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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.