September 2008

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September 01, 2008

Reflecting on Beijing 2008

I’ve been back in the US for about four days now, and believe it or not -- I’m beginning to miss China. The politics, lifestyle, even the food I can live without, but the people -- I miss the locals most of all. There have been many questions about my experience -- from the immigration officer at the Chicago airport (it went beyond the obligatory business/pleasure question) to my family and friends back home -- I’ve answered them several times before, but I will answer them here as well.

Q: Well, how was Beijing? Should I go?

A: After spending two months living in Beijing, I’d hesitate to recommend the city to tourists looking to soak up Chinese history and culture. Sure -- there’s plenty of that in Beijing, but there’s so much more to China that you won’t be able to see through Beijing’s environmental and propaganda haze. I came to tolerate life in the city towards the end of my journey, but only because the Olympics were in town, and many familiar Western conveniences became available, such as an Apple Store and Cold Stone. Unless you speak Mandarin, communication with locals is almost always impossible. Some are learning limited English, but are unable to pronounce words correctly due to a lack of native speakers to practice with.

For photographers, Beijing can be a great place to shoot on clear days, but unfortunately, the sun only breaks through the clouds every so often. If you’re only in town for a week, you may not have a single day without a hazy blanket to get in the way of you and that perfect shot. The Chinese make incredible subjects, and are generally more open to photographers than Westerners. Unfortunately, I think much of this comes from a fear of confrontation, especially when they’re unable to communicate with the foreigner behind the camera.

Q: What was it like to work at the Olympics?

A: I can’t even begin to describe the Olympic experience – it was so incredible to be able to work alongside the world’s top photographers, reporters, and athletes. Just being around the athletes was a thrill – there were so many, from almost every country in the world. There were also plenty of opportunities for staff and journalists to mingle with athletes outside of the competition venues, especially towards the end of the Games.

I had a fantastic time working at the Olympics, and would do it again in a heartbeat. I’ve never been around people from so many diverse cultures at one time, and I really enjoyed watching how each responded to life in Beijing differently. The athletes and journalists rarely left the Olympic venues to explore the city, but when they did, I was more than happy to act as their guide.

During the first week of competition, I answered questions for photographers at the road cycling course (and ended up doing quite a bit of computer troubleshooting as well). A few days after road cycling, I transferred to indoor volleyball, where I worked as a flash quotes reporter, interviewing athletes in the mixed zone alongside reporters from around the world. Often, we had to work through translators -- it was really an experience unlike any other.

Q: Can I work at Vancouver 2010 or London 2012?

A: Honestly, I’m not quite sure. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) required the Beijing Organizing Committee (BOCOG) to hire native English speakers from overseas only because very few were qualified in China. Fortunately for the next Winter and Summer Games, that’s not the case -- both will be held in countries where English is the official language. If you’re an expert with relevant experience, feel free to contact VANOC or LOCOG for more information about joining their staffs during the Games. I’d certainly recommend giving it a shot -- working at the Olympics is an experience like no other.

I have a few regrets about my experience in China. Some are less significant, and were only realized when I read the United Airlines magazine on the flight back to the States. I can’t believe I spent two months in Beijing and only visited half of the locations they suggested in their cover article. I never made it to the restaurant, Made in China, but I certainly heard great things. My biggest regret, however, is not taking more time to travel around the country. I visited Shanghai and Tianjin, and made a side trip to the suburbs with Vincent Laforet, but I really wish I had taken more time in the beginning of my trip to explore other parts of the country. Some friends flew to see pandas in their native habitat near Chengdu, or visited the Terracotta Army at Xi’an. I’d love to visit China again at some point in the near future -- but I don’t think Beijing will make it on my itinerary.

This marks my final post to Behind the Lens at the Beijing Olympics. Thanks for visiting, and feel free to continue sending questions or adding your comments to individual posts.

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August 27, 2008

My Bags Are Packed

As much as I’ve enjoyed my experience in Beijing, I’ve been looking forward to tomorrow’s flight for quite some time. In a few days, I’ll reflect on my Olympic experience, but today’s focus has been on getting everything packed into what I hoped would be two checked bags and two oversized carry-ons. No such luck -- I started packing early this morning, and soon realized that there was no way to avoid paying the $100 fee for a third checked bag.

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Luckily, I had allowed enough time for a visit to the Tianya market to pick up another bag. I withdrew 700 Yuan (about $100) from the ATM, and went back to the market I swore I’d never return to. After I scored a new suitcase for 140 Yuan, I began picking up even more souvenirs. 500 Yuan in impulse purchases filled half of my new suitcase before I left the market four hours later. I now have well over a hundred sets of decorative chopsticks, but at less than one Yuan each, they’re hard to resist -- time to make some new friends?

August 26, 2008

Handicap Accessibility in Beijing

With the Paralympics coming up in less than two weeks, it’s a good time to address handicap accessibility in Beijing. I made a mental list of everything unexpected I had experienced after my first week in China -- the complete lack of handicapped Chinese was at the top. It’s now day 56, and I have yet to see a single wheelchair in the city. Where are all the handicapped people? There are plenty of elderly Chinese, sure, but are they completely immune from major disabilities? The Chinese think I’m an unusual sight? Wait till them come across an army of Westerners in wheelchairs.

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But how has the city prepared to welcome their disabled friends? From what I’ve seen, Beijing hasn’t made much of an effort to make the city wheelchair accessible. The newer subway lines offer elevators and wider entrance gates, but will people make room for wheelchairs on packed trains, or offer up their seat at the drop of a hat to someone obviously in need? I have seen it happen a few times -- for young children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

At venues, there are dedicated seating areas for the handicapped, but they were always empty during the Olympics. There are plenty of stairs and escalators in the city, but few elevators, and even fewer ramps. Even short staircases, such as the one seen below at the Bird’s Nest, are far more commonplace than ramps.

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Handicapped tourists coming to watch or participate in the Paralympics should have access to all the competition venues, but visiting many of the city’s historical sites, and even some restaurants and hotels, will prove a challenge. If you’ve been a handicapped tourist in Beijing or elsewhere in China, please chime in. To those of you coming to town for the Paralympics -- good luck! Please keep in touch.

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August 25, 2008

Beijing’s Ghost Town

About ten hours after the end of last night’s closing ceremony, I headed to the Olympic Green, completely unsure of what I’d find when I got there. I hadn’t heard much about when the Green will open to the ticketless public, or if it would stay open until the Paralympics -- so I knew it would either be packed to the brim, or completely deserted. I arrived to find the latter.

When I approached the Olympic subway line, the streets packed with tourists and scalpers just yesterday were now empty, and only one of dozens of security checkpoints to access the subway was open -- and there wasn’t even anyone in line. Unsure if my accreditation card would still be valid, I approached the checkpoint to find a guard waving me through. Two of the guards were even taking a nap -- it was obvious that I was their first customer for quite some time.

I’ve tried to limit the length of my entries in the past, but in this case, text is no match for photos, so I’m including nine. Captions will help guide you through today’s experience on the Olympic Green.

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Subway line 8, which services the Olympic Green, is only accessible to staff, journalists, and ticket holders. Usually too full to fit all those waiting onto one train, I counted only 15 riders on my train today.

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Spectators packed the green each day during the Olympics, posing in front of venues, visiting exhibits, and crowding around athletes and life-size Fuwa dolls. But only one day after closing ceremony, there wasn’t a single fan in sight.

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Now Beijing’s most recognizable structure, the area in front of the Bird’s Nest was always a popular photo stop for tourists. Today, like everywhere else on the Green, it was completely empty.

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After a couple hours alone on the Green, I decided to head to the MPC to find some friendly faces. Journalists were loading trucks with equipment, and making purchases at the Olympic store and post office. The food court was still open for those still at work, but the photo and media workrooms were almost completely empty.

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Nikon representatives load boxes with equipment in the photo workroom. Canon and Nikon provided loaner equipment for photographers at no charge during the Olympics.

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My first walk through the International Broadcast Center involved dodging equipment and journalists on the move as they raced to pack up gear before leaving Beijing.

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With nothing to do on the Green, I decided to visit some of the venues I hadn’t been able to access before. Only three days after competition, workers had almost completely disassembled several levels of seating at the fencing hall.

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Workers replace a Beijing 2008 sign at the Water Cube with one designed for the Paralympics, set to begin on September 6. Many of the signs at other venues and the MPC had already been replaced.

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Crates of equipment sit in front of the former Today Show set near the Bird’s Nest on the Olympic Green.

August 24, 2008

Going For the Gold

With the closing ceremony about to get underway, competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics has come to an end. The Chinese I’ve spoken to are very happy with the results, but the Olympic buzz, even among Chinese, still seems to focus on swimmer Michael Phelps (USA). Team China finished with the greatest number of gold medals -- 51 in total, compared to 36 for the United States -- but Team USA came out with the top total medal count, at 110 compared to China’s 100. Canada placed in the top 15, with 18 overall medals.

Working at the volleyball venue, I’ve witnessed two gold medal matches over the past two days, with the USA men’s team winning gold today against Brazil, and the women’s team taking silver yesterday, also against Brazil. I’ve seen many familiar faces covering the matches at my venue -- check out blog entries from Chris Detrick, Mark Rebilas, and Nhat Meyer to see their volleyball images.

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The USA men’s volleyball team enters the field of play during the victory ceremony. Team USA won gold in the indoor volleyball final against Brazil.

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Players and coaches from the USA men’s volleyball team (left) pose for photographers after winning gold. Only pool photographers (Associated Press, AFP, Reuters, Getty Images, and Xinhua) have front-row access to the medal ceremony. Other photographers can shoot the ceremony from a distance.

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Team USA rower Caroline Lind poses for fans with her gold medal at Club Bud in Beijing. Medals from the Beijing Olympics include a ring of jade, the national stone of China.

Most Olympians and photographers will head home tomorrow, and I return to the U.S. on Thursday. I will continue to post to Behind the Lens at the Beijing Olympics until my departure, so stay tuned for more Beijing news and travel tips.

August 23, 2008

Bring It Home: Chinese Tea

If you’re scrambling to buy gifts before you leave China, consider visiting Tea Street or a nearby grocery store to pick up some Chinese tea. With hundreds of shops, many offering free samples, Tea Street is located only a few blocks from Sanlitun (home to China’s first Apple Store) -- there you will find hundreds of varieties of Chinese tea to fit every budget. Unless you’re an expert, however, it’s difficult to know whether or not you’re getting a good deal. I purchased some tea at Tea Street, but I didn’t even try to bargain -- unlike at the clothing and souvenir markets, I had no clue what I was doing, or if bargaining was even allowed.

If you want to avoid the hassle of bargaining, many larger grocery stores sell tea as well, and offer the same gift packaging that you’ll find on Tea Street. While they’re more convenient and offer lower ticketed prices, grocery stores will likely not offer samples, so purchases may be hit or miss. Stores carry everything from traditional jasmine tea to green tea to flower tea (the dried flowers expand when placed in hot water). Prices range from under 100 Yuan (about $15) per kilogram to 2600 Yuan and up. The gift sets I purchased included about 150 grams of tea (at 500 Yuan per kg) and a gift box for 75 Yuan each (about $11) -- you can mix and match teas in any quantity.

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August 22, 2008

A Picture Perfect Blue Sky

I couldn’t believe my eyes as I woke up this morning. On the nicest day of my two months in Beijing, I witnessed a miracle -- bright sunshine with a clear, blue sky. I made use of the bright direct sunlight, and escaped the volleyball venue for the Olympic Green as quickly as possible. I witnessed a vibrant sunset light the Bird’s Nest, followed by a clear view of the moon a few hours later. Olympic tourists were taking advantage of the brilliant light as well, posing for portraits in the golden sun on the Green.

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This wasn’t my first sunny day in Beijing, but it was probably the clearest. Visibility was unrestricted, with a clear view of the mountains surrounding the city. Today’s weather definitely had a positive effect on locals and tourists alike -- everyone seemed to enjoy the sunlight, and the Olympic Green was more packed than ever. Throughout the day, I overheard visitors crediting yesterday’s rain for the clear sky today, but past rains have not yielded such incredible results. I have less than a week left in China, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have another day as incredible as today before next weekend hits.

August 21, 2008

Have Some Free Time?

Most of the photographers I’ve met have been shooting back-to-back events every day since the Games began almost two weeks ago. Rising early and working late into the evening, any free time they have is spent catching up on needed sleep. There are a few exceptions, however. For photographers with some downtime or those staying in Beijing until next week, here’s my top five list of things to do and shoot in the area, far from the Olympic Green.

1. Take the train to Tianjin -- The coastal city of Tianjin is located 120 km east of Beijing, but a new high-speed train will zip you from the capital to the coast in just under 30 minutes. You’ll need at least half a day to explore, especially if you plan to shoot at the “beach.” The ocean excursion is pricey (about 160 CNY r/t including taxi and light rail), but the incredible pictures you’ll be able to make there make it well worth the time and money.

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2. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City -- Several photographers I’ve spoken to haven’t even had time to visit the world’s largest public square, or the Forbidden City. If you have a few hours free, visit both, but if you can only spare an hour or two, head to Tiananmen Square to shoot tourists and locals enjoying the recently constructed Olympic displays.

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3. Eat Chinese food -- Under immense pressure to stay healthy so they can produce images, experienced photographers are avoiding eating anything outside of the media village, Main Press Center, or Olympic venues. While this makes sense, they’re really missing out on some incredible Chinese food. Peking duck roll ups (available for 15 Yuan at the MPC) aren’t going to cut it -- experience the real thing at Quanjude, or visit a hole in the wall eatery to enjoy Chinese food at its best (and cheapest).

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4. Wander the city on your own -- Escape the Olympics bubble to meet locals in the hutongs, or roam the streets with a camera in the older parts of town. Don’t worry about having a plan -- take the subway away from the Olympic Green, and get off at a random stop. If you don’t like what you see, simply hop back on and go somewhere else -- you’ll also be able to make great pictures on the train.

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5. Bring back some goodies -- You can’t return from China without gifts for family and friends, so visit one of the city’s markets to bargain hard for souvenirs. Jade and pearls are very popular, as are calligraphy paintings, chopstick sets, and knock off clothing. Visit the Pearl Marketfor pearls (and sometimes jade) and the Tianya market (literally a few feet away) for everything else. Tianya is also a great place to shoot locals gathered around televisions to watch the Olympics.

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August 20, 2008

A Master At Work

Many budding photographers find work as assistants to those well established in the field before setting off on their own. A young photographer myself, I decided to take this opportunity at the Olympics to meet photographers and observe how they work, and I’m always amazed at how much I’m able to learn. Yesterday, I shadowed former New York Times staffer Vincent Laforet, currently on assignment for Newsweek.

Vince told me about a shot he had in mind several days ago, and asked where we could go to make it work. After a dozen phone calls and text messages to a translator familiar with the area, we settled on the town of Changping, located in the Changping District of Beijing, a suburb northwest of the city. The translator and I met at my hotel, hired a cab for the night, and headed over to pick up Vince near the Olympic Green.

After what seemed like an hour of driving, we arrived at a village near the Ming Tombs, a popular tourist attraction. We wandered down alleyways for 20 minutes, trying to talk to locals and searching for Vince’s shot -- Chinese gathered around a television to watch the Olympics in a rural area near Beijing. We saw some homes that might have worked, but decided to keep looking.

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A few minutes later, a man wearing a volunteer shirt approached us on his moped, and our translator asked him for advice on where to shoot. Our translator later identified him as the town’s leader -- to my surprise, he was incredibly helpful, and seemed to have a general understanding of why we were there. We began to follow the “volunteer” as curious locals joined our entourage. Eventually, Vince settled on a group of three people eating dinner and watching television in a tiny grocery store.

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I liked the shot, but it still wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, so we grabbed our cabbie and headed back to Beijing a few minutes later. After leaving the store, we noticed that an even larger crowd had formed -- about 20 people in total, including a well-dressed woman who looked very out of place. The woman was asking many questions, and our translator later identified her as a leader of the Changping district, who had been informed of our arrival.

By the time we reached the city, our cab fare had reached 278 CNY (about $42) -- most of my fares in Beijing are less than one tenth of that amount, and our translator was fascinated by the high number on the meter. 330 CNY later (luckily, Vince had paid), I arrived back at my hotel, to prepare for another day in the Olympics bubble. In the end, Vince wasn’t able to get the picture he had wanted, but we plan to give it another shot in a few days.

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Visit Newsweek’s “Visions of China” blog for Laforet’s in-depth account of the evening.

Blog Featured on Inside Digital Photo

I was interviewed by Inside Digital Photo’s Scott Sheppard earlier this month, and noticed that the radio show is now available online. Head over to IDP’s website to hear Scott and I chat about photography in Beijing and China’s preparation for the Olympics. Some of the topics we discussed, such as banned cameras at Olympic venues, have since been updated on this blog -- but the 10-minute segment is worth a listen nonetheless.

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