During my time in China I have come to believe that somewhere between 98-99% of the male population (and a not insignificant percentage of the female population) smoke anywhere from one to five packs of cigarettes a day. China apparently in this regard is modeling it’s behavior after New York in the 1940s, because people smoke constantly and everywhere.I was going to list all the places where Chinese people smoke, but it’s actually easier to list the places where Chinese do NOT smoke. Let’s see…um…well, I don’t think they smoke while they sleep.
Larger cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are starting to clamp down and smoking is no longer allowed in shopping malls, elevators and most restaurants, but these rules have definitely not come to the mainland.
However you may feel about smoking it does have one very useful benefit for me as a photographer in China; it’s a great ice breaker to strike up a conversation.
Try putting a camera in the face of a laobaixing who’s trying to get his plot ready before the rains come and, well it’s probably best if you don’t understand the local dialect. Now, offer that same “Old Hundred Names” farmer a smoke and a bit of conversation in the worst Mandarin he’s ever heard (always good for a laugh) and not only will he let you take all the photos you want, but send you home with a cabbage.
(click above images for larger view)
Technical Details: All images Leica M9-P + 50/0.92 Hyperprime with ND1.8 filter
I have never claimed to be a “street photographer”, and it’s probably for the best because in a city where there’s 700,000 Chinese and one westerner it’s pretty hard to blend in. Oh sure, I get my shots, but walking down the sidewalk here is like walking down Fifth Avenue in a full size muppet costume. People stare, then they’re not sure they’re seeing correctly, then they point, then they say something like “that poor guy looks just like a foreigner”. Because of this I have had to change my photographic strategy, as I have no desire to end up as the first incarcerated paparazzi in Laifeng. Instead I pick out an interesting person whom I want to photograph, stroll over and offer up the local greeting, “Please smoke!!!”