• September 24, 2015

From Amateur to Professional: A 25-Year Photographic Journey

Mark Leong

In 1989, Sanjiang was a dusty hill town in the southwest Chinese province of Guangxi. It was known for its covered wooden bridges but didn’t have many visitors. When my 23-year-old self stretched his legs after a bumpy five-hour bus ride, it felt like high noon at a Wild West outpost—with horse carts, Dong minority women wearing embroidered outfits, and rough-looking characters slung with knives and muskets.

A woman hangs laundry.
Yangshuo, Guangxi, 1989. A woman hangs laundry by the Yulong River. Yangshuo is one of China’s original foreign backpacker towns, famous for its limestone karst mountains and banana pancakes. When I arrived here, though, a few months after the Tiananmen crackdown, I was the only backpacker around.
Guangxi, 1989.  An elderly man waits for his son to bring him to the doctor.
Guangxi, 1989. An elderly man waits for his son to bring him to the doctor.

I found the nearest noodle shop and ordered by pointing. As I slurped my bowl on the cracked wooden table, the door swung open and, silhouetted against the white sun, a guy with a gun over his shoulder entered. He sat down beside me. Before digging into his noodles, he thumped something up on the table. Two large rodents, limbs trussed up, lay next to my bowl, looking at me.

The pictures I took of the creatures were blurry, but that scene came sharply to mind when I revisited Sanjiang this summer on a corporate job. The noodle shops are now fast-food chains with big-screen TVs. A high-speed train brings crowds of tourists over from Guilin in 28 minutes to stay at a four-star hotel instead of the flophouse where I had showered with a rusty bucket. There are no guns, and smartphones have replaced rodents as tabletop companions.

Until recently, I never gave much thought to the meaning of calling myself a “documentary photographer.” To me, it was a comfortable handle that didn’t necessarily commit to “art” or “journalism.” But more than 25 years of shooting in China has, if anything, given me a better grasp of the obvious. Looking here at a different noodle shop photo that wasn’t blurry, it turns out I have been producing documentation all along.

A worker rests after a lunch of rice noodles.
Sanjiang, Guangxi, 1989. A worker rests after a lunch of rice noodles. When I took this picture, I thought China would always be like this. Wrong, of course. I also imagined I would always shoot black-and-white film and be in my 20s.
A man has a smoke in a public latrine, 1989.
Wuzhou, Guangxi, 1989. A man reads a book and has a smoke while using the public latrine. Sometimes when I’m hesitant to really go after a picture, I have to tell myself, You better get it now, because it may never happen exactly the same way again.
Elementary school students play ping pong during a break between classes.
Longsheng, Guangxi, 1989. Elementary school students play ping-pong during a break between classes. I shot maybe three frames from the balcony above when they heard me and scattered. I wonder if they had ever been photographed before.

These old photos are a record of a time now gone, not just for a developing China but also for an updated (OK, older) version of myself. To reflect on these changes, earlier this month I retraced that first road trip that took me to Sanjiang, setting the tone for my career to follow. Extending the idea of change to my photographic process, I shot everything with only a prerelease iPhone 6s Plus and a tripod for night shooting.

School children play basketball in a Chinese village.
Sanjiang, Guangxi, 2015. For this project, I didn’t think it worthwhile to re-create each black-and-white shot. That seemed more of an intellectual exercise than a visual pursuit. But when I looked down from the balcony of this school and saw this basketball court, I couldn’t resist. These days everybody takes photos with their phones, so nobody cared or noticed, except for the kids behind me giggling at my screen.

In the summer of 1989, I had come to China to see the place my family left for California a century before. Having prepped with a crash language course in Guangzhou, and wary of photographing in the cities so soon after the Tiananmen crackdown, I was ready for the countryside. I chose Guangxi purely because of a Lonely Planet blurb about its sleepy backpacker towns. It was just me, my pack, a copy of the Oxford English-Chinese dictionary, a headphone cassette player, the Cowboy Junkies, and Lou Reed. In my shoulder bag were two second-hand Nikons, three lenses, and about eight pounds of Kodak black-and-white film.

This list catalogues 75 different maladies and misfortunes suffered by National Geographic photographers—from amoebic dysentery to paraglider crashes. It doesn’t mention, however, simple aging. When I prepare for an assignment these days, my knees and spine quietly complain about the toll of heavy gear and awkward shooting positions. So—having gradually expanded from shoulder bag to backpack to roller suitcase to assistants schlepping along all the photo stuff I have mostly just in case—carrying only an iPhone has been incredibly liberating.

A woman brushing her hair.
Longsheng, Guangxi, 2015. In 1989, I didn’t photograph many of the area’s colorful minority women, probably because I was shooting black and white. Hongyao women, who have become tourist attractions in their own right, grow their hair to spectacular Guinness-record lengths, saving every strand the one time they cut it at age 18.
A freeway under construction in China.
Sanjiang, Guangxi, 2015. A new freeway under construction between the cities of Guilin and Liuzhou will cut auto travel times in half. The high-speed rail, opened in 2013, has increased tourism dramatically.

During my first year in China, photography was an act of faith. Including during those three weeks in Guangxi, I shot 300 rolls of film without seeing a single picture. I dated each undeveloped roll with a Sharpie and stashed it in a plastic bag to process in my U.S. darkroom months later. I miss the Zen detachment of that system—somewhat. Because I also realize now how lucky I was to get through that entire year without losing any photos to light leaks, moisture, theft, or customs issues.

Today, to my own annoyance, I peep at each frame seconds after I take it. What happens before I press the virtual shutter, though, may be the biggest difference between then and now. In 1989, I just went up to people and started photographing without saying anything. Perhaps I didn’t want to disturb the scene—or maybe it was because I could barely speak Chinese. I may have attempted to smile warmly, which likely had the effect of making me seem more creepy.

A modern-day classroom in China.
Sanjiang, Guangxi, 2015. While many of the dirt-floor schools have been replaced, the interior of this fifth-grade classroom doesn’t look that different from before. After I took this picture, the principal saw me peering into another room, locked with a number of string-tied bundles of books stored on the otherwise empty floor. “This,” he said quietly, “is supposed to be our electronic classroom.”
A night scene in China.
Yangshuo, Guangxi, 2015. The boom in Chinese domestic tourism has given this town—described as “sleepy” in the 1988 Lonely Planet travel guide—a neon night scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Hong Kong. This was shot on a tripod with Cogitap’s Slow Shutter Cam app, which blended and blurred multiple exposures of passersby without overexposing the monk or the background.

I often didn’t know what was going on and had to ask people later to explain what I had just shot. Because both China and photography were so fresh and compelling to me, however, I wasn’t bothered by the lack of detailed context. My limitations gave me freedom. The socialist palette of dull greens, grays, and blues suited my monochromatic tone poem of Mao caps and black bicycles. I have very few pictures of the several culturally significant places I visited during that first trip; I was more interested in what I might wander across on the way—a man in a wheelbarrow, a bus stop, somebody having a smoke in the latrine.

Since the Chinese shed the Mao caps and started riding different colored bicycles, I too have opened up to the complexity of color. I still embrace random curiosity, but to work consistently, I want to see how the pieces fit together. I want the people I photograph to feel comfortable, to reveal themselves and their stories that I can understand a little better now. After 25 years of photographing in China, I still need time and want to know where I’m headed.

Mark Leong recently photographed a story about Nagaland for National Geographic. In China, he has ridden the same black one-speed bicycle since the mid-1990s. Appropriately, its brand name is Yongjiu (永久), which means “forever.” See more of his work on his website and Instagram.

There are 19 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. jose chavez
    October 6, 2015


  2. Matthew C. J. Rudolph
    October 6, 2015

    The line between appeal and caricature or pandering is so hard. Mark’s work for The New Yorker first showed me he could walk that line. Esthetically and from my own taste, I feel more power in his black and white work.

  3. zoey shaw
    September 30, 2015

    are you mark?

  4. Ann Churchill
    September 29, 2015

    I was there when you were,Dec.1989 in Beijing. I felt like the only westerner. I remember Army guy trying to run me over on my bike, and laughing. Everything was covered in black dust from the coal smoke.The neighborhoods were maze-like warrens.Everybody was on bikes.The restaurant you photographed was like one I went to a lot. Great photos.

  5. michael reynolds
    September 28, 2015

    Wonderdul article. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me Mark and offer some tips when I was starting my career in 2001, in Beijing. Glad to see your success.

  6. Chris Barclay
    September 27, 2015

    Beautiful work! Makes me long for Yangshuo in the early ’90s. Nowadays it’s so challenging to offer visitors to Yangshuo peace and quiet. Please stop by and stay next time at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat or Yangshuo Village Inn. Looking forward to your next series on China.

  7. Sean
    September 26, 2015

    Beautif piece Mark, and wonderful, enquiringly black and white photos. Thanks for writing this and showing your images.

  8. Dylan roberts
    September 26, 2015

    And to think that in spring of 1989, Nasty and I were drinking 10 cent beer in Guangzhou and saying, we have to warn Leong, he’s going to hate it here :). Lovely piece.

  9. Adam Hochschild
    September 26, 2015

    These are wonderful pictures, Mark. A journey in time, geography and technology, seen with a humanist’s eye. Is there another book in the works? I hope so!

  10. Brett Patching
    September 25, 2015

    Great article. Thanks Mark!

  11. Vivian Keys
    September 25, 2015

    When I gave you the crash course in Guangzhou I never in my wildest dreams thought that one day I’d be reading your article sitting in my home in Los Gatos while you are in Beijing. How amazing life happens.

    For the record your Chinese in 1989 was very impressive (your talent, not my credit). People referred to you as “the talk guy spoke Mandarin”. They did not see you as a foreigner.

  12. cactustweeter
    September 24, 2015

    Amazing piece. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Alan Kahn
    September 24, 2015

    Mark is the best contemporary photographer of China, hands down! His work spans everything that one needs to feel the unique juxtapositions that are the essense of this ultra-complex society. Mark’s camera always cuts through, making us the profoundly fortunate recepients of his mastery.

  14. Caroline
    September 24, 2015

    my daughter is adopted from Yongning SWI in Guangxi. Thank you for sharing these.

  15. Silas S
    September 24, 2015

    Nice to know more about your country and your story…

  16. Susie Ellis
    September 24, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your memories and your black and white pictures . I feel black and white film shows an art not seen in color film,.

  17. Steven S. Tung
    September 24, 2015

    Very nice! I’m receiving my iPhone 6s tomorrow and I’m very encouraged by your photos looking so good!

  18. PhilBoogie
    September 24, 2015

    “f/8 and be there”

  19. Christopher Hernandez
    September 24, 2015

    Great story! It;s cool how time and technology changes the world and our all important photos. Fabulous piece!! :))

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