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Framing Shanghai
Shanghai is almost a second home for Hondo Aki. The Japanese model-turned-photographer has visited more than a dozen times to capture the city's changing face, even if she's not sure why.

Hondo Aki stalks Shanghai's streets and lanes just like other tourists attracted to the city's throbbing pulse. She carries a Nikon camera around her neck and her eyes dart about with childlike fascination to catch the sights. But she is unlike other tourists.

In four years, Hondo has been to Shanghai 16 times, not on all-expenses-paid business trips but mostly, with her own money. Security guards in Xintiandi greet her like an old friend. She chats with locals without a word of Mandarin and minutes later has them posing with big smiles.

If the Shanghai Tourism Administrative Commission wants a candidate to represent the city in Japan, look no further than Hondo. The 29-year-old has been dubbed "Miss I-Love-Shanghai." This time around, she wants to capture the rejuvenation of the city after the SARS outbreak.

After snapping an impressive 20,000 rolls of film during the past four years, Hondo says she is capable of more. Her current bumper harvest of photos will be on display at her fifth solo exhibition about Shanghai in September after she returns to Osaka, her hometown.

"Shanghai renews itself every minute," says Hondo, who leaves the city today. "It exudes power. What I'm trying to do is capturing something substantial and bring it back to Osaka. I saw many European and American people already up and about the city, but few Japanese. Our people may still have some misgivings about traveling here. I want to clear these concerns with the photos I've taken." Hondo's affinity with Shanghai started in 1999 when she lucked out in a lottery in Osaka.

It was organized by the China National Tourism Administration. She won a round trip free ticket from Osaka to Shanghai. Since then she's brought more than 200 people to Shanghai, among whom are many friends and students. Her name is well-known at Shanghai's tourism board, tourist agencies and the airlines.

During the years she's visited, Hondo has already completed a number of collections, such as "The New and the Old in Shanghai," "The Canal Town in Shanghai" and "Shanghai Women and What They Wear." Zhang Xiao, a Japanese interpreter from Shanghai China International Travel Services Co Ltd, was amazed by Hondo's assiduity. "She keeps plying me with questions like she's never been here before," he says. "Obviously she's undaunted by the heat." Fujii Riho, 30, and Nishi Mayuko, 28, joined Hondo on this year's trek.

For them, it was Hondo's passion that influenced them most. For Hondo herself, she's never pinpointed why she visits and revisits the city again and again. "Every time I was on the plane back to Osaka, I started thinking about when I could come here again," she smiles, with a twitch of naivete.

Hondo stands out from the crowd for more than just her shutterbug ways. Her conspicuous and slender 177-centimeter frame always draws attention. She was a model a few years ago, but has transformed herself into a public speaker, for various Japanese companies, and a photographer. She also teaches classes on both subjects back in Osaka.

Due to her towering height, Hondo's parents decided to train her to be a volleyball player when she was a young girl. An accidental fall injured her back and waist when she was a senior high school student, dashing her dream of becoming a top volleyball star like Kojika Junko in the hit television series, "The Fire of Youth."

Then she put her slender build and height to good use and became a professional model. "Like most of my peers, I realized I couldn't model my entire life," she says, her big dark eyes twinkling. "It's so age-confined. So I turned one of my hobbies, photography, into a profession." That might not seem like much, but for a model-turned-photographer, a whole new world emerged in front of Hondo. Photography is time- and money-consuming. Hondo was surprised by how much time she spent in post-production. "As a model, your job is just to show up and pose," Hondo says.

"But as a photographer, you produce, direct and post-produce." Her lifestyle, too, has become entwined with her adopted culture. She frames, focuses and zooms on everything catching her fancy. Due to the perspective her former profession offered, "I am self-taught, having had the great opportunity to watch famous photographers from whom I have learned the trade," she says.

However, the beginning was not so easy. There was a lot of misunderstandings about a model taking up photography. But Hondo says that she had just as many doors open for her as she had shut because of her former career. "The thought never crossed my mind that I couldn't make the transition," she says. "The problem is that when they know you as one thing they don't want to accept you as something else."

As far as moving behind the camera and looking through the lens, not at it, Hondo says that even with all the irritations and surprises, she has gained far more from photography than she ever achieved in modeling.

"It may be hard, frustrating, much more than I ever thought," she says. "But when you get a shot that you really love, where it gives you a little buzz, it sucks you back in."

Hondo Aki's exhibition runs from September 6 to 28 at the Sea Museum of Osaka.

For more information, please visit http//member.nifty.ne.jp/fille For Hondo Aki, the camera is her way of introducing Shanghai to the outside world.

Hondo takes a picture of an old-style lane in Xintiandi. -- Lin Hua Several night shots of Shanghai and its people, taken by Hondo.

(eastday.com July 17, 2003)

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