BYU photography students and their mentors explore contrasting faces of the world’s most populous country.
Photography professor John W. Telford’s (’71) hope in leading a trip to the Orient last May was to find these kinds of scenes, vistas that really said, “This is in China,” and to explore their photographic potential with a handful of his undergraduate students.
When Telford, guide and pro photographer John Wang (MBA ’01), and four camera-wielding visual arts students set foot in the world’s most populous country, they detoured from the well-traveled, more accessible venues and views. Instead of touring terra-cotta warriors or the Great Wall, the students took a photographic journey through frenetic cities and verdant countryside where they captured contrasting views: citizens scurrying on city streets, water buffalo slogging through rice-paddy terraces; rows of geometric skyscrapers, limestone formations resembling dragons’ teeth; grandparents doting on children in a city park, glaciers blanketed by thick clouds.
“It was a great opportunity to see an authentic China as opposed to just going to tourist places and seeing things that most Westerners get to see,” says Telford of the four-week trek that started in the eastern port city of Shanghai and wound west. In a quest to become better
photographers, the students—beneficiaries of a BYU mentoring education grant, which covered a major part of their travel expenses—filled their memories and memory cards with distinctive images of the people, the culture, and the land. A select group of their 25,000 images would ultimately be displayed in a Harris Fine Arts Center exhibit.
“We were telling the story of modern-day China through the lens of a camera,” says Jessica Bingham Kehl (’08), a visual arts student who has studied Chinese history. “I love the challenge of capturing the essence of a place, person, or event.”
For student Shad V. Hopkins (’10), who had never traveled overseas, seeing far-flung China through his camera lens was a singular opportunity. “I wanted to see what the world had to offer—vibrant-colored rice fields, bright colors on village flags—and to take pictures and capture emotions in the people we met and saw. I was able to accomplish more than I hoped.”
As this artistic and educational journey progressed, each student developed an individualized approach. While
shooting in the same location caused some duplication, Lucy L. Call (’10) tended toward images of people at work and school, Hopkins explored repeating patterns in nature, and Reed S. Rowe (BFA ’09) shot photos of bridges.
For Kehl, who created a montage of Chinese doorways, the journey was about color and contrast. “After our initiation to the country,” she says, “we were continually reminded that China is a land of veneers. One minute I marveled over a massive concrete dam built with the latest 21st-century amenities and the next I encountered an indigenous people in tribal garb.”
To further explore contrasts in this country under construction, Telford and Wang arranged for the group to travel to some of the most remote parts of China. After capturing city skylines in Shanghai and Chengdu, the group journeyed west toward Tibet, then circled back, visiting national parks, remote ethnic villages, and newly built dams and roadways.
Traveling together provided opportunities for the students and mentors to observe each other and to collaborate. One day when the group was stuck in traffic, they jumped out of the car to get some pictures of a nearby village. “I
noticed that Reed [Rowe] was getting some really high-energy pictures of the motorcycles passing through the traffic by using a technique called panning,” recalls Kehl. “I asked Reed to teach me how he was getting such great images. . . . After that I was able to capture some of my favorite images of the trip using what he had taught me. Those kinds of learning experiences happened continually throughout the trip for me. I grew as a photographer in a way that I couldn’t have in a classroom.”
Rowe says he progressed similarly in his abilities. “Landscape photography is not a specialty at all of mine, so to be able to stand side by side with John Telford and glean some of that knowledge in such an amazing landscape is priceless,” he says.
To see more “authentic stuff,” as Wang calls it, the group traveled to the village of Dimen, home to the Dong people, one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities. “The driver had a hard time finding it. It is remote and is not a tourist spot,” says Wang, who is originally from Shanghai. “I had never been to this kind of minority village before, so it really surprised me. It is like time stopped and everything is a thousand years ago—the way they work, the way they farm, their daily dress.”
The group spent more than a week in the area and was able to experience the people, culture, and landscape. Wang explains, “This village is in a little valley in the gorge, so the mountains surround it.We could climb the mountain and see the sunset, where the sun hits those ancient architectural buildings. It blew me away; it was just so beautiful.”
At the entrance to Dimen, Kehl turned her camera on end and fixed her lens on a tranquil village scene, a quintessential view of China, the kind that her professor had hoped they would find. Near a sunlit river a man gathers water, another bends to secure the top of a sack, a woman walks along a flagstone path, a child on her back. Power lines crossing above the river reveal that the progress hurtling across China is arriving; satellite television is appearing in rural locales before running water is piped indoors. In the background is a covered “flower” bridge, an iconic example of ancient Chinese construction. Mist partially obscures the trees and dwellings on the steep hill beyond.
After the mentors and students take their photos, they walk into the scene they just captured. No one remains to document the bright sunlight dancing on the water, illuminating the band of photographers walking and talking. They stop on the bridge, look back to where they came from, cross the river, and enter the village.
Watch a slideshow of more images from the photographers’ trip at magazine.byu.edu/china.
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