“So, tell me again, why are you photographing all this?”
Mr Gu scratched his head and examined my camera and tripod. A technician from Zhejiang working at Sinan Mansions, he was currently living in one of the old European villas opposite the new luxury development.
He shared his room with another worker, also from the same hometown. The room was a comfortable size and had a bunk bed propped neatly in the corner. Next to it, stood a long wooden table cobbled together for quick meals and a small television. A wok for cooking hung outside next to his laundry.
It was Mr Gu’s day off from work, and he had wandered out in a neat sports jacket and slacks to take in some fresh air. He spotted me and waved in acknowledgement. We met a few weeks before when I first started exploring these villas. With little else to do, he followed me around the villas, lighting up the darkened stairwells with his torch and hefting my tripod to each floor.
“Young girls like you shouldn’t be wandering about in old houses like these alone!” he huffed up the stairs behind me, shaking his head.
It was as if he was looking at the villas for the first time, perplexed yet fascinating by the idea of photographing the insides of what seemed to him, just another broken house. He took to his role as photo assistant with great aplomb, deftly flipping out and adjusting the tripod like a pro. He peppered me with questions about aperture and composition, and offered his critique on the resulting images I took.
At one point, we walked by a giant hole in a low attic above the stairwell. By this time, Mr Gu asked excitedly, “Well, are you going to climb in? I can give you a boost.”
I peered in and the wood creaked above or under me, I couldn’t tell. Even under the torchlight, the dusty hole seemed like an abyss, one I was not sure I’d survived despite my small frame. “Too menacing for me,” I grimaced. He nodded.
Hefting up my tripod, switching on his torch, Mr Gu then led the way down the stairs and into the next room.
[Update: I never did share that Mr Gu accompanied me for a short walk through Fuxing Lu, a harmless chat while he respectfully assisted me on another shoot that afternoon. I gave him his portrait less than a year later, not too late but very close.]