10 Days off the grid - A wrap-up of my assignment in Yunnan

The village of Lijiazui on the Yunnan - Sichuan border, China. 

The village of Lijiazui on the Yunnan - Sichuan border, China. 

It’s 5am, and outside the sky is slipping from the darkness of night into a deep morning blue. A rooster crows underscoring this slow change and signalling the start of a new day. 

I sit up slowly in bed, taking a moment to stretch out my body after a restless nights sleep on a paper thin mattress. My room is dark and only a few scattered rays of light are breaking through the cracks in the cardboard that covers my bedroom window. The rest of the house is quiet and it seems that only the rooster and I are awake at this hour. I fumble around in the dim light until I find my clothes and get dressed. I make my way to the door, and as I step out onto the balcony I am greeted with one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. 

The village of Lijiazui sits at an elevation of approximately 2,500 meters. It is secluded deep in the Himalayan foothills surrounded by mountains. This morning, clouds hang lazily around the middle, leaving the bases and crests exposed. The sun has not yet broken through and to the east the hills are backlit in a soft orange glow. It is July, but the summer here is cool and pleasant. It rains often, but this is a blessing for the mostly agricultural society. 

Lijiazui has remained untouched by the rapid industrialization of China. There are no modern amenities here. Cooking is done over an open flame, hot water available only after it is boiled, and the toilets are no more than holes in the ground. There is no cellular coverage, and it wasn't until last year that the home in which I’m staying had electricity. The source of the electricity is a small water turbine which my host installed after rerouting a stream that flows outside his family home. The flow of the water is not strong enough, however, to power more than the few lightbulbs which are crudely strung around the house, or the television set, at the same time; and this, only when it rains. 

Host family home, Lijiazui. 

Host family home, Lijiazui. 

The house is located in the centre of town. My host is well known in the village because he is one of only two guest-house owners here. Few tourists make it this far into the mountain range, so the bulk of his income still comes from farming. The preferred crop is corn and the average earnings from a good season amount to a meagre 3000RMB approximately $480 USD.  With this he supports a wife, 3 sons, and his mother in law. It may be incorrect to phrase it this way, since the Mosuo are referred to as one of the last matriarchal societies on earth. This means that it is really the women who are running the families, and to a larger extent the communities, but my host is is not so traditional. 


The Mosuo trace their lineage through the female side of the family. Once a woman has come of age, which is typically observed between the ages of 12 and 14, she can choose a partner as she wishes. While this may seem similar to modern western standards remember that the Mosuo have been doing this for hundreds of years. Women may have as many or as few relationships as they choose over the course of their lives, but normally they have only one partner at a time. The Mosuo practice what is known as a walking marriage. The woman will make her interest known, and the man may choose to visit the woman at a specified time, usually late in the evening, to begin their courtship. Relationships are never spoken of during the courtship phase and sex remains a taboo topic in Mosuo homes. Children born through one of these relationships are the responsibility of the mother and her family. It is only during a pregnancy that the father may start to appear more regularly at the family house and make himself known to the family members. Traditionally he will never take up residence in the woman's home as he has responsibilities to his own mother, sisters, and their children. The fatherly role is taken up by all members of the family, grandfathers and uncles included. 

From my perch on the balcony of the house I hear noises coming from the pig pen around the corner. The obvious porcine variety but also canine. I walk down the stairs toward the outhouse and receive my first introduction to the family dog which I later affectionately call “Bubbles”. 


Bubbles has been chained up near the pig pen for the past few years. The half crazed dog is no longer trusted by my host after escaping from his tether some time ago and devoured a dozen of the family chickens. A dozen may be an overstatement, because he was only able to eat three and was caught while attempting to bury the remaining carcasses. In the years since his rampage he has developed a moody disposition and barks aggressively at anyone who approaches him, and seeing as how he is chained next to the washroom, his barks and growls will be something I hear often during my stay. 


The Mosuo have a legend pertaining to dogs. It is said that at one point long ago dogs would live to the age of sixty, and men only to the age of thirteen. The Mosuo felt that their lives were too short and proposed a trade. In return for the exchange the dogs would receive homage from the humans. Since then dogs have played an important role in the coming of age ceremony of the Mosuo, during which the adolescents of the family will pray before them as part of the ritual. As such, Bubbles, despite his half crazed nature, was kept by the family and merely given a stronger restraint.


I continue what is to become my morning routine and make my way to the pond in the back yard. After washing up I head over to the village stupa which is only about 15 meters away. I figure this will provide a good vantage point from which to observe the village as it comes to life. It doesn’t take long before I’m joined by a few of the older members of the village who are also early risers. They have come to the stupa to make their kora’s* around the monument, reciting their prayers as they walk. 


The interior of a traditional Mosuo home. 

The interior of a traditional Mosuo home. 

The people of Lijiazui practice a combination of Tibetan Buddhism and Daba, the latter being a form of animalism. As for Buddhism, they follow Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama. The influences can be seen in many aspects of their daily life. In all Mosuo homes there is a shrine behind the main fireplace, at the foot of which daily offerings are made. Buddhist holidays are observed, Lamas are called in for any number of occasions from births to sicknesses and deaths. Prayer wheels can be seen in the hands of many elderly members of the village who are not otherwise occupied with farming duties. The Mosuo also worship a mother goddess, which plays into their traditions of female leadership. Lugu lake, the traditional home of the Mosuo is also revered as a holy entity as is the mountain overlooking it. 

Over the two weeks I spent in the Mosuo community of Lijiazui I learned that life can be much simpler than we make it out to be. I observed that family, and the responsibility one takes for it, lie at the core of what the Mosuo there valued. I saw in them a pride for their traditions, a warmth towards outsiders, and an admirable work ethic. The structure of their families and the relationship, or lack thereof, that children have with their fathers made me wonder if in some way children might be better off with a much looser definition of “father” and more varied male role models in their lives. 

*The word kora is Tibetan for the circumambulation of an object or landmark that pilgrims and worshippers make when they visit holy places.

The Business of Photography

Thanks to people like Chase Jarvis and Rob Haggart there is some much needed light being shed on the lesser know aspects of running a photography business. I was very happy to read an interview posted by Rob on A Photo Editor with Carolyn Tucker from Wonderful Machine regarding pricing and negotiation. The full article on A Photo Editor can be found here.

A few of the things I found most useful from the article was the full estimate from wonderful machine and their terms and conditions. They also posted their final invoice which they sent to the client. A lot of very useful, and much appreciated information. 

I've spent the last few years developing how I run the business side of what I do, and one of the most useful tools I've found is Blinkbid.  The best part of this software is that it removes the headache of having to draw up longwinded legalese licensing terms and instead presents you with a simple interface.  It keeps track of ongoing projects, payments, and even gives you the necessary information for completing your taxes.  Great product.

Along with blinkbid, I've found the information from the NPPA site extremely useful. The ASMP also has some good information if you have the time to search the site. Sadly, I wasn't able to find much information relating to photographers from Canada other than the PPOC.

With all that said, I hope that more and more photographers will see the benefits of being transparent with each other and share the knowledge that they've accumulated over the years. In this profession it really comes down to making an image that no one else can, and if you're confident that you've got a unique product, then you've got nothing to worry about.

Shanghai Photography Studio Rental & other advice

I've been in Shanghai since 2006, so I'd like to share some of the local knowledge with other photographers who are visiting the city. Shanghai is a great place to work, and here I'll share some of the need to know info for your visit.

If you've left any vital equipment at home and you need to pick up something new, you can head to the Xin Guang Photographic Equipment City (星光摄影器材城) on the corner of Luban road and Xietu Road. (Click here for a map)  They've got all the latest digital cameras, lenses, and accessories, but if you're looking for any good deals on equipment, don't expect to find them in China. Most photography gear here retails for the same price as it does in Europe or North America, but here you have the added fun of "bargaining" with the retailers. Expect your first price inquiry to be at least 30% higher than what they will actually sell it to you for. Keep the exchange rate in mind or you may end up paying more than you would back home.

If you're looking for medium format cameras, forget about Xing Guang.  You'll want to head to either Shriro Imaging or Central Studios, where you can rent bodies pretty much everything you'll need. Another place you can check for equipment rental is Studio 1.

If you're looking to rent space, there are several Shanghai photography studios:

Lastly, if you'd like to do some printing, I recommend Sissy Yang at PX2 or Art Scape Shanghai, and a one shop in Building B at Xinguang on the second floor, right at the top of the stairs (can't seem to recall the name at the moment, but look for Jeff). Printing in China is much cheaper than Europe and North America, so if you've got a day or two to wait for a print, you'll save some cash.

After a long day of shooting, you can wind things down with a few drinks at one of the many bars in Shanghai.  For great advice on what's happening where, be sure to check out Smart Shanghai. If you'd like a nice sit down bar to go over any final business with your clients, my recommendations are El Coctel (be sure to call ahead for a table), or Constellation 2 (fully stocked whiskey bar with a nice atmosphere).

If there's anything you'd like to add feel free to leave a comment. 

Good luck.