Meet the contributors to Chinese Characters: Howard French
Tell me about the first time you went to China.
The first time I went to China was in the spring of 1998, when I visited as a fellow of the East West Center, in preparation for my posting to Tokyo as bureau chief there for The New York Times. This was five years before I would move to Shanghai as bureau chief there for the paper, and this Beijing visit constituted one of my first East Asian experiences. The city was clearly already in the throes of very massive and rapid change, but just as clearly, it seemed like the work that remained to be done in fashioning a modern city outstripped what had recently been accomplished. Friendship stores were still a big deal, for example, and the airport was a mess, as were China’s airlines.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from photographing people in China?
My documentary photography in China taught me a great many things. In order to create the kinds of images that one finds in my book (Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life), I had to learn to linger in settings and with people in a way that foreign correspondents seldom do. In doing so, I came to know the rhythms and fabric of daily life of the people in this great city, and indeed in China as a whole, to a degree that I would never have through reporting alone. In the six years I worked photographing these subjects, I also got to know a great many “ordinary” people who I otherwise would never have known, and in many cases I won their friendship and earned their trust.
Where are you right now and what are you working on?
I am in Chengdu at the moment, wrapping up a two month stay in China. I’ve spent three or four months of the year in the country every year since leaving the Times and Shanghai in 2008 to teach at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. This time, I chose to spend almost all of my time in Sichuan, mostly avoiding the very familiar cities of the east coast. I rented an apartment in Chengdu as a base, but I have roamed widely this summer in western Sichuan, photographing life in little towns and the countryside there. Prior to arriving in Chengdu, I spent a week in Hong Kong, participating in a conference about China’s relationship with Africa, which is subject of my next book. Before arriving in East Asia, I spent the first two months of the summer traveling widely in Africa.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University and a longtime former foreign correspondent and senior writer for The New York Times. He has been a bureau chief in China, Japan, West and Central Africa and Central American and the Caribbean. His portraits of everyday life in China are on the cover of Chinese Characters.