The Power of Lingering

To shoot his photo essay Disappearing Shanghai, J-school professor Howard French had to make something else fade from view: himself.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2010-11
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Shanghai Expression by Howard French“The process feels very similar to me,” says French, who at the J-school teaches a course on reporting in China and another on reporting in the developing world, with an emphasis on Africa. “As a journalist, I don’t just randomly walk down the street interviewing people. I go out with an idea of a particular mission. I have a sense, even if I am open to surprise, of what kind of characters will be the most interesting for my purposes, and how best to approach them in order to gain access. Up until that point, I see journalism and photography as being very alike. You have to overcome a lot of the same hurdles.

“One of the biggest impediments to journalism students is something simple that most of them never stopped to think about before they got here, and that is: How do you actually approach somebody? How do you start a conversation? How do you break the ice? How do you gain someone’s confidence? Documentary photography requires every single one of those skills. You might even say it demands them at a higher degree.”

To prepare for a project like Disappearing Shanghai, French walks around. He figures out the traffic patterns, studies the light, marks the human scene. And he never hides his camera: It is always out, because the sooner people become accustomed to it, the sooner he can start to work.

“If I spring it on you, you are going to throw your hands up as if you have been assaulted. So I walk around with my camera totally visible, making no bones about what I’m doing or who I am. All of this happens before the serious work begins.

“A lot of these more intimate Shanghai pictures came about as a result of what can only be called the ‘power of lingering.’ I can walk up to you — you’re a stranger hanging out on a street corner or sitting on a park bench or eating your dinner or sitting in front of your house — and initially, because I’m very tall and don’t look at all Chinese, perhaps you are uneasy.

“I’ll stand five feet away from you. If I have to stand there for an hour, I’ll stand there for an hour. And eventually you will think, ‘This person who I was really curious about when he first walked up is now just part of the landscape. He has been here for an hour now, shifting from one foot to the other, daydreaming. I don’t need to be too concerned with him.’ So I’ve blended into the environment, even though I am as alien as I could be. And when I feel the temperature is just right, I take my picture.”

Last summer, at one of China’s two international photo festivals, French exhibited his black-and-white landscapes of a part of Virginia where his ancestors were slaves. He also spent a month taking pictures and teaching photography to photojournalists in Burma, an extremely isolated and restrictive country for which he had to work hard to obtain a visa. Currently, he’s collaborating on a book of his Shanghai photos with the Chinese novelist and poet Qiu Xiaolong.

“One striking quality about Howard’s Shanghai pictures is that they’re not just about a building or the lane or the alley or the small side streets,” says Qiu, who grew up in that rapidly changing city. “It’s also about the culture and people associated with these streets. Nowadays, if you go to China, and Shanghai especially, you will see a lot of pictures of modern or postmodern buildings. Howard captures the traditional Shanghai that is disappearing.”

That’s more than French himself might offer. As a writer who has published thousands of articles and a book called A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, and who has completed his first novel and recently won an Open Society Fellowship to research a book on Chinese migration to Africa, French understands the limits of words.

“Having worked for five years on Disappearing Shanghai, I don’t feel I need to tell people what it means,” he says. “The whole purpose is for the pictures themselves to speak.”

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