Postcards from China I – Vern Fong

I am beginning a new feature on the website today. Postcards from China will (hopefully) become a weekly showcase of China as seen through some other photographers viewfinders. During my time in China I’ve been fortunate to meet many photographers from around the world and I thought this might be a nice way to show you more of China and introduce you to some very talented artists along the way.

This first installment features an image from Vern Fong. Vern is a 26 year-old pharmaceutical rep from Nanning who covers Guangxi Province for a Japanese drug company. When Vern got his first full-time job in 2008 he found himself traveling a lot and most often to places he’d never been before. He picked up a Lumix LX3 and hasn’t looked back. I met Vern and his then girlfriend – now wife Suri last summer in Nanning and I was impressed with his fine character and eye for a shot. We’ve become good friends. He excels at street photography but really does a number of thing well. He and Suri just picked up a used Canon DSLR and have been spending some time re-learning a few things as they get the new tool dialed in.

The photo below was the very last image from his 365 day photo a day project. Yep, both he and Suri took at least a photo a day for a year. He remembers the shot very well. “It was the last day of 2011 and also the last day of our 365 Project. We had been wandering the streets near home for a while and I was growing frustrated, as I couldn’t see a fresh shot. Suri got her shot first and I just wanted to get it over with. I saw this guy come out and sit down from down the street. I walked/ran up and crouched down in front of him and was able to fire off this single  frame before he could get back up. I felt I had probably captured a nice moment but that window of opportunity was there for less than a minute.”

 The Chef

The Chef was taken with an Olympus E-P2. The exposure was 1/10 of a second at f/1.7 at 20mm with an ISO of 200.

Vern hopes that his photos might allow us to see the mundane in a different light. He dreams of becoming a professional photojournalist but admits it will be difficult to leave his job and lucrative salary behind to try and break into what is a very controlled and crowded marketplace. I say keep the dream alive…

You can see more of Vern’s photography on his Flickr page. It’s also where you’ll find his 365 Project.

I hope you’ll enjoy this series. I think I’ll have some fun with it…

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7 Responses to “Postcards from China I – Vern Fong”

  1. Sam Chan says:

    Michael,

    Been enjoying your photos very much. Thank you for posting other photographers photos. That is a great idea. Can’t wait to see more. I have some mundane practical questions about taking photos in China. When you carry a big full frame SLR camera and perhaps lenses and other cameras with you to take pictures do you ever run into problems? For example…

    1. People not wanting their picture taken. (I have had that experience.) Do you ever ask for permission first? Have you acquired a sixth sense on this already? What are some insights you have?
    2. Thieves wanting to steal your camera and equipment? (I had my brief case stolen while traveling in Europe.) Has that happen to you or your friends? Camera snatching (like purse snatching)? Do you feel like you have to keep your camera and accessory bag with you at all times, like when you have to go to the rest room. Have you ever lost or forgot or misplaced your camera and had it returned to you?
    3. What do you do for download and back up if on an extended trip? Do you carry a computer with you and several hard drives? Do you double and triple back up to hard drives. Do you store your work in the cloud? How do you do that in China? Is cloud storage available? How do you get enough bandwidth?
    4. Do you ever take a flash and batteries with you when you are traveling?
    5. Do you let your camera go through the X-ray machine at airports?
    6. Have you ever had the need to have your camera serviced in China? How do you know where to go?
    7. Others questions I have not thought of asking but practical tips you care to share with me.

    Thanks again
    Sam

    • Sam that’s a load of questions my friend. I’ll try and come back later this afternoon (china time) and give you some feedback on my experience here. Thanks for stopping in!

    • Okay Sam,

      As Jay just did, let me address each of your questions individually and then at the end I’ll give you a synopsis.

      1. To help answer your first question I need to first ask you one. I know before asking that it might initially be misconstrued so bear with me and I think you’ll see why I’m asking. With your family name being Chan, is it a stretch for me to assume you are Asian? If so, it will definitely have an effect on how people react to you with a camera. I find most Chinese are very forgiving/accommodating when a foreigner has a camera in his hand and often not much at all with their countrymen. I’ve worked with numerous Chinese photographers who lament the very fact that I can approach people and be accepted much more readily than they typically can. I do sometimes ask for permission but have indeed developed a sixth sense about it over the years. I think a smile and eye contact go a long way. I will get waved off sometimes. If I am working I usually have an assistant to help me with translation and break the ice but most of the time, as Jay said, it’s not been a problem. Again, foreigners get some leeway in this area. I smile a lot. Be courteous and respectful and you’ll get your fair share of compelling images.

      2. I’m going to take a bit if a different tack than Jay on this one. MOST of the time you’ll be fine but you can not be careless. I almost always keep my hand on my camera and wear a Black Rapid strap which fits diagonally across my body. I do know of people having bags snatched off shoulders and the Black Rapid straps are heavy duty tools. If anyone from Black Rapid is reading this please send me a strap.I think this also might depend somewhat on where you are in China and whether or not you are alone or with some other people. Absolutely I would take my bag with me to the can if I was alone but again, I am usually not alone when shooting. Sometimes it’s almost an entourage! When alone, I usually only take a small bag containing one or two extra lenses and the camera. I think it is no less safe here than NYC or LA but it’s all relative. I’m also a big guy so I fell that works in my favor too.

      3. It depends on what I am doing. If it is work related then I’ll always travel with my MacBook Pro so I can download, process and send photos from on the road. If I am on vacation or otherwise just shooting for myself, I’ll carry 5 or 6 32MB memory cards which should be enough for up to two weeks of heavy shooting. If you have internet service then you can use the cloud. Keep in mind of course that there are websites you can get to from China without a VPN. I don’t see a need for several hard drives. I mean I live here and when I get back to my office I’ll download everything onto my iMac and then backup to a time capsule. I’ll then weed though everything, deleting bad shots. After 7 years I still have more than enough space and I’m shooting large RAW files.

      4. I’ll usually travel with a flash and batteries but more often than not don’t use them in the field. Studio work is different of course but then the lights are usually in the studio. A tripod is essential for certain types of shots. I recommend a good-quality lightweight carbon tripod.

      5. There is no problem with sending a digital camera through an X-ray machine. For that matter there is no problem sending a film camera through. It’s the film you need to worry about. Are you shooting film? If so, even up to 800 ASA/ISO should be okay for one or two times through a machine. If you re concerned, make sure you put your film in your carry-on and ask to have it hand inspected. Again, sending your digital camera through is not an issue.

      6. Camera repair service in China for Cannon and Nikon is available in any mid-size city and up. Cannon and Nikon (and probably SONY) have service centers in Beijing, Shangahi, Guangzhou and Shenzhen and I have had cameras repaired here with no issue. You can find these places easily enough via company websites.

      When will you come to China and for how long? What will you be looking to shoot? I think for the most part taking pictures in China is much easier than it currently is in many other parts of the world. I mean, unless you want to pull a Midnight Express, don’t go walking up to a military installation with your camera but everything else is pretty much fair game. I’ll run into some folks from time to time who absolutely want nothing to do with me but that is the exception rather than the rule. Again, show respect, be kind, smile… all the things your mother told you about.

      Best of luck and let me know if I can be of any help when you get here…

  2. Jay says:

    Hi again Michael

    That is a wonderful idea, and I love that photo of Vern’s. I have already opened his flickr account from your link and will go and browse through there now.

    In answer to some of Sam’s questions above. My experience here, after 7 years”

    1. Very seldomly. 99% of people encourage one taking their photos, unlike in the West. If I do come across the odd, reluctant person I do not take it (though once, and once only in all these 7 years, a lady I have been wanting to take for years and then did so on the sly, from the hip, heard the click and then chased after me and kicked me on the bum ….. heehee. All part of the fun and not to be taken too seriously. Today we are good friends).
    2. Thieves: Never had such an experience in China. In 7 years nothing (camera or otherwise) has ever been stolen from me. I lost a wallet once because of my own forgetfulness. A week later I got a call at work to say the wallet (money, cards et al) has been picked up and left at a police station …. forgot a cell phone in a cab one day. Phoned the phone from my partner’s phone, the driver answered and drove 1/2 an hour across Shanghai to where I was to return it to me … and then refused to accept my offer of his taxi fare.
    3. When we travel, I take my Mac with me to download every night. Used to go to little shops to have photos burnt to disc but taking the laptop is easier.
    4. Yes, and do not forget the rechargers + an international adapter ;-))
    5. Yes, with photos and with no photos and never have I had a problem with photos being damaged. I take my laptop out and they scan that on a separate setting. Also never had any issues with it afterwards.
    6. Absolutely. I go to Canon in Shanghai, where we live (use Google Map to find the location). Extremely professional, the ladies speak good English and their prices are very, very reasonable ad the service is fab.

    I think I can gauge from your questions that you do not live here but are planning on visiting yet have a few concerns? China is a very, very friendly country with extremely low crime levels. You should not worry about these things, but obviously, as anywhere else in the world, one should be on one’s guard. I am sure Michael will be able to back me up on most of what I have said above.

    Jay

  3. Sam Chan says:

    Thank you very much Jay and Michael for your detailed and thoughtful responses to my many questions. Your advice is very much appreciated.

    I am Chinese. I like taking pictures of the usual stuff: people, food, buildings and scenery; shapes, color, contrast, symmetry, asymmetry…

    I have been to China 4 or 5 times usually for one or two weeks and although I have wanted to, I have never taken an SLR with me. I used just a point and shoot pocket camera on those previous trips. But looking at your work inspires me to do differently on future trips. So I am thinking about some of the practical aspects and possible problems.

    Yes, indeed Caucasians have an advantage in China. That’s kind of similar (just similar, but really not the same) to being a camera toting Japanese tourist in the west. You look different and interesting and friendly, and people want to be friendly and hospitable to you. You obviously aren’t going to do them any harm and they want to leave a good impression on you. Yes, a smile always helps.

    Thanks for the tip on the Black Rapid strap. That is one practical and cooling looking tool. Grab, glide, click. I have to get one now. I can see a wedding photographer having two, one on each side.

    No, I am not using film. I was just wondering if it is something that I should take precaution against – X-rays zapping delicate and sophisticated electronics… maybe only in the movies.

    LOL about the story of the woman who went after Jay. Do you think they will ever come up with silent mirrors/shutters for SLRs?

    The stories about the wallet and about the taxi driver are amazing. Once in China, I got to know and like a taxi driver that I always called him whenever I needed a ride, we even went to lunch together one day. Then he took me sight seeing and refused to accept payment.

    Do both of you post your photos on Flickr or somewhere we can look?

    Thanks

    Sam

  4. Sam Chan says:

    Thank you. It would be great to meet you in person. I have never thought my photographs are good enough to show. So I have not organized them and put them on a website like yours or on a site like Flickr. But it is something I want to do someday.

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