Living and working in China, Eleanor Moseman naturally concentrated her photography on her specialties, which were architecture and interiors, but all the while something else was on her mind. "I've always been interested in photojournalism," she says. "It's really what I've always wanted to do. Here I was, learning the language, starting to talk with people and doing a bit of traveling, and I'd take trains or buses and would get so frustrated that I couldn't just drop off the train or bus and go through a village and talk to people and take photographs." She began to think about documenting aspects of ethnic cultures, especially the Tibetans and the Uighurs, whose lives were being changed by political pressure on their traditions and ceremonies.
The lure of a photojournalism project was irresistible, and the only question became, "How am I going to travel without having to be at the mercy of a taxi driver, a train or a bus?" But this was, after all, China, and the answer was in plain sight: the ubiquitous bicycle. "Chinese people have a very special relationship with their bicycles," Eleanor says, "and I thought it would make me more relatable to be traveling by bicycle. I decided it was the best and most affordable means."
Eleanor set out on her bike in the Spring of 2010 with a tent, a sleeping bag, her camera gear and minimal supplies. She ended her odyssey in October, 2012, after traveling 15,000 miles in seven countries, including China, Mongolia, Burma, Krygystan and Tajikistan.
Her photo equipment consisted of a D700, an AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm f/4G ED VR, an AF Zoom NIKKOR 70-210mm f/4-5.6 and an AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G. She also carried an SB-600 Speedlight, but ended up never using it. Among the lenses, she relied most often on the 16-35mm wide-angle zoom. "In China, interior spaces are often tight," she says. "Rooms and houses can be a quarter, a sixth or an eighth the size of rooms and homes in the States, and I knew I'd be in those spaces." She'd also researched photographers who'd done similar work and noted their use of wide-angle lenses.
Getting into photojournalism mode took a while. "I knew I wanted to document life," Eleanor says, "but at the start I was taking some people photos and some landscapes, basically just clicking away in a 'Oh, this street scene looks interesting' kind of way. But then I got further west, away from a lot of people. In China, the further west you go, the less government control there is, and you find the Tibetan and Muslim minorities, and they're a little bit more untouched by foreigners." With the advantage of speaking the language, she began to search out what was specific to the people and their lives, and when she was invited to stay with them she did her best to be not just an observer, but a participant in the routines and activities of their lives.
Over time her photography changed as she made the adjustment from architecture and interiors to photojournalism.
"Practice makes perfect," she says. "When I look back on the first year's worth of images, I think, ‘what was I doing?’ And even the images I took near the end, I think that in some photos I should have gotten more details of what the people were doing, or gotten even closer. Maybe I shouldn't have used the wide-angle so much. But when you're out there, you're just kind of living in the moment and making quick decisions."
Person to Person
For the most part, people were cooperative and generous.
"I had a pretty good grasp of the culture and how to behave," Eleanor says. And, she adds, there was the factor of "an American on a bicycle who speaks Chinese! They wanted to talk to me as much as I wanted to talk to them. There were a couple of times I would hitchhike on big rigs if the road was really bad or I was trying to get into the mountains and was running out of time. The drivers were really open to picking up hitchhikers, and even though the bicycle and all my gear was such a pain for them, when they found out I could speak the language, they wanted me around to talk to. I would get question after question about America, and I'd try to answer as much as I could. I have a friend who's a truck driver, and I'd tell them that and it was always like, 'Really? Tell me more.' "
She was, in a sense, an interpreter of American culture. "I always had to remind myself," she says, "that I was an ambassador of America, and I needed to be the best representative I could be." She also came to understand that for many of the people she met, she would be the only foreign woman they would ever meet, and they would never forget her. "And I'll never forget them," she adds.
Eleanor credits her sensitivity to people as a key to her acceptance...'I wanted to fit in, to look ordinary and approachable.'
She also credits her sensitivity to people as a key to her acceptance. Speaking the language opened doors into their lives, but to gain acceptance and share their experiences took some thought about appearance and attitude. "For one thing, I didn't wear cycling gear," Eleanor says. "I wanted to fit in, to look ordinary and approachable. I wanted to be as modest as possible, and I always wore a head scarf. The Muslim women loved that—they would point to their head and then to mine and smile; we were the same, or at least similar, and I was fitting in."
She shared in the people's activities as much as possible, and at one point stayed with a family for two weeks, working with them for three days in the cotton fields. "I took maybe three pictures during those working days," she says. "It helped me on a personal level to feel what the people are going through."
Although she returned to Shanghai a few times and did "a massive backup" of her photo files, her image storage mostly involved the laptop and the external hard drive she carried. She had seven CF cards—four at 16 gigabytes, two at eight and one at four. Her cell phone was a basic 2G with text capability, but no Internet access. She didn't carry a GPS device, relying on maps to plot the route and keep the records. "I'd highlight the route and mark and date places I stayed, so later I was able to back through the photo files and match the metadata to my map point. My map pages were full of notes, dates and symbols.
As far as charging her camera and laptop batteries, she says that "many people were really generous, and at a restaurant or café I'd just ask if I could plug something in."
When photographing, she tried to avoid too much sharing of the capabilities of digital photography—specifically the ability to see the photographs moments after they were taken. "People were often very posed when I'd first take pictures, especially the people I stayed with, so I'd show them the photographs and after a while they became tired of it, and then I'd continue shooting and start to get the more candid images when they saw it was not too much of a deal. But most of the time I'd try not to let the people know that you can see the images on the back of the camera because it can be very distracting. Before I knew it I'd have 20 people surrounding me, wanting to look, and then they'd want to see all the images on the card."
Another thing she held back was her photojournalistic interest in documenting cultures. "In some places journalists are forbidden, so I didn't give too much information. Once I became friends with the people I stayed with, they knew the truth. But to people I met in passing, I was just traveling along, essentially being a tourist. And the bike was the perfect way to do that."
The bike was in fact more than transport. As she expected, it was a sort of passport to the people, a common denominator. And it was fairly easy to maintain. With bikes so prevalent, tubes and patches were easy to come by, and Eleanor traveled with basic tools, an extra chain, at least four tubes, at least one extra tire, a patch kit and extra spokes, brakes and brake cables.
Now, looking back on the experience and looking over her photographs, she feels the work is unfinished. "I stay in touch with all my Muslim and Chinese contacts because I plan on going back and continuing the work, this time concentrating even more on people and their lives. The idea would be to stay with people for a couple of months, and then take a bus somewhere else. It would be less travel, more focus and emphasis."
The two-year journey seems to have intensified her passion for photojournalism. "Right now that's what I want to do," she says. "As long as I'm making images and sharing people's stories, basically all I need is a bowl of noodles a day."
Tips for Travelers
Eleanor's travels are probably above and beyond what most of us are likely to attempt, but here are some suggestions that should make the going easier no matter where you roam.
If you expect windy, rainy, sandy, dusty or otherwise hostile conditions, employ the Two Zoom Defense: one wide-angle and one telephoto will help you avoid frequent lens changes and thus keep a clean sensor.
Don't speak the language? Learn at least a little bit—your effort will be appreciated and earn cooperation. Carry a phrase book, but strive to learn as you go.
At first you're going to have to play the tourist game with locals and get their cooperation with smiles and gestures. As you get to know people, they become more at ease with you. Plan to dedicate a few hours at the least if you want intimate images and relaxed, winning moments.
Back up frequently to a laptop, a portable hard drive, the cloud, your website, social media, anywhere. Drives can fail, cards become corrupted; think maximum preservation.