Thor's China Diary

The Photograph

@11 January 2000
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 A photograph is a simple thing, isn't it? You know, the snapshot of a smiling me-at-the-beach, Teresa's-new-dog-chewing-a-cushion ... Then there are the mug-shots that officials want to prove that you're not included in their shoot-on-sight list. For those you find a booth at a railway station, wait until two teenage girls have stopped giggling behind the tiny curtain, and pay your five bucks so the machine will blink and flash at you. After five minutes of grinding and puffing it spits out a pasty strip of four thumbnail photos of the kind favoured by cops and immigration officers. Well, that's the Australian story. The Chinese translation has its own kind of colour.

Take one: ask Chinese a friend with fragmentary English to make a passport photo; show a sample; smile bravely. Outcome: landscape shot, not portrait; he has included your body down to the waist, just to be sure; your head is a tiny pinpoint.

Take two: let's get this done professionally. "Real quick", you tell the photo shop. "30 yuan" says the photographer. You try to show him a sample, but he's a professional, doesn't deign to look. An hour later you are startled to find yourself tableaued on a field of deep crimson. A true son of China. Your head is still a bit too small, and the heavy contrast has made your Caucasian skin very pale. The overall effect is, well, novel. But he is a professional, so you send it off. The consular office e-mails their distaste: with that in my passport the blue-blooded guardians at Australia's gates would condemn me to exile.

Take three: self-help. You get out your SLR and put it on a tripod. The camera and zoom lens have just been reset and repaired at great expense. Mm, need something to adjust the focus against. You go out into the freezing winter rain, and eventually find a stick of bamboo. Mark it carefully: top of head, eyeline, mouth, chin; prop it against the bedroom wall. All set? Yep; press the button, heave the bamboo and slide in front of the lens. Better get a few shots to be sure. You go back to the photo shop, say you want this one real quick too. Struggling for words and ever smiling, you convey the idea that their crimson masterpiece was "bu hao" for the job on hand. Puzzlement, a hint of hurt. Half a day later you come back in a hurry. Startling edits. The top of your head has been amputated !!@#$!! An SLR is what-you-see-is-what-you-get isn't it? Well, um, did I forget to keep inside the viewfinder crop marks? Check the camera again; aah, there are no viewfinder crop marks.. vanished, banished.

Take four: a slight edge of hysteria. You corner the sales girl in the photo shop again. "Yeah, I'll pay another 30 yuan. Just do it. A light background, that's all." She digs out a black & white photograph. "Like this?" Raised eyebrows. "No, colour, but ..". you wave your hands behind your head ... "like this" (a piece of white paper) ... "not this" (stabbing your finger at a red poster). She goes off to consult the photographer. Comes back, gives me a free mini-album, ever smiling. "No, very sorry, the photographer can only take photographs with a red background". Aaah! Ughhhh! I struggle to smile, and try to remember that this is China. What the hell is going on? He has lost face, I am a foreigner, he might do it wrong again ...

Take five: keep calm. You have another camera. An idiot-proof camera, right? A nice little Pentax Espio that is auto-everything. You think awhile, then take it together with a tripod to the waiban's office. The waiban is the dogsbody in the university's international office who is paid to sedate foreign teachers. This one mostly means well, but he has a knack of not quite getting it right, so you take great care. This is his big chance to get some extra skills for his resume. "ZYC, this is a passport photo. See, just head & shoulders, dead centre. C'mon, you can do it." ZYC looks at the camera on its tripod doubtfully, as if it might bite him. I get him behind the thing, looking through the viewfinder, and do my hero pose in front of it. After 5 minutes of wriggling around, dragging it around the floor, he finally presses the shutter, once, twice, three times.

I grab the film and hightail it down to another photo shop I've seen outside the East Gate. This is not a shop to inspire confidence. Not a customer to be seen, a youth is pretending to sleep in one corner, and the salesgirl tries not to see me. The processing machine is filthy, the glass counter is a field of grubby fingerprints. But I am a desperate man, so I do my foreigner mime act, and after various contortions get across the idea that I want four passport photos by 5pm. The salesgirl and the sleepy youth are collapsing in each other's arms with laughter as I head out the door. ..... Come 5pm, the return. This time the youth spies me approaching and hisses at the girl. She turns her back, desperately trying to be busy with something else. At last she can ignore me no longer, but she won't meet my eye. "Gei ni" she says, pushing a new roll of film across the counter. What's going on? Giving me free film? The reason becomes clear soon enough. Sure there are four passport photos, the waiban's masterpiece: my head is stuck off on one side of the photo, and everything is a strange blue colour. Then I look at the negative: the one surviving frame is what they've made the print from, and of course it's useless. There's another frame that looks as if it might have been OK, but it has been slashed in half with scissors. The third photo my waiban took is missing altogether. Aaaaagh!!

Take six: Let's be absolutely rational about this. Yes, gremlins are definitely making sport with me, little green fairies tripping along in my shadow, bent on mischief, turning everything upside down. I've seen them out of the corner of my eye. But they are not going to drive me crazy, understand. We are going back to the waiban's office, the gremlins and I, and we are going to get one, good passport photograph... The waiban panics when he sees the ruination of his handiwork, and rings for the university's official photographer. The photographer is on urgent business photographing some dead person's monument, and the waiban discovers that he, too, has urgent business elsewhere. I cast around and discover another hapless Chinese man with a crewcut huddled in a corner of one of the offices. It's his misfortune to understand some English, so I lure him into the light. He's wily, this one. HE sits on a chair in front of the camera and asks ME to compose a photograph. We swap places and he gingerly trips the shutter.

Where to take the film this time? This is not downtown Sydney. But I have vague memories of a Konica photo shop about fifteen minutes bike ride away, out the back of another university. The area, when I get there, has turned into a major construction zone. The middle of the road has become what looks like Wuhan's first subway excavation, pedestrians inch past one another on narrow surviving sidewalks, and the shop owners seem miserable. The Konica place appears to be half dismantled, with boxes strewn all over the floor. As I enter, a shop girl raises her eyes, and freezes. We have met before. I can hear the gremlins giggling from behind my shadow..

She is same girl who told me ever so regretfully in the Kodak shop that it was only possible to take a photograph with a crimson background. Ah well, at least she knows what I want. "Yes ma'am, four "dengji zhao" fast". I'm probably Konika's last customer -- the Kodak monster has bought them out -- but it's never too late for a fast buck. "Thirty yuan", demands the departing manager, staggering under an oversized carton. I look scandalized and make motions towards the door. "Twenty" he suggests.. I look wounded. "Wait, wait.. please sit down", soothes the Kodak ambassador. Rapid conversation in Wuhanese. Miss Kodak is rather at a loose end; she's just there to see that the Konica Mafia don't make off with the door locks. So for fifteen minutes she sits with me to trade deep and meaningful conversation with our handful of shared words from two languages. Meanwhile, a film processing operator out the back does whatever film processing operators do. At last the Konica man delivers a triumphant block of four "dengji zhao". "Ten yuan", he says hopefully. I glance at the photographs. From behind a glaze of blue pallor, two manic eyes sit quivering above a death's head of grinning teeth.. Ah, Mr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, we meet at last.

"The Photograph?" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved

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