Just Like Starting Over

The terra-cotta soldiers of Xian, China, are highly prized and closely guarded national treasures. I used an 80-200mm Zoom-Nikkor with the F4 tripod mounted because of the low-light conditions. I needed special permission to shoot--and paid handsomely to get it. Even so, I was allowed less than five minutes to make my photos and was supervised by armed guards every moment.
Photos © 2001, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

I was talking recently with a writer who asked me what my favorite place to photograph in all the world was. I answered without hesitation. "Asia," I said. But when he asked why, I said, "You know, I'm not sure."

My first thought was that there were two reasons: I'm comfortable in Asia, and I get great pictures there--both of which are important factors, the latter especially so because I make my living selling my travel photographs. But I'm comfortable in Europe, too, and I always return from my European trips with good pictures.

Then I realized that "comfortable" was not really the right word. In a sense, I'm not really comfortable in Asia, and that's why it's my favorite place.

It's not that I'm ever worried about my safety--just the opposite. It's that no matter where I might be in Asia--Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Bangkok--I feel a little insecure, a little off-balance. And, somehow, no matter how many times I go there, Asia never fails to be somewhat unfamiliar. It never fails to surprise me and keep me off-balance. Simply, every time I go there it's like the first time, and I feel like I'm starting over in my discovery of this wonderful place.

The mystical Li River in Guilin, China, taken at sunset with a 28mm wide angle Nikkor fitted with two 81C warming filters.

I realized that I like putting myself into situations like this. When I'm a little uneasy, a little insecure, I have a tendency to look a little harder for pictures. And Asia always rewards my efforts. Everything is different there, and that's part of the allure. It's a spiritual place, where beliefs are part of everyday life. There are elements of mystery there, and there is serenity, too.

I realized, too, what the difference between Asia and Europe is for me. There are places in Europe where I have to play the "pretend I've never been here before" game--and there are places where the game no longer works. In Asia I never have to do that. It's new every time, and whenever I get there, no matter what city on the continent, it's step one all over again.

Taken in a busy market in Kashgar, China, with the 35-70mm zoom.

Unfamiliarity Breeds Strength
And then I realized that that was why my Asian work was so strong. The overly familiar can lull me. Asia simply keeps providing the unusual and the unfamiliar no matter how many times I go, which is very important for me. "Been there, done that" is dangerous for a photographer.

I recalled something that happened a few years ago. I was photographing at a very remote part of the Great Wall of China. I'd set up my Hasselblad XPan (panorama photos were high on my list of goals for that trip) and was looking through the viewfinder at what probably was the most breathtaking view I'd ever seen in my life. I think I was yelling out loud, "Wow! This is incredible!"

Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. I shot from another boat and used a walkie-talkie to direct this boat into position. I used two filters--an 85B warming and a graduated color, red to orange, on my 35-70mm Nikkor zoom. Like all the photos here, it was taken with my F4.

Then from behind me I heard a voice say, "I hope you're getting paid a lot of money for that shot." I turned around and there was a man I knew--a travel photographer from my hometown. He'd been on assignment in Taipei and was now making a stopover visit to China. But he was standing there without a camera! "A lot of people have made this shot before," he said, meaning that he felt he couldn't make any money from a stock image of the scene. And all the while I'm thinking, man, if you don't need to take a picture of this for yourself, then you've just stopped seeing.

I think about him now and realize that he'd stopped looking, and stopped seeing, because everything was so familiar and comfortable. He seemed incapable of discovery. It was definitely a case of "been there, done that."

I guess if there's a lesson for all of us here it's that if there's a place where we're not entirely comfortable, maybe that's exactly where we should be going to take pictures. Maybe we should all, at least some time, leave ourselves open to discovery and not try to assimilate or understand everything. We should leave ourselves open to wonder.

This Korean child seemed a little puzzled, but was happy to pose for me. I used the f/2.8 80-200mm zoom wide open on the tripod-mounted F4.

Thinking back on it, I realized that for some unknown reason, I'd been primed for the Asian continent even before my first visit. I knew I wanted to go and I knew I'd love it. The first city I visited was Hong Kong, and I've been there a dozen times since and it's still my favorite city to visit and each visit it is like the first.

The final thing I realized from all this was that I'm pretty lucky to feel this way about these places and very fortunate to have a job that allows me to make a living by sharing images that reflect my feelings.