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Snapshot of a country
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By John Sexton

Like countless other young people, Tom Carter came to China to teach English and go traveling. But he traveled further, for longer, visiting all 33 of China's provinces twice in two years. He took more pictures than most. Crucially, he took the pictures that everyone else wanted to.

The result, his book China: Portrait of a People, is a snapshot of an entire country in a time of great change; a truthful and touching portrayal of the Chinese people in all their variety, charm and earthiness. As such, even if it does not turn out a best-seller, it will have lasting value as a social document. This isn't a coffee table book of the Great Wall or the quintessentially Chinese landscapes of Guilin. It isn't a travel book either, although it may well inspire many to come see China for themselves.

What's more, Carter has shown us just how easy it is. Just get on the bus, Gus. Buy a ticket, ride from town to town, chat to people and take their picture. I have traveled many of same roads in the same way and this photo-book captures the feel, the color, the smell of China better than most others I have seen.

His subjects are casual, un-posed, unrehearsed. He manages to achieve an extraordinary intimacy, not just with cute kids and young women, but with worshippers at a mosque, with a miner caked in coal dust changing his clothes at the end of a shift. He clearly must have considerable charm to have achieved these candid snaps of people who are normally shy of having their picture taken. But as he says, and people who travel the country soon find out, ordinary Chinese people are extraordinarily warm with foreigners.

Above all, Carter's photographs depict the diversity of China, from chic young socialites to toothless derelicts, from wrestlers to karaoke girls. An let's not forget that this is a country of 56 official nationalities (and several more that, back in the 1950s, failed to make their case to officials overwhelmed with applications for recognition); Carter captures them, not dressed up for tourists, but still, in surprising numbers, wearing traditional dress.

Tom Carter (L) shares his photos with local people in China. [File photo] 

As Carter put it, during his two years on the road, his camera became an extension of his hand. And it is such a small, insignificant machine – not a digital SLR of the sort used by professionals. Why would he need one of those? These are not arty photographs. For the most part they are the sorts of snaps you could find in a family album. But this is the family album of a nation, the largest on earth.

Portrait of a People is a great achievement for someone who by his own admission knows almost no Chinese and, when he arrived in China, had zero knowledge of the country or its people.

Indeed, Carter says the book happened by accident when, after he returned from his first round trip of China, he was urged by family and friends to publish his pictures. But since he decided to publish and promote the book, he has gone about it with the drive and professionalism one would expect someone who was once a publicity-savvy full-time political campaigner in the United States.

Perhaps the book's main strength is its spontaneous, empirical approach, the lack of any detectable agenda. As Carter put it, "I am no apologist for China. I'm the first to reveal its flaws. I was not out to make the country look beautiful but I wasn't out to target it either. Everything in the book is just the way China presented itself to me. It's an honest portrayal."

China: Portrait of a People is published in Hong Kong by Blacksmith Books and Haven Books.


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