Building up a sense of connection with Beijing through the iPhone lens – by Paul Yan
It is one thing to live and work in a city of another land other than the motherland you were born in; it is another to get used to and be in peace with it even though you have lived there for ten years. Here’s my story of how I gradually developed a sense of connection with the city of Beijing through the act of photography, which is non other than mobile photography.
I was born and raised in Taiwan, which has been geographically and culturally part of China since antiquity, but not idiologically, since 1949. Although the official languages of both lands are practically the same, the written forms are very different. People of Taiwan write in the traditional Chinese characters, while citizens of China write in the simplified form that was developed and finalized in the 1950s. The difference between the two is so great that it’s common that a person who is accustomed to one form doesn’t recognize the other. The differentiation can be found in many aspects of life including ethics, patterns of behavior, aesthetics and values.
I had been working in the music production industry of Taiwan since 1990 and was fortunate enough to have worked briefly in Beijing in the mid-1990s, participating in producing a few musical projects that are now lauded by the Chinese media as classics of the Chinese rock and pop music. However, I didn’t feel the need to move to China to continue my music production career as I had enough work to do in Taiwan. It was in 2005, after being encouraged and invited by my friends, that I moved to Beijing to continue my music production career. Everything had been going very well with work, I’d made many new friends and I had been supported by old and new customers. However, it was pretty hard for me to really establish a comfortable rapport with the city.
Everything changed after I started to take photographs, mainly in the street of Beijing, with my mobile phone in 2015. On my days off from long hours of studio work, I frequently went out and roamed the streets of the city for over 6 hours at a time to shoot to my heart’s delight. That became my only mode of exercise to keep me fit. I found myself opening up and chatting a lot with strangers in the street while taking photographs with them in the frames as the human elements. Sometimes environmental portraits are made after brief conversations with my human subjects. Being mindful of the happenings in the streets and parks, feeling the heartbeat of the city, I began to build up a real sense of connection and belonging through the act of mobile photography.
It’s a splendid myth that the act of mobile photography has brought me closer to the soul of the city of Beijing after living in it for ten years.
[Smoke on the Cluster]
You can find roadside Barbecue stalls everywhere in Beijing, and all over the country, when the climate is warm enough. Roadside BBQ is a major pastime for the people in the evening; you can smell the smoke and scent from afar. Upon seeing this stall, I asked the chef if I could photograph him working – he was totally cool in front of the lens. My right hand almost got burned while taking this one as I was holding my phone very close to the grill while he was sprinkling spice over the clusters of mutton.
[The Day After]
After kissing my mother goodbye at Beijing airport, I decided to stick around outside the airport building to take advantage of the overpass under which people would walk by. I pre-focused on the floor a few meters in front of me, held my phone right on the floor to get the composition and then waited, squatting… A couple of minutes later, this lady walked by and I released the shutter with the phone’s ear-buds cable as she just got into the frame walking in full stride. Thanks to her curiosity about what I was doing, she glanced my way over her shoulder while the photo was shot.
[A Stroll with Siddhāttha]
Early winter morning stroll in the woods, I felt peace and imagined walking behind Mr. Siddhāttha Gōtama, aka the Buddha (the Awakened One) – listening to him teaching me how I could practice to be free from all attachments to ego and everything. This was shot with the Slow Shutter Cam app in Motion Blur mode, focus-locked on the nearest tree, scanning the phone vertically to achieve that blur.
[Progressive, in Raving Lights]
A photographic tribute to all the classic progressive rock bands like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Rush and Marillion, etc.. This was shot on an overpass with the Procamera app set to 1/2 second at ISO 32. I focused on the floor and wiggled my phone vigorously when these people walked into the frame to take the image. The light streaks were headlights and tail lights of passing cars.
[Tread the Path]
I was experimenting here, taking low-angle shots with the Manfrotto Wide-Angle add-on lens. After locking the focus on the ground in front of me. I set the shutter speed and ISO in the ProCamera app in my iPhone 6 Plus, then squatted on the edge of the pavement by the boulevard leading to Tian-An-Men Square in Beijing and waited for my prey. I had the top edge of my phone right on the pavement and tilted the lens up towards the low afternoon sun with the intention of including only someone’s legs in the frame. I saw a man coming by while another was in the distance. The shutter was fired when the one near me was about to walk out of the frame and the one in the distance was right in the triangle formed by the former’s stride.
[Kalyāna-Mitra – Lesson from a Tree]
This tree, among others, has always been erect on the bank across the small river close to where I live, and can be see from my balcony every day. It changes from being leafy to bare and the cycle goes on through all the seasons. It has become one of my friends in nature and has been a living reminder to me of the lesson of impermanence and equanimity in all conditions. It’s my “Bodhi Tree” if you like. One day, I decided to shoot a photo of us two together…
[Into the Unknown]
I was strolling in the eastern downtown area of Beijing one afternoon when I came upon this entrance/exit of a subway station. An escalator connected the station to the ground level where a translucent blue canopy had been installed. Refracted blue light fell on the walls and the ceiling inside the tunnel, rendering the people on the escalator as silhouettes against a blue background, when one looked up from below. The words “twilight zone” came to mind when the scene met the eyes.
[Crossfire in the Jungle]
This image was taken at a crossroads in Beijing, where cars honk their horns relentlessly at everything in front of them, right at the instant when the traffic lights go green. Life in the urban jungle isn’t so easy for a lady, especially when you’re threatened by carnivores on wheels that don’t know pedestrians are to be respected.
[Ascent to Luminescence]
Me and my wife were visiting a friend who was a professor at medical school. This stairwell was just outside his office. I thought the profile of the stairwell wall, when looked down from the upper level, was geometrically interesting for a photograph… but not that interesting without a person in the frame. So I had my wife go down to the level below and asked her to go up with her hand on the rail. I took the photograph while she reached the spot that I’d pre-visualized for the composition. Thanks to my lovely wife for her co-operation!
[Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side!]
Shot on a rainy night outside the entrance of a supermarket near home. I saw the wet pavement reflecting the red light emitted by the neon sign above the storefront and thought it would make good foreground for an image. A girl walked into the frame pretty soon. My lips pressed one of the volume buttons of the phone’s earphone cable to fire the shot, right when her legs were in wide stride in front of the bright store light.
[Up is the way!]
I was wandering around a bus station one afternoon when I hit this spot under an overpass where a triangle was formed by the columns and the edge of the overpass. Without hesitation, I focused on the stairway, carefully composing the scene so that the top tip of the triangle touched the top edge of the frame, and waited for my prey to get on the stairway.
[Mama told me not to come!]
It was in a lovely August afternoon last year when this photograph was taken. A few kids were playing and running around in an open area of a park, and the pinky dress and shoes of this jolly little girl attracted my eyes immediately. I pre-focused on the ground about 1.5 meters in front of me, squatted and waited for her to run past me, and she did!
Viva innocence and purity!
[Universal Fountain of Love]
At the fountain in the frontal plaza of the Hyatt Hotel in Beijing, which was pretty close to the Royal Palace/Forbidden City/Tian-An-Men Square. The fountain was lit from inside the rim around which people like to take selfies or pictures of their family and friends. The plaza is usually swarming with people in the evening so it can be hard to take a clean photograph of the fountain.
The girl in the frame had just finished posing for her friend’s smartphone on the rim of the fountain and was bending down to pick up her purse, getting ready to leave when I took this photo.
[Nothing Lasts Forever]
The city of Beijing had a pretty heavy snowfall on November 22nd 2015. I was delighted because I had been hoping for the advent of snow so I could go out and have some fun shooting in it. My white trip started at about three in the afternoon. I had already been rewarded with a couple of worthy frames when patrolling in the wafting snow before this image was taken. The snow on the branches of this tree by the river, along with the snow on the surrounding ground, were tinted electric pink by the row of red neon signs on the other side of the road. I put my iPhone on a tripod and set it up about 3 meters from the tree and half a meter above ground. I angled it up approximately 30 degrees so I could have the tree, with its hanging leaves, as a natural frame that partially veiled the residential buildings across the steaming river.
The sun had completely set when I began working on this image. To have the ISO value as low as possible to avoid noise and grain, I set the shutter speed of my ProCamera app to the slowest it could go: 1/2 second, and I had to set the ISO to no lower than 160 before under-exposure was inevitable. I left the auto white balance on as the colour temperature decided by the app was quite spot-on on this occasion. The app’s self-timer was set to 25 seconds, giving me time to get into position in the frame, playing the human element.
This image, as a self-portrait, conveys my state of mind at the moment:
Steam on the water, snow on the ground, leaves on a tree, smoke from a cigarette, man in an overcoat – all conditioned things are but fleeting existence. Nothing lasts forever. So don’t be attached whatsoever.
May all be in peace and joy!
Paul Yan is a talented photographer and Picker. He is the first author to be published on Grryo following the announcement of our partnership with Picwant.
Paul Yan was born in Taiwan and has been working as a music producer and recording/mixing engineer for over 25 years. Based in China and Taiwan, he specialises in the rock, pop and electronica genres. Some of his music production work has been lauded as rock classics by the Chinese media.
Ever since he was a child, Paul has the propensity to stare for long at a scene or an object and let his eyes and mind be fixated on the interplay of lights and shades that interact with each other like actors in a drama or chords and rhythms in a piece of music.
After he started to make images with the iPhone avidly in mid-2015, photography rapidly became his alternative creative outlet beside his music production work. Extracting beauty from everyday life while telling stories through the lens gives him tremendous joy. It also acts as a form of meditation that enables him to have a deeper insight into the fleeting nature of human conditions and worldly phenomena.
Being aware that the photographs one makes fully reflect his or her state of being, Paul firmly believes that the ultimate way to become a better photographer or artist of any discipline is to practice becoming a better person each day.