Lessons from shooting 2010 我在上海 世博特刊 (Part 2)

Lessons from shooting 2010 我在上海世博特刊

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?

Suddenly, “AHHH-CHOOO!!!!”

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.



  • Reply May 25, 2010


    ahaha that was a very good read, sue anne 🙂 and I could feel how you must’ve felt when A-da sneezed all over your camera…. aaargh. I’ll definitely be wary when shooting toddlers.

    I also had the experience of shooting kids, but a bit older, about 8-12 yrs old. We had this Help Portrait project where we took portraits of troubled youths in Salvation Army housings. We were given groups at a time, and it was total chaos. Instead of you organizing them on what to do, it was you who had to adjust over their chaotic glee and make do with what you can do. But still we came up with good shots 🙂 It’s just unfortunate that we are not allowed to publish our shots that day.

    • Reply May 25, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Hi Danny! How fantastic that you mentioned Help Portrait. A group of Flickrites also got together to do Help Portrait at a local high school for migrant students. We managed to secure sponsorship from Canon to print all the photographs for over 50 families.

      We didn’t publish the photos, but we did send Canon a thank you. You can see them over there:

      You can see it here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jinchengli/4178714040/

      Sue Anne

  • Reply May 26, 2010


    Nice story about managing kids Sue Anne. Well, as a experienced father, I understand every word you write.

    Oh, I still have those portraits running as a screen saver on my screen everyday. It’s something that light up my day.


    • Reply May 26, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Hi Svend, Thankfully, that is only an isolated episode. Too many kids, too much chaos, not sure how you could handle that on a daily basis. They are indeed a bundle of energy. Your girls are angels in comparison.

  • Reply May 27, 2010


    Hi Sue Anne, the photo looks so natural and exuberant, one wouldn’t imagine all the effort that you had to put into getting it. Perhaps this is why I stick to being an “opportunist” kind of photographer. My first trip to China was a cycling trip and whenever we stopped, no matter how deserted the stretch of countryside appeared to be, we’d be surrounded by clamouring children within 60 seconds. So I know all about runny noses and bottomless pants. Your story was a great read; and if I ever feel the urge to orchestrate a photoshoot, I’ll bear the lessons in mind.
    Cheers, Keith

    • Reply May 27, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Thanks for stopping by, Keith! You’re travelling. I gather from your Flickr notes? The entire shoot was not as overly orchestrated as it seems. Just a matter of herding cats to stay in one place. I too prefer a more subtle and well-hidden street photography. This was just an exception.

      I didn’t realize you cycled through China! What other adventures have you undertaken of late?

      • Reply May 27, 2010


        Oh, that wasn’t “of late”. In fact, it was in 1986; and on the map of all China our trajectory was miniscule (mainly in Guandong with a little in Guizhou). Apart from 2 quick trips to Spain and a brief stop-over in the US this year I haven’t been travelling much. But last year, we visited Shanghai briefly (for the first time).

  • Reply June 1, 2010


    Children are like Americans, some say: two or three are OK, but a load of them are noisy and difficult to handle!
    Yes, kids have short attention span, and you have to take your chances, a bit like taking pix of animals!
    My grand-daughter is 9 months now, and is a natural “poser”, waiting patiently and looking at the screen when I point the camera at her. I expect that won’t last!
    If you are showing pix on the camera screen, you could always try saying beforehand – remember – look but don’t touch. I agree it may not work.
    Anyway – you got some super pix. Congratulations.

    • Reply June 3, 2010

      Sue Anne

      Cheers David! Kids are very precocious nowadays. All that television has made them too aware of how models appear. These kids were quite natural “posers” too. I did warn them not to touch the screen but they were just very overwhelmed, as was I. Lesson learned!

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