The ramshackle house sags heavily on rotting foundations, the tired and ageing load-bearing structure strengthened only by a stubborn will to survive. Knocking on the 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 is my last hope.
The Long WalkBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
A click signifies some kind of reception. 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. I quickly produce my left hand, this time greeted by enthusiastic fingers welcoming me to his domain.
A Single SparkBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 500 f4 / Tianjin
Stepping through to the cool, dark interior of his home-come-workplace, we pass discarded wooden frames, cracked and snapped beyond any reasonable rescue. Heavy machinery leans casually against damp walls, purring with comfy malcontent. Wires of all lengths and colours hang off protrusions from floor to ceiling, carrying what sounds like a high voltage current. 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 an unseen window above. A yellow shaft descends through a cavernous ceiling space, settling on a life-size photograph of Chairman Mao resplendent in military regalia.
Looking Up?Barnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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 shells looming over, juxtaposed against rusty wire fencing and over-worked cranes silhouetted against a polluted sky.
An over-bearing communist-red glows like a beacon on a foggy night, casting an ominous bloody hue across the surrounding carnage. The unfinished, hand-carved, heavy wood frame oozes intricate 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.
TianhongBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Tianjin
Exhaust fumes fill the garage air as the 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.
We congregate in what was once the living room, now 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 with a space for my proposal. Carefully, I unfurl the large 3 x 2 meter print I painstakingly protected 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.
Green On PurpleBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
“So, I need this framed for a client” I say in my best Mandarin. It obviously wasn’t what I said when he begins to talk at speed about something entirely unconnected to my request.
A Grand TheatreBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Tianjin
Water jets shoot three stories high as rhythmic cascading arcs swirl from the center of a circular lake towards the outer edges. Eager crowds gather at the water’s 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 birthing a majestic rainbow foaming in the sun, all timed to perfection as an orchestral medley joins in with the extravagant daily display. Classical power ballads eject from industrial speakers hidden all over Yinhe square, and through the spray and mist hulks Tianjin’s monolithic Grand Theatre, an architectural masterpiece in concrete design, housing not only a 3600 seat theatre but a state of the art concert house, too.
I try again, this time with a healthy dose of Charades. Eventually he seems to understand and, smiling back, elicits a weak groan as he sits down muttering deadlines and workloads. I’ve evidently arrived at a busy time, so, apologetically, start to roll my image back up. My last hope dashed by an unfinished, life-sized portrait of Mao.
Castle In The SkyBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Tianjin
What’s the matter…the Goliath?
The clouds. They’re huge.
They’re coming this way!
It’s a sky castle…
天空の城ラピュタ – Studio Ghibli
However, not all was as it seemed. 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 emanated through the awkward silence. Dust motes started to dance and shake as a piece of wall moved towards us. A fake wall.
Early One MorningBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Tianjin
Waiting for a local bus to 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. I see him every morning in the same spot, a fracture in time stuck in a never-ending loop.
From behind the painted plywood construction came a neatly dressed woman with her child, both smiling, the mother holding a tray of teacups, the daughter a packet of wafers. They approached the table, set down the cups, and motioning to the slouched artiste suggested it was in his best interest to take my offer, else his family relationship may take a turn for the worse.
With a smirk growing across his wrinkled face, a wink of an eye and a quick rub of a stiff missing limb, my hero brakes the stand-off with a loud, hearty chuckle. It’s time for Mao to take a back seat.
Communal SegregationBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Tianjin
I don’t see the security guard until it’s too late, the frame suddenly filled with two small black eyes and a swollen red nose, the tall neck-cuff of a generic green winter coat protruding from below a wrinkled chin. A tirade of verbal abuse emanates from his toothless maw. 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.