It’s a funny thing, how these little things in life lead us to places. When I left china at the end of 2013, I forgot to exchange some of my Yuan bills (Chinese local currency). When I was traveling in China, we used to call them “Mao bills”… 20 mao, 50 mao, 100 mao due to the big Mao Zedong portrait on them. As I was struggling to find entertainment during the 12 hour flight, I started looking at the bills and that was the first time I noticed it, something I didn’t see before: every bill has a beautiful painting on it. each showing a different place in China. In a way, with these bills in your pocket, you carry a “piece of China” with you wherever you go.
Originally, these paintings were the inspiration for my 2014 photo project entitled “The Yin-Bou fishermen of China”. In January 2015 I decided to follow the bills once more. This time it was one of the smaller bills that got my attention and directed me to my next photo project – “The Miao Tribes”
A small, isolated and beautiful village called Xijiang (西江), near the city of Kaili, is home to a major part of the “Miao” (苗族); an ethnic group that is spread around this region of south China. Generally speaking, all the people of this ethnic group accept the “Miao” title as a statement of their origin although, the “Miao” are actually a mixture of approximately 20 different tribes: Biasha, Xixiu, Dangi etc. each tribe with It’s own traditions, rituals, and styles of clothing.
Not much is known about their origins; but from what we do know, it seems that these tribes were formed about 5,000 years ago, from a small kingdom that broke apart in south central Asia. The Miao tribes moved throughout the region, herding their flocks and trading goods for thousands of years, until slowly they have settled in villages and adopted a lifestyle that is more common in south China – Agriculture.
A unique attribute to the Miao tribes is that they have been changing constantly. Their appearance is a visual mixture of about 5,000 years of culture in South and Central China. The different Miao tribes adopted varied rituals and traditions as they moved across that area. In a way, each Miao tribe preserve it’s own little window into ancient China. From colorful festivals and wedding clothing, traditional music styles and the most famous of them all – The beautiful handmade silver jewelry and crowns artwork that is unique for every tribe.
The Miao tribes unique and varied visual appearance is precious, especially when considering the fact that these tribes were some of the only survivors of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960’s and 70’s in China. This survival was only possible due to the location of the Miao villages, which can be found in the muddy mountains and forests of South China, areas that were very hard to reach by outsiders at the time.
My journey led me to Kong-Bai village (控拜), where I was photographing the master silversmith Long Zhong (龙忠) in his smoky old workshop. I wanted to find the right way to shed light on him and his amazing hand-made silver artwork; the same jewelry and crowns that became a symbol, over thousands of years, of the Miao tribes themselves in our modern world.
Those of you who know my approach to photographing and documenting people, know that I always ask permission from the people I’m photographing, but on this trip I took that approach to the next level. I wanted to keep whomever I was photographing involved with what I did, up to a level where they where an active part of the creative process, working together to find our way to the final image. So, before I pulled out my camera, Long Zhong and I sat down for a talk. Using an IPad, I was showing the old silversmith my work, sharing with him stories from my travels and explaining to him what I was trying to do with the Miao tribes.
Sadly, we couldn’t talk directly as old Long Zhong didnt speak English or Mandarin-Chinese. with the help of his son, we spoke in three different languages, changing words from English to Mandarin (Chinese) to a special Miao dialect called Dang-ni (挡倪) and then, when the time was right, I asked for his help:
Long Zhong told me that in order to become a master silversmith, one must learn the craft and practice it for over 10 years. In the Miao culture, the art of being a Silversmith passes from generation to generation and is kept within the family; as he explained, one does not simply copy his family’s style, but learns how to find his own. It is the Miao’s belief that every generation is destined to be better than the previous one, therefore, every young Miao must strive to push himself forward into a better future, both personally and as a tribal community.
Something else changed for me during this journey. So far my photography style has been a mixture of Documentary and Art photography. I was always mixing the two styles in different, but somewhat even quantities, in order to find the right images for the stories I was telling. But something was missing from the photographs I had taken so far with the Miao tribes.
At this point I decided to put aside, just for a bit, the documentary style. I wanted to go out for one day of shooting using only Art Photography as my approach to tell about the Miao tribes. I was aiming to create an image that would not only show the Miao tribes, but would also encompass that feeling I had when I saw them for the first time, so I decided to go out and form the Miao ‘goddess’.
Although I enjoyed this experience of directing and creating a shoot, and learned much from it, I’m still not quite sure if I’m completely ready to leave the world of documentary photography and transform myself to this artistic style just yet. But one thing is clear – this style is definitely an interesting technique for any photographer to have in his “tool box”.