I’ve been wanting to share stories from a photo shoot I did for <<2010 我在上海 世博特刊>> “2010 In Shanghai: World Expo edition” but preferred to wait until the travel magazine hit the stands.
I wanted to capture children of fishmongers, poultry and vegetable hawkers at the Hongkou market, whom I’ve photographed many times before. With the adults’ expressed permission, I found myself in the longtangs amidst screaming kids, facing one hilarious challenge after another. Here are some humbling lessons I’ve learned, applicable, to all photographers.
# 1 Instructions are for the birds
I acquired a few shiny paper windmills to entertain the little ones, anything to hold their short attention spans, and suggested they run up and down the longtangs. Competing instincts took over, and a pair of brother and sister prepared to race. “You have to turn around when you reach the end of the alley,” I said, thinking myself asinine for giving such obvious instructions.
And off they went, as loud squeals and giggles rang through the alleys on a beautiful, sun-drenched afternoon. I stood on the sides, cheering along with the rest of the kids, camera all but forgotten.
But they didn’t stop. Instead, they turned the corner and disappeared.
I bellowed, “Oei!! Come back!” No reply.
The rest of the kids, sensing as if the two had gone to a more interesting play space, dashed off after them. I was left alone in the longtang, with a 1-year old walking around in circles, thrashing his paper windmill against a potted plant with great ferocity.
It was only 10 minutes later the entire group came running back from a completely different part of the longtang, as if led by a Pipe Piper. Panting heavily and sweating profusely, the 5-year old leader of the pack said to me, “How was that?”
#2 Never underestimate the hierarchy politics in your subjects’ environment
As more children congregated in the longtangs to observe the photoshoot, the dynamics and hierarchy of the kids began to show. The older kids were clearly used to getting what they want, brute strength and a loud voice gets you everything.
Adult supervision was meaningless. Shoving and snatching ensued quickly. Suddenly, everyone wanted a windmill. In a matter of minutes, wails could be heard from two streets over. Wails escalated to screams, screams transcended into bellows. Little feet stamped, tears flowed and tiny grubby hands were pulling hair and clothes. Despite the cacophony, the adults went their merry ways, completely unperturbed.
#3 Always prepare for the forces of nature
I had four kids intent on following me around while others grew bored and wandered off. The oldest of the four wanted to bring me to his favourite sweet stand (probably with the intention of wheedling free candy) but was suddenly taken by stomach pangs.
Clutching his tummy in pain, he said, “Big Sister, you have to wait for me!” and dashed into his house a few yards away. Plonking himself atop of a small toilet bucket (since most longtang homes lack private toilets), he proceeded about his business while the rest of us waited in full view. The smell was quite overwhelming but nobody else seemed bothered.
During that time, the boy kept calling out to update us, “Oei! Are you guys there? DON’T LEAVE ME BEHIND! I’M ALMOST DONE!”
#4 Protect your gear at all times
Of course, everyone wanted to see the images. The pictures! The pictures! Big Sister! Show us the pictures!
Barely 10 successive shots, the children crowded around my camera, poking their fingers onto my screen. I tried to bat their grubby fingers away but they seemed so happy, it was hard to stay fussy about it. What’s a few fingerprints?
Like a bad dream, I found mucus strewn all over my camera. I looked up at the culprit, A-da as one of the young boys was known, had snot and mucus hanging freely from his nostril, which he wiped away and sheepishly smiled. Ernest as ever, he pulled my camera toward him, because “I want to see pictures too!”
As if things could not get any worse, another dollop of mucus fell downward, coating my screen.
I was ready to pass out.
The tale of the mucus-on-camera travelled quickly through the longtangs and weeks later, familiar residents would ask about my camera when I stopped by.
A humbling and harrowing experience, dear reader. Behold, the culprits.