography I like to do anyway).

The above photo was taken in the Xintiandi area of Shanghai. This is a relatively new area containing shops and restaurants, built in an old style imitating the architectural style of shikumen (stone and gate) houses (as far as I know not many genuine examples still exist). According to Wikipedia this area is the most expensive place to buy an apartment in China.

It’s not my best work, but it’s important for me personally because it marks the time when I managed to push past the photographer’s block (the equivalent of writer’s block, my own term) that I experienced the first week or so that we were in China.

So, what happened? First of all when we arrived in Shanghai it was hot and sticky, with maximum temperatures of around 39 degrees or so. That took a few days to acclimatise to after coming from the Wellington winter (August is not the best month to visit China because of the heat – but we had to come this month because my wife had some family related business to attend to).

But more importantly than that, I found myself feeling a lot of pressure to take some good photos. I tried to be objective about it, and observe what was going on in my mind, to better understand the creative process (which is universal – I’m betting that I’m not the only person who feels under pressure in this kind of situation).

This is what I realised.

Starting a journey in which one is going to spend a good deal of time dedicated to photography brings its own peculiar pressures. It’s something I felt acutely at the start of our trip to China. The pressure (in my case) came from several places.

One is that I can’t help but compare myself to photographers I admire such as David duChemin, Gavin Gough and Mitchell Kanashkevich. It’s a high standard to hold oneself to.

I also publicly stated on my blog that I was going to China to take photos, so naturally my readers expect to see some good stuff. I don’t want to let people down or to come back with images that don’t meet my usual standard.

Regular readers will know that we spent six months in Shanghai several years ago. Naturally I want to improve on the body of work shot then without repeating the same subject matter.

I have seen many beautiful photos taken in places like Shanghai and Beijing online, and feel pressure to emulate the standard set by those photographers.

So, how have I dealt with this?

The first few days in Shanghai were spent getting accustomed to the change in climate and environment. Shanghai is a sprawling, chaotic, dirty city with around 60 times as many people living in it as Wellington. I underwent a process of re-familiarising myself with the city and seeing new parts of it. On top of this I was thinking about photography and what I wanted to achieve here.

The key moment was the realisation that Shanghai doesn’t contain many of the things that I like to photograph. I like old things – temples, and other historic areas. There’s not too many of those left in Shanghai, and those that are I have already photographed.

I’ve seen other photos I like, such as those showing Shanghai’s streets at night. But also I’m not very interested in taking photos like those, plus the practical difficulties mean it is not easy without local knowledge and experience.

I realised I had to let go of the pressure and relax. The opportunities would come in the other cities we are travelling to – Xi’an, Beijing and Hangzhou.

I finally managed to do so one busy Sunday afternoon in Xintiandi when I walked the streets taking photos of people that I saw. I used my wife’s camera (a Fujifilm X-M1) rather than my X-T1 because I was curious about the experience of shooting using a camera without a viewfinder (the X-M1 just has Live View) and a kit lens (rather than the fast primes I usually shoot with).

I got lucky. I came across a group of girls dressed in costume, arranging themselves for a group photo. I stood nearby and took some photos. I have no idea why they were there and dressed like that. Cosplay? Regular girls dressed in cute but trendy Japanese style? I don’t really know, but it was interesting, and broke the creative shackles.

I will share some more photos from Xi’an, Beijing and Hangzhou with you over the coming days.

 

 

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6 Responses to “Postcard from China: Xintiandi”

  1. liz says:

    I think they call this fashion Lolita and Gothic Lolita, at least in Japan they do

    • Hi Liz, I just Googled it and you’re right! There are also styles called Sweet Lolita, Classic Lolita and Old School Lolita. What a strange world we live in.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Gday Andrew,

    Interesting comments you make about the photographers block you experienced. I too have felt the same thing and I also think it was for similar reasons. I often find it hard to photograph things that don’t interest me, despite feeling an internal pressure to do so.
    I have also found I can walk around a place for quite some time and not find anything interesting to photograph until finally something will catch my eye, and then, like opening a creative floodgate, off I go finding exciting details all over, even in places I have just been through.
    Glad I’m not the only one.
    I like your writing. Thanks
    Jonathan

    • Hi Jonothan, that was my experience exactly in Shanghai. It took me a while to let go of the expectations I was placing on myself and find the things that I really wanted to photograph. It took me a while to relax and not put myself under pressure for not taking photos in places that I didn’t find interesting for photography.

  3. Jim Robertson says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I felt similar pressures on my last trip to Japan, near total photographer’s block. My solution was to stop over-thinking and just start shooting and that opened the floodgate for my creativity. The other most freeing thing I did was borrow a Fuji X-T1 from Fujifilm in Osaka. FREE AT LAST! I still need to buy one, though, before I go back.

    • Hi Jim, that’s exactly what happened to me – I borrowed my wife’s camera as an experiment and free of expectation (plus the luck of finding myself somewhere unexpectedly photogenic) freed me up. I had no such problems when I was on the road in Beijing, Hangzhou and Xi’an as they were completely new to me and had lots of interesting places to photograph. The Fujifilm XT-1 rocks!

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