Tom Carter Interview

Tom Carter undertook a tour of all 33 provinces of China using just a basic compact camera. We find out more.

| C-4000 Zoom in Professional Interviewed
Tom Carter Interview: Guangdong
Guangdong province photo by Tom Carter

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography.
I am entirely self-taught. I have never worked in a professional capacity of photography. The 4-megapixel camera I carried around with me in China was the equivalent of today’s mobile-phone cameras: quick snapshots of anything and everything I saw. I guess that’s called 'street photography'. And that’s what I love to do most: just walk around new places from dawn till dusk, meeting people, finding myself lost, getting in adventures… The photography was always secondary.

What inspired you to partake in a tour of China?
I had no particular interest in Chinese culture when I first arrived here in 2004. I just wanted to travel to far-away places, but without any money, teaching English was the only way I could do that. 2 years on I still felt disconnected from China and its society, so I set off on my tour across the country, because I did not want to leave China without having seen it all. But the more I traveled, the more I fell in love with the country and its people. 9 years later I’m still here.
Tell us a bit about the camera and the equipment that you used for the tour.
Every photo that appears in CHINA: Portrait of a People was taken with an Olympus C-4000. I used no other gear or equipment.

Tom Carter Interview: Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia photo by Tom Carter

Did you start with an aim to document all the provinces of China?
No, I was just a backpacker drifting around the country; I was only taking snapshots for fun along the way. However, after the first year of traveling all 33 provinces, I had landed a book deal to publish all my photos, which is when the perfectionist in me wanted to return to all the provinces to make sure I had seen it all; I wanted my book to be definitive and comprehensive. So I spent another year traveling across the country, this time with a specific intention of documenting as many aspects of life and humanity as I could.

Talk us through what you aimed to get from your photos.
My photos were just an afterthought to whatever situation I found myself in. I didn’t go looking for pretty pictures. But if I met a particularly interesting person, I’d approach them as a fellow human being, not as a photographer. The photos came after. And for the portraits, I was as near to them as you see in the image itself; I didn’t have a zoom lens.

Do you have any particular favourite photos?
It’s not so much that I have favorite photos as fond memories behind certain photos. For instance, the “black” (illegal) coal mines of southern Shanxi, which were operating illegally at a time when there had been a recent explosion and the local authorities were more concerned about keeping out journalists than improving working conditions for the miners. I spent several days prowling around the mountains, evading the police and guards, until the opportunity for a hit-and-run photo shoot presented itself.

Tom Carter Interview: Shanxi
Shanxi province photo by Tom Carter

Do you have a favourite province?
I don’t have any 'favourite' province; each province in China has its own distinct personality that I appreciate. However, the southwest region of China is resplendent with ethnic minority tribes and rural villages as opposed to the modern, steel-and-glass skyline of the eastern shores, so of course there are more colorful photos to be found in places like Yunnan and Guangxi.

Did you touch your images up in any way when you returned, or did you want to preserve them in their original forms?
I am personally against 'touching up' photos. I am against HDR – I think the trend has reached a ridiculous point and look forward for it to becoming passé – and the only photo program I have on my computer is Photoshop 7, which I hardly use. Few if any of the photos in my book were cropped or manipulated in any other way. What you see is what came straight out of the camera.

You've travelled through many exotic and faraway places - what draws you to go off of the beaten track?
I guess it comes from my innate disdain for authority, and from a dislike of being told what to do and where to go, which is essentially the purpose of a 'tour' group. I understand why some holidayers book tours, but just know that when you isolate yourself on a diesel bus and in a fancy hotel, you are essentially missing out on what makes any country truly special, which of course is the People.

Tom Carter Interview: Jiangxi
Jianxi province photo by Tom Carter

Looking back, would you have done anything differently if you had the chance?
I wouldn’t do a single thing differently; destiny brought me face-to-face with each of those people for a reason. However, someday I would like my book CHINA: Portrait of a People to be printed in a larger format, and preferably hardbound.

Tom is currently touring India for his next photography project, INDIA - Portrait of a people.

If you'd like to buy CHINA - Portrait of a People, take a look at There is also a review of the book here on ePHOTOzine. Take a look at Tom's Facebook page for more information.

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