On The Road; Always Be Prepared; The Rewards Of Research
First, the time of year for my trip promised hot, humid weather and not much happening in the way of festivals or events. But the biggest challenge was the fact that the more I read about Taiwan, the more I realized that there wouldn’t be much authentic ethnic culture to photograph.
And to me that was the key point of the assignment. Most tourists come to Taiwan from mainland China, and the tourist board was trying with this advertorial to get people from the US to visit. Taiwan, though, is a very modern country, with modern highways and high-rise buildings; it’s what I call “highly electronified.” So the challenge was to show things that would be interesting to American tourists, and one of the things you visit a country for are its cultural traditions.
Unfortunately, traditional aboriginal culture in Taiwan exists mainly in heritage or cultural centers scattered throughout the country. Tourists can drive to the area for highly organized tours, complete with visitors centers, souvenir shops, and restaurants. It sounded a little like visiting the French or German pavilion at Epcot.
The tourist bureau had set up a schedule for me to visit a set of places, including the ethnic villages, and believe me, they were not the sort of places Americans would get on a plane and travel 14 hours to visit. But I’d received the list before I left for Taiwan, so I’d looked up the places and realized right away what the problem would be. The only way I could handle it was to try to photograph these places in a way that made them look as authentic as possible.
But I also decided to take the initiative, and I did some research on my own, looking for some authenticity. And I found it: there was an area in Taiwan in which a lot of interesting and well-known Taiwanese artisans lived. One of them was a sword maker who’d made the swords for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Another was a famous lantern maker; his lanterns sell for thousands of dollars. Of course this town was not on the list of places they gave me, but I convinced the people from the tourist board that we should travel there so I could photograph, and it ended up that they used several of the images.
I also found out that one of the things Taiwan is noted for is the quality and variety of its street food, and I was able to capture images at a city market. Then I learned about a well-known restaurant in Taipei that’s famous for its special soup dumplings. I went there and found long lines of people waiting to get in. The restaurant produces 10,000 dumplings a day, but the way to show that was not by photographing lines of people, or even people at tables eating. I talked my way into the back room where there were about 30 men dressed in white and wearing white gloves who were making dumplings as fast as they possibly could. It was another authentic moment captured.
I guess what I’m saying is that thanks to my research and preparation I turned out to be a better guide than the freelance guide the tourist bureau provided. He was helpful, but not very experienced, and my research and the guidebook I carried turned out to be better source material. I was, as the Boy Scouts advise, well prepared.
I also had the advantage of knowing what kinds of pictures were needed for the assignment—pictures that would grab people’s attention and get them thinking about Taiwan as a travel destination.
It’s not a bad technique to think about when you’re traveling: just pretend the images you’re taking have to be the travel bureau’s convincing advertising.
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