Seemingly tangled in a web of wood shavings and crackling electricity we stumble on through the dark maze, briefly emerging in a stream of dusty sunlight emanating from unseen windows above. The yellow shaft descends through a cavernous ceiling space and settles on a life-size photograph of Chairman Mao, resplendent in his military regalia. The over-bearing communist-red backing glows like a beacon on a foggy night, casting an ominous hue across the surrounding carnage.

The Long Walk

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Metal clad donkeys routinely trundle the time-worn tracks, effortlessly hauling their black gold charge through the city suburbs. Skilfully dodging the oncoming traffic, an elderly man walks the length of the Tianjin inner-city rail line. His daily route may be dangerous, but it cuts hours off the alternative way home.

One in a Million

D4 / 500 f4 / Tianjin

As midnight chimes on an icy rooftop overlooking Meijiang Nan, seemingly every single firework in the entire world goes off at the same time. Rockets rocket skyward, a trillion fire trails lifting off from the earth in unison, heading for the  heavens where they erupt in a dark sky now set on fire with a glorious rainbow of hues, the once still air now choked with vicious pressure waves bombarding us from all sides. No one can escape the deluge as empty shells rain from the sky, plummeting back down only to be met more on the way up. What started with fire crackers two weeks prior builds to a crescendo as Chinese New Year chimes 12:01. Welcome to the new you.

Looking Up

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

The barbed wire catches my 50mm and exacts a long revengeful mark on the matt plastic barrel. Crouching in a dusty gutter, my back aches as I point a camera skyward, concrete building shells looming over and juxtaposed against rusty wire fencing, over-worked cranes, and a dull grey polluted sky.


D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Exhaust fumes fill the garage air as an ancient motorbike comes to a standstill. A few coughs and splutters sees the engine finally die, the two-wheeled warrior nestling amongst peeling paint and beaten auto wrecks gathered under a make-shift corrugated roof.

Green On Purple

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Do not allow sorrow to embrace thee,
Nor an idle grief to occupy thy days,
Forsake not the book and the lovers lips and the green bank of the field,
Ere that the earth enfolden thee in it’s bosom.
Omar Khayyam

A Grand Theatre

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Water jets shoot three stories up in to a slightly misty morning air as a rhythmic cascade arcs and swirls emerge from the center of the circular lake towards the outer edges. Eager crowds gather at the waters edge to catch a glimpse of the aquatic ensemble, jumping back at the last minute in case they unwittingly become part of the show. A central column of water explodes upwards with a rainbow foaming in the sun, and timed to perfection an orchestral medley joins in the extravagant daily display with classical power ballards ejecting from speakers hidden all over Yinhe square. Through the spray and mist hulks Tianjin’s monolithic Grand Theatre, another architectural masterpiece in concrete design, housing not only a 3600 seat theatre but a state of the art concert house, too.

Castle In The Sky

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

What’s the matter…the Goliath?
The clouds. They’re huge.
The clouds?
They’re coming this way!
It’s a sky castle…
天空の城ラピュタ – Studio Ghibli

Early One Morning

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Waiting for a bus into the city center, a teenage boy wearing hard-earned cooks overalls sits quietly catching a snooze in the early morning heat, occasionally sipping from a bottle of hot iced-tea.

Street Goubuli

D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

Communal Segregation

 D4 / 70 – 200 f2.8 / Tianjin

I don’t see the security guard until it’s too late, my view suddenly filled with two small black eyes and a swollen red nose, a tirade of verbal abuse emanating from a toothless maw, the tall neck-cuff of a generic green winter coat protruding from below a wrinkled chin. Pointing my lens at the lone circus act seemed like a sure thing, except I failed to see the coal power station just behind. A municipal government building under strict security ensures my security escort back the way I came.

The dilapidated house sags heavily on rotting foundations, a tired and aging load-bearing structure strengthened only by its stubborn will to survive. Knocking on the once-green wooden front door sends echoes bouncing through dark corridors beyond. I decide to stop peering through the letterbox, or at least the hole where a letterbox would once have been, and knock a little more aggressively this time. This is my last hope.

A click signifies some kind of reception. A movement, a latch falling, the door handle turning and slowly the wooden gateway edges ajar revealing the dusty face of a smallish man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, sporting a beaming smile spotlit by the bright morning sun. I thrust my hand forward with a very British hello but am met by a tentative gnarled stump where his right hand should have been. Brain freeze ensues as he looks quizzically at me, so I quickly produce my left hand, this time greeted with enthusiastic fingers welcoming me to his domain.

Stepping through the cool dark interior of his home-come-workplace, we pass discarded wooden frames cracked and snapped beyond any reasonable rescue, heavy machinery casually leans against damp walls purring with comfy malcontent, wires of all colours hanging off every protrusion from floor to ceiling, carrying what sounds like a high voltage current. Seemingly tangled in a web of wood shavings and crackling electricity we stumble on through the dark maze, briefly emerging in a stream of dusty sunlight emanating from unseen windows above. The yellow shaft descends through a cavernous ceiling space and settles on a life-size photograph of Chairman Mao, resplendent in his military regalia. The over-bearing communist-red backing glows like a beacon on a foggy night, casting an ominous hue across the surrounding carnage. The unfinished hand-carved heavy wood frame oozes intricately fashioned Chinese style, each curve and cut revealing the true skill of its experienced artist. My host smiles and pointing towards Mao claps his hand and stump together as if praying. Then he ducks back under the surrounding wires and is gone.

We congregate in what was once the living room, a workshop centered around a huge glass-topped table covered with thousands of dog-eared 5″ x 7″ prints. Casually sweeping them aside he presents me a space for my proposal. Carefully, I unfurl the large 3 x 2 meter print I painstakingly protected from Tianjin’s notorious environment en-route to the rendezvous. The rolled-up cylinder unravels with increasing speed until the final coil springs open with a satisfying thwap on the table.

“So, I need this framed for a client” I say in my best Mandarin, or perhaps that’s what I thought I said, which it obviously wasn’t when he begins to talk at speed about something entirely unconnected to my request.

“Ahem, no sorry I’m not interested in a headshot…” I lubricate my mouth with a swig of warm bottled water and try again, this time with a healthy dose of Charades. He finally seems to understand and smiling back ejects a weak groan as he sits down muttering deadlines and workloads to himself. I’ve evidently arrived at a very busy time in this artists life, so, apologetically, I start to roll my image back up, my last hope dashed by an unfinshed life-sized portrait of Mao.

In the far corner of the living room, a room which I had up until that point assumed only contained two people, a grating noise cuts through the awkward silence. Dust motes begin to dance and shake as a piece of wall starts moving towards us. A fake wall. From behind the painted plywood construction emerges a neatly dressed woman and child, both smiling, the mother holding a tray of teacups, the daughter a packet of wafers. They approach the table, set down the cups and motioning to the slouched artiste suggest it’s in his best interest to take my offer else his family relationship may take a turn for the worse.

With the wink of an eye, a quick rub of a stiff missing limb, and a slurp of scalding hot Pur our hero breaks the stand-off with a hearty chuckle and handing me a cup of steaming tea sets about his business.

  • Beijing
  • Tianjin
  • Xin Jiang
    Xin Jiang
  • Yunnan
  • Vienna
  • Kampuchea
  • Budapest
  • Brighton
  • Transylvania
  • Shanghai

Shooting analogue was a combination of artistic bliss and personal bankruptcy, so when digital cameras hit the market we all thought the same thing: win win. But after 15 years shooting digital, my field-work attitude had shifted for the worse; I became accustomed to the high FPS my Nikons could turn over, became lazy when bracketing for HDR, began to abuse high ISO, just accepting the grain in all weather. I’d even leave my tripod at home and just make do with image stabilistion. Above all, I’d become lazy, relying on technology to finish a process I’d start in my mind. I didn't start like that during my analogue days; back then it was sacrilege to 'fill the buffer', as it were - we thought, composed, and captured with each and every click. Romanticised maybe, but true.

So I changed.

Capturing one solid image for a collection is pretty easy, anyone can take a great image with a bit of skill, practise, and luck. Seriously, anyone. Two great images - still not hard and sometimes they even look good together. Three, four, and five start taxing the cranium; you need to start thinking ahead, above, and beyond. You start to sweat. Working up to ten images takes dedication, time, and skill, but once you have your collection, you get a real sense of achievement.

Forcing ourselves to select a limited number of images amongst an infinite number of possibilities enables us to think deeper about our photography, it gives us motivation and focus during times of lack-luster malaise, and it aligns our thoughts, encouraging exploration and thematic expression in collections.

IOIMG isn't typically about obsessive image matching for competitions or exhibitions (although I'd go so far as to say the images in your collections should, in some way, compliment each other), nor is it particularly constrained when choosing subjects or themes for image pools; I like to use  IOIMG as more of a guiding principle designed to help maintain standards and encourage exploration in my photography as I explore the many different avenues within the discipline.

Without a guide, we'd get lost.

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