To celebrate the release of our new book The Great Eastern, we asked its author Scott Conarroe to tell us the stories behind his favourite images.
Image #1 :: Workers’ Camp, Nanjing Jiangsu, 2012
I remember Nanjing South station as being massive. It had a spooky imposing ambience. I expect these impressions come at least in part from the series of less grand nowheres that preceded it. In 2012 it was not yet operating at full capacity. There were almost no people and very few lights. It was daytime, so bright enough to navigate, and rather than feeling claustrophobic each hall seemed to stretch indefinitely into the gloom. A few workers materialized from a shadow. They pushed muddy wheelbarrows across the dim glow of polished stone floor then dissolved back out of sight.
Outside was like a desert. The bustle and construction I’d gleaned from the internet turned out to not exist. The nearest hotel was a bit of a walk. I was the only guest on a special floor for foreigners. My room had an exercise ball and a bottle of champagne. There was a 2m tall anime bikini girl painted on the wall beside the bin. It was air-conditioned and adequately clean but repellent in its rendition of luxury.
I marched around the station for a few hours. I set up the camera to compose many shots I ended up not taking. I’d seen two taxis and no one else. It was just before dusk when I came upon this workers’ camp. As much as I love watching people, I’ve never felt fully comfortable photographing them. One guy waved at me though so I took it as a type of invitation. I used my widest lens and smallest aperture. Those going out of their way to ignore me would be smaller within the frame. The 2 or 3 second exposure would blur out faces but render still figures. I made two exposures. The guy in the shower is less legible in this one. I thought of my own lodgings and projected a degree of sweetness onto the scene. True, sleeping beneath a freeway onramp does sort of caricature homelessness. On the other hand, this site reminds me of the tree planting camps I inhabited each spring for a chapter of my life. Without the indignity of exhaust and ceaseless traffic, their silent whorl of infrastructure resembled a type of wilderness. I can imagine sleeping well enough there.
Image #2 :: Sheaf Ladies, Jinzhai Anhui
The police came when I made this picture. It’s a thing that can happen when someone deviates from standard activities. US law enforcement tends to assert that a big old cartoony camera is a threat, and that by standing next to it a person must be somehow guilty. In Canada it’s more, “What are you taking a picture of?”. In Europe I’ve yet to be approached by police. And in China half a dozen encounters have left me with the impression that they’d rather not have to deal with some big nose getting lost or injured in the countryside. I figured after two minutes of small talk they’d deposit me back at the train station or, better yet, at my hotel.
It’s possible I’d wandered into an area that’s off limits to foreigners. I never did learn to discern them. It could just be that the guys who picked me up didn’t mind paperwork, or perhaps they were so bored that three hours of primitive conversation was a welcome distraction. I’m not sure why I had to go to the station. I think it was a mystery to everyone involved. Nonetheless once we were there some guys in suits had to be called. We “filled out” a form. We spoke at length without nuance or significant comprehension.
My Mandarin trumped their English so communication was more performance than exchange. They smoked the room dusky. We drank tea. There were snacks. They seemed to enjoy looking through the view camera. It was all very collegial. When I was instructed to unload my exposed film into the trash, I didn’t bother to protest 5 sheets. When I put one film holder off to the side, they didn’t notice. Everyone seemed fine with this give and take. Sheaf Ladies, Jinzhai Anhui was one of two exposure I walked away with. It could be my favourite image from this series. I still don’t know what industry it depicts.