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Have Camera, Will Backpack
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Backpacker photographer Thomas Carter spent two years capturing the China that few people see. He often slept on bus station floors and advises: "Close your eyes and point to a place on a Chinese map, then go there," writes Yao Minji.

American photojournalist, backpacker and ex-English teacher Thomas Carter gives this piece of wisdom to foreign visitors to China, if they are really interested in the country: "Go in the opposite direction from the tour groups."

"Close your eyes and point to a place in a Chinese map, then go there, because chances are it'll probably be better than anywhere on the Tourist Trail," he suggests.

Carter, a San Francisco native, considers it a pity that people go home thinking that Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an and Chengdu, their great sights, five-star hotels and fancy restaurants have made a good China trip.

Carter spent the last two years backpacking to more than 200 villages and cities in almost all provinces and autonomous regions in China. Then he visited them all again in a second trip.

He spent no more than 30 yuan (US$4) per night and no more than 50 yuan on food a day and he went where the spirit, the bus, friendly drivers and survival Chinese took him. It was tough, but the journey was everything - and a book.

Sometimes really poor migrant workers and farmers felt so sorry for him that they offered to feed him and let him stay with them.

He blundered upon soldiers of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea when he accidentally crossed the border at Changbaishan Mountain in Northeast China's Jilin Province; in China he ran into trouble in remote villages for taking pictures and got beaten up by drunks because of the communication gap, among other adventures.

Many of them were positive. The intrepid traveler who taught English for two years barely managed with his Chinese and went to the places that laowai don't go.

He ended up broke and exhausted, but with thousands of color photos and poignant memories. Carter's photo book, "China: Portrait of a People," is due out in winter from Hong Kong publisher Blacksmith Books.

"The point of my photo book is to visually introduce China - in its entirety - to those kinds of people who stick to the five-star path and say to them, 'Hey, look what you're missing, get back here'!" Carter tells Shanghai Daily.

The 33-year-old photographer arrived in China in 2004 after having backpacked down the length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America for a year and half. After two years of teaching English in China, Carter felt comfortable enough to commence his trip again.

"My idea was to visit every province in the country, because I believe if you are going to visit somewhere you need to do it right and see all of it, not just the places the travel agencies tell you to go," says Carter.

He decided to make a book about China at the end of his first trip, so he came back again to get even more images.

Carter's photos, the results of his work from 6am to 6pm or later every day, came naturally from his curiosity, observation and interaction, with no preconceptions technically or artistically. Rather than "spending an hour to set up a shot and then photoshopping it to death afterwards," Carter prefers to "capture life as it is, then move on."

But the candid life shots, comprising one third of the book, were a big challenge for him. "As a foreigner walking down the street in very remote China, all activity stops the moment you are seen, so it's tricky to photograph life before life stops to stare at you."

On the other hand, the portraits, in which subjects were often at a short intimate distance from Carter, sometimes just inches away, were easier than expected. "It just takes a sincere interest in your subjects to get that close."

For both trips, Carter was on a very limited budget - his savings from teaching English in Shandong Province and Beijing. Hence, Carter - unlike many Westerners who stay for a week in the best hotels in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong - slept on the floor of bus stations, or sometimes slightly better, in 15-yuan flophouses with particle-board walls or decrepit youth hostels with hard board beds.

"Often I actually had migrant workers and village farmers feel sorry for me and offer to feed me and let me stay with them because they could see from my appearance and the look on my face that I didn't have much money," explains Carter.

The photographer also had little knowledge of the language, not to mention the diversity of Chinese dialects. He picked up most of the vocabulary on the road, out of necessity.

Even as an experienced backpacker, Carter has to admit that "China is probably the single most challenging country in the world to navigate for backpackers."

He says the difficulties include language barriers, 5,000-year-old customs, cultural differences, which travelers have to discover for themselves instead of catching on films.

And Carter never had a travel itinerary. He mostly depended on street maps and word-of-mouth from locals and other backpackers.

"Surprises are the rule, not exception," says Carter, who finds this way "more fun but also nerve-racking" as he would find himself sitting on the side of the road in some rural area for hours at night.

With all the difficulties in mind, Carter still suggests foreign travelers do something a little bit more adventurous than the usual Tourist Trail.

The photographer has been talking to his publisher about taking the concept of this book to other countries in the region but he doesn't know where yet.
(Shanghai Daily August 29, 2007)

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