A Face I Cannot Forget

I first set eyes on Hirena at the Festival Of The Taureg in southern Algeria in January 2010. She had just finished one of her five daily prayers where she gently touched her forehead to the warm desert sand several times. I approached her and knelt and partially raised my camera to request a photograph. She apprehensively motioned no. Later in the day, I ran into a local amateur photographer named Yassan and told him of a woman with captivating features and how much I would like to take her portrait but felt limited due to not knowing the local language. He smiled and asked that we revisit her. When we arrived at her tent, Yassan spoke in the indigenous Taureg language, Tamasheq, and politely conveyed my request. She smiled and said she would be delighted and that she had been waiting for such an opportunity for a long time. I made three frames and bowed my head and smiled. I knew in my heart the situation was forced and that she exhibited good manners to a visitor, but was genuinely uncomfortable. Hirena was a humble Muslim woman who made sure her prayer beads were between she and my lens. The rigid lines on her face speak of hardship and undiluted faith. Some photographs are not meant to be, though my brief interaction with her left an indelible imprint on my mind and a slow burning curiosity to return to the Sahara desert to learn more about her culture and way of life.

I first set eyes on Hirena at the Festival Of The Taureg in southern Algeria in January 2010. She had just finished one of her five daily prayers where she gently touched her forehead to the warm desert sand several times. I approached her and knelt and partially raised my camera to request a photograph. She apprehensively motioned no. Later in the day, I ran into a local amateur photographer named Yassan and told him of a woman with captivating features and how much I would like to take her portrait but felt limited due to not knowing the local language. He smiled and asked that we revisit her. When we arrived at her tent, Yassan spoke in the indigenous Taureg language, Tamasheq, and politely conveyed my request. She smiled and said she would be delighted and that she had been waiting for such an opportunity for a long time. I made three frames and bowed my head and smiled. I knew in my heart the situation was forced and that she exhibited good manners to a visitor, but was genuinely uncomfortable. Hirena was a humble Muslim woman who made sure her prayer beads were between she and my lens. The rigid lines on her face speak of hardship and undiluted faith. Some photographs are not meant to be, though my brief interaction with her left an indelible imprint on my mind and a slow burning curiosity to return to the Sahara desert to learn more about her culture and way of life.

Observing An Elder

When I think about the heart and soul of China, I return to this woman who I never met. I passed by her at an outdoor market in the city of Nanning last summer. She was standing quietly on a street where a slew of vendors had their items for sale in front of them. Her hair was grey and she wore a stern expression, one that bespoke a life of hardship. Her plants looked healthy and well cared for. The simple presentation evoked a feeling of nostalgia. As I passed her, I wanted to ask her if I could take her portrait but anticipated she would decline. I moved on and stored her face and plants in the reserves of my imagination knowing I would one day return to her. As dusk emerged, I began my search for a hotel and she appeared in the distance pushing an old bicycle cart with wobbly wheels. I discretely snapped a few photos and followed her until she mounted the bicycle and entered the mass of electric mopeds and cars that flooded the street.

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Staying Positive And A Little Naïve

I’ve been considering moving to China since my initial visit in 2012 and have now, after subsequent trips, begun the process of getting as much information as possible from the Internet and expats that live or have lived on The Mainland. I recently spoke with an entrepreneur, who after several years of living in China and running several successful businesses, decided to leave and relocate in Thailand where he feels the quality of life is much better. He apprehensively returns to China to ensure his operations are running correctly. The underlying message he imparted to me was not to live in China on a full time basis. He feels money has corrupted the national psyche and everyone is trying to make a profit and unequivocally putting profit over people.

After our phone call I took a few days to digest his lucid words. Here was a person that learned a complex language, set up several successful small businesses, married into a Chinese family, and was unwavering in his message: don’t live in China. I decided to turn to some of the images I recently made in Guizhou Province and this one came to mind due to the overwhelming sense of love and humanity it carries. A sister holds her newborn sister at an outdoor market and smiles while patting her bottom. The wheelbarrow in the background indicates a less developed environment and her overalls and minimal necklace with a single stone are a far cry from the ubiquitous big name design brands that are touted by the new generation of wealthy living in developed cities.

I could move to China and experience how greed and corruption are common symptoms of the culture, or I might continue to make photographs like this one and be reminded that humanity and family values are still present and easily accessible.

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Finding Locations To Make Photographs

A new friend I met on the subway in New York City over the weekend sent me a note saying she and her friends are interested in taking street photographs and if I could recommend a place to go. I immediately thought of this photograph I made in Nanning, China over the summer. Nanning is a city that has no major tourist attractions. A dignified seventy-year old woman from Macau told me I should go there. I took her advice and wandered through the streets with my backpack and camera in hand and no activated cell phone with internet connection. I made directional decisions based on intuition and feeling and found a quiet side street with an outdoor market along the river. There was a tangible feeling of simplicity amongst everyone that congregated on this street. Some were socializing while others were focused on transactions. As I meandered, I saw a man in a deep sleep in a hammock tied between two trees in a wooded area near a river. His body posture reflected the placidity around him. I discreetly snapped two photographs of him, one from a distance and another closer up where I could see his expression.

After coming home and editing and scanning this roll of film, I was reminded of how photographs can be made without a concrete plan. Acknowledging a lead from an old, wise woman and following my gut as I wandered through a foreign city yielded a strong photograph that will always remind me of a special place and time in my life.

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