One step at a time
By Carlos Barria
When I was a kid in the south of Argentina, we used to say that if you dig a very deep hole to the other side of the earth, you will end up in China. In my case, China was literally on the other side of the planet; about as far from Patagonia as you can get. Thirty years later, I made it here. I didn’t come through a tunnel, but on a plane that flew over the North Pole.
I moved to China one year ago in the position of staff photographer in Shanghai, China’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. The challenge was enormous: a foreign culture, and a very foreign language.
I spent my first couple of days walking around the city, just wandering; something I hadn’t done in a long time. Before coming to China I lived in Miami, where I didn’t have much of an urban experience, unless you count sitting in traffic for long periods of time.
But in Shanghai, I didn’t need a car. The city’s public transportation system is one of the best in China, and that give me the opportunity to go back to something I love; street photography. I started to really enjoy the urban scenery. I walked around with just one camera and one lens, taking it all in, like a little kid alone in a candy store.
I had a preconceived notion of China as a country of factories and farms. I hadn’t thought much about the cities. But walking through the streets of Shanghai, I began to familiarize myself with a more modern society, one characterized by a large, growing and unstoppable middle class.
China also struck me as a country that was changing incredibly fast, with huge migrations to the cities, and more and more foreigners living here. Soon after arriving, for example, I was invited to photograph a wedding between Rebecca Kanthor, an American woman from upstate New York, and Liu Jian, a folk musician from China’s central province of Henan. They chose to have a tradition rural wedding in Liu Jian’s hometown. The groom arrived on a horse while his bride was carried around town on a sedan chair. Liu Jian was the first person from his village to marry a foreigner.
On my walks through Shanghai, I saw how residents were interacting and adapting to their fast-changing environment. One night, from my first apartment on the 30th floor, I saw people playing tennis at night, surrounded by high-rise buildings. For me, this image was an example of how people were trying to find balance in the midst of China’s furious growth.
My assistant once told me, “It’s very difficult for a foreigner to think like a Chinese person.” Perhaps I will never get that far, but on my long walks through Shanghai, I think of an expression Rebecca taught me as I covered her wedding:
“Man, man, lai.” One step at a time.
(View a large format showcase of images in China rising)