The sandy regions, snow covered mountains and colorful Uighur costumes of China’s wild west, make Xinjiang a paradise for photography. WildChina and leading British photographer, Sean Gallagher, have worked together to design a unique and unprecedented photography boot camp along the ancient Silk Road. Intended for people who are passionate about photography and travel and looking to hone their skills in one of China’s most diverse and fascinating regions, this trip will cover shooting techniques including landscape, portrait, and time-lapse photography. Sean will lead us through the old town of Kashgar and century old bazaars where you’ll see the area’s unique Uighur culture and geographical diversity using your photographer’s eye.
This past week, Sean joined us for jiaozi lunch, so we were able to sit down and have a quick chat with him about the trip…
WildChina (WCT): Sean, you first caught our eye because your tag on Twitter described your work as “Raising awareness about environmental issues and understanding of China, through photography, video and multimedia“. How did you become interested in this type of work?
Sean Gallagher (SG): My interest in environmental issues stems from my time at University in the UK where I studied Zoology. It was during this time that I visited the Atlantic Rainforest, just outside Rio de Janeiro, as part of my studies. I was just discovering photography at this point, and I found it to be a wonderful tool to document many of the issues affecting the area, including deforestation and habitat destruction. From this point, I decided that I would use photography to help me convey my concerns about the environment.
WCT: When you decided to partner with WildChina, why did you choose the Silk Road in Xinjiang as the destination? Do you have any favorite stories you like to tell from your trips in that area?
SG: I first visited Xinjiang in 2009 and was immediately captivated by the western reaches of China. The Silk Road is a classic travel route however when travelling in the region, you still feel the past through the people and landscapes of the region. The Uighurs, who make up a large portion of the population, are intriguing in their distinctive culture and appearance. The landscapes in which they live are so diverse, from deserts to mountains to glaciers. For photography, it’s arguably one of the best places in the whole country.
During my first trip in 2009, we travelled deep into the mountains of eastern Xinjiang to visit an ancient abandoned city. Along the way, we got a flat tyre which delayed our journey time meaning we had to enter a dangerous mountain pass late in the evening. As our car weaved along the crumbling mountain road, we gazed into the darkness as the drop disappeared away from us. It was a scary experience! Eventually, we arrived at the home of some local Uighur farmers whom we were to stay with for the evening. Even though we arrived so late, the local family proceeded to bring out a banquet of food and serenaded us with Uighur songs into the night. We were the only ones for miles. It was a really special experience.
WCT: What are you looking forward to the most on the October trip? What do you hope to teach the people who join you on the trip this fall?
SG: I think I am most looking forward to meeting and working with a group of photographers who are keen discover Xinjiang through photography. There is always a great camaraderie when photographers get together and I am sure this trip will be no exception.
I’m also very much looking forward to trying to help people improve their photography during this trip. Each photographer may have a different goal but my aim is to help each photographer improve and take away with them, not only images, but a new approach and idea to photography which will ultimately make them better photographers.
WCT: Do you have any advice or tips for amateur photographers shooting the Silk Road? Are there cultural sensitivities they should be aware of, things not to take pictures of?
SG: Xinjiang is a region where religion is very evident. The Uighurs are Muslim, so there are large numbers of mosques in the region and it is commonplace to see people worshipping. At the beginning of the trip, I will advise participants about some of the best ways to go about photographing in this region, so as to avoid any problems. I have found that most people are more than happy to be photographed in Xinjiang; however, we will of course have to be sensitive and respectful of the local customs. Our guides and I will help participants through this at all times.
WCT: What is your favorite Silk Road site to photograph?
SG: I really enjoy photographing in and around the Taklamakan desert, an immense sea of moving sand which is second only in size to the Sahara. It’s often brutal desolation makes for a dramatic landscape to photograph. Spending the night in the desert is a unique experience. For the truly dedicated photographers you can awake early, stargaze and then wait for the sun to rise over the dunes. It’s an unforgettable experience.
WCT: What camera and equipment are you currently using?
SG: I like to travel as light as possible when travelling. As a working photographer, I often spend long days on my feet, so it essential to strip my gear down to only what I really need on any given day. My basic set-up for the work we will be doing on the silk road will be a Canon 7D with 16-35mm, 50mm and 70-200mm lenses. I will also have with me small flash and small tripod. I recommend participants also look hard at their equipment and decide which items they really need and keep it to the essentials.
WCT: Do you have any other stories or advice you’d like to share?
SG: As well as camera gear, I would advise participants to bring along with them an open mind. For me, photography is a tool to help me discover and understand people and issues better. To do this effectively, it is best to leave at home your preconceptions about a place, or its people. If you are able to do this, it will help make your images better as you steer clear of cliches and discover your unique perspective on the region and its people.
Sean Gallagher is a leading British photographer and videographer whose work focuses on people, culture and environmental issues. His work has appeared in publications including TIME Magazine, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Der Spiegel and National Geographic China. In 2010, he was the official photographer for the visit of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to China.
Recipient of numerous awards and grants, he is notably a two-time recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting travel grant. His images have been exhibited internationally and he has been invited to present his photographic work on China to institutions across the world including Georgetown University, The Climate Institute, The Natural Resources Defence Council and at the EU-Biodiversity seminars hosted by the Shanghai World Expo.
To read more about Sean, visit his website at http://gallagher-photo.com/
Image: Sean Gallagher