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 Amer