Humans of the Hutongs

August 15th, 2015

I had the opportunity, on a sunny August Saturday morning of meeting with a group of photographers in the Beixinqiao area of Beijing to collaborate in a project named "Humans of the Hutongs"


Situated in the north eastern part of what is still considered the city center of the
17 million + megalopolis that is Beijing.

As you can see in the above photo. there are no massive buildings in a Hutong area. hutong actually means small street in Chinese. When looking at an aerial view of a hutong it is not easy to determine each of the individual streets as they ofter are no wider than an alleyway inside any standard "western" house.

After meeting up at the South East exit of the subway station, we headed towards the "Culture Yard" where we did our "Inception" meeting, decided on the overall guidelines for the day and attempted to establish three teams with different assigned roles.

The team roles ended concept ended up crumbling down. But we did however manage to re-focus each teams purpouse and basically agreed that each team should find at least 10 different subjects to shoot and interview.

I am not much of a hipster.
However, recently a friend of mine - Chris Meehan - has purchased a Rolleiflex and agreed to lend it to me along with a black&white and a colour film rolls.
I was already half-way through the colour roll and thought that I would probably have good opportunities during the day to finish it. I am glad I brought the camera since I managed to finish the roll and start the B&W one

It's amazing the amount of attention this camera gets. I had to keep telling people it wasn't mine !

My Challenges for this shoot.

During the fist meeting it was agreed - Thanks to the coordination efforts of Uday Phalgun (fellow photographer and one of the coordinators/founders of the project) - to shoot
1 - square photos - which I almost never do
2 - in colour - which I almost never do
3 - to have all the photos post processed by a single person - which wasn't me.
This was a lot to take on for my profile. Being mostly an "art" oriented photographer, used to working alone, and shooting only what I wanted, I was unsure of my ability to fit into the project's concept.
This is precisely why I told myself I absolutely had to be a part of this. Without challenging your ability once in a while, you cannot progress. you need to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to push yourself to sort the challenges and either fail and learn a lesson or....strive.

This is the "before" group shot we took right before embarking on our one-day photo mission.

What I find most interesting about this group is that photography really brings people of all walks of life together. I think at least 4 continents are represented in this picture and all sorts of professions: book designers, photo editors, lawyers, architects, financial experts, marketing people.

I really appreciate meeting people of professions totally different to mine and learning, through them, about it.

Here are Catherine and @Yuan (left and right) from our wonderful Team 3. They are interviewing and shooting a young mother. This lady was sitting in front of the house she has lived her whole life in. (If my memory serves me well, she may have even been born there.)

@Marck and @Marcos checking their gear while the other half of the team is interviewing the lady to the left.

This little buddy was the mascot of the restaurant we had a quick lunch at: "Chili Crush".
I did joke about the fact that I love bacon.
Did I mention the fact that I can't really eat spicy food? read the name of the restaurant again....

After the shooting we went back to our base camp and started editing the photos.
We did our best to chose photos from different subjects as well as try to ensure that each person in the team had at least one or two photos in the final selection.
The quality of the photos was overall super good. So it was quite easy.
The most suprising part to me was that out of 5 people I think there were three or four of us shooting 50mm. and yet, being next to the same subjects, at similar distances, under the same lighting conditions, we did end up with very different photos.
It was easy for me to immediately compare and understand how my composition, white balance, depth of field went wrong, and when it went right. I should really do this more often.

After each team finished editing their photos, we left the post-processing and final editing (there were still a few too many shots overall) to Bruno.

He did his best. He has a very different post processing style than mine. But I felt in good hands since a) I know him quite well and his work, b) he has quite a "natural" non destructive processing style and c) he is helping me edit my (hopefully soon-to-come) next book.

Of course, I believe that I would have done a better job on my own photos. :-)
He did the whole batch in 45 minutes and with 15 people pressuring him....and remained totally un-fazed. Props!

My selected shots

This gentleman was eating his soup while we met and questioned him. While he agreed to be photographed he mentioned that we should take the photo fast as he would finish his soup quite soon.

This became a challenge when I decided that in addition to shooting him with my Nikon, I would also like to take a photo of him with the Rollei. I hope the photo will turn out good. it's not developed yet.

This particular shot was a bit challenging. He was a little over excited and Catherine an Yuan were standing to his right, so he was generally looking at them and not facing the camera.
I didn't want to shoot him from the side as I liked this composition better. inside the door frame with his knees to each side of the stool, it had a very nice symmetry. Also, he almost never smiled. Until suddenly as he went back into his soup, one of his buddies said something (which I didn't understand) that made him smile. A perfect symmetrical "joker-esque" smile.

These are two sisters. Their family invited us into their rather lavish and recently reformed house.
They had built a whole new section at the top with a mini-bar for guests and two terraces.
Husband (not in any of the photos on this post) and Wife (on the right) showed us around. It was quite special. they each had individual rooms and different style decorations for each room.
It was a mix of old and new of pretty and kitsch.
I have many more photos of the house in my opinion are more interesting than the portraits and may in the future form a good base for a more detailed story about them.

The evening show

We printed all the photos during the afternoon.
to be more precise, we had them printed.
Then we went to "Mas Bar", a nice trendy bar inside the hutong which is hosting the exhibit for about one month.
In this photo, Marcos and I are hanging the photos.

We had a whole production chain, some putting tape at the back of each photo, others writing the captions of each of the subjects and others hanging them.

After it was all done, we had a great time,
Many of the people in the photos came by the bar to pick up the copies we had prepared for them. It was a nice time to relax after a long day and see the fruits of our collective effort come to life.

When starting collective actions i am generally very wary. I know it only takes one or two un-cooperative persons to ruin the experience for everyone.

But, that day, nothing happened. I may have not had the opportunity to have meaningful discussions with many of the photographers from the other two teams but this doesn't take anything away from the experience being a total success.

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