Rubble Rousing in a Changing China

Slowly, I rode. Letting the bicycle take me where it saw fit. On the outskirts of the city, I turned up a weary dirt path. In the distance, I could see big new construction under way. In its immediate shadow, I saw homes half demolished. Others, waiting their turn. The gears of the bicycle clicked. A grandmother was sitting in the cool shade of her farmhouse doorway, feeding her grandchild. She watched me drift by, transfixed, but didn’t move a muscle.

The underwear hung alone, windblown. Spared walls on either side provided an anchor for the line.

After I took the photo, the owner of the underwear was standing behind me. In the most deep, delicate voice he said hello and motioned for me to come into his home. For tea. Without a second’s hesitation, I followed.

Suddenly, I went from being the odd foreign guy riding his bike through a destroyed chinese countryside village, to sitting on a couch in a living room and having tea with a farmer and his family.

At first, we sat in a soft silence. I took in the room. He prepared the tea. With my first sip came the inevitable ‘tea leaves stuck in the mouth’ moment. I couldn’t gather the strength to spit them out on the table or floor, so I chewed on them like gum.

He spoke in Chinese. I spoke in English. Neither one of us could understand the other. Through hand gestures, body language and a little intuition, I understood his name to be Zhang. And that five of them live in the house. At one point he pulled out a folder of papers. He handed me a newspaper clipping and I recognized the character in the main photograph of the story. ‘Destroy.’

His house is next.

I took his number. and gave him mine.

We made plans for dinner this Friday. I think.

John Torrente Written by:

It's three-thirty in the morning and I'm on the coastal railway from Bombay to Mangalore. Nineteen steamy hours on the Matsyagandha Express. The woman on the bunk across from me has reconstituted her sari into a blanket. There’s a full moon. It’s my forty-second birthday. And I haven’t slept a wink. The retired banker occupying the bunk just above me is resting peacefully, though his gentle snore is no match for the relentless grind of steel on steel. The windows are wide open and I’m drenched in the rush of the unforgiving night air. Earlier questions from my friendly bunk mate have my head spinning. They were simple. General curiosities people share when they come across me in a space clearly not my own. Mine is a story that’s taken over a decade to create. And a lifestyle I struggle to explain. In nineteen ninety-nine I dropped my corporate copywriting gig in San Francisco and went searching for Big Change. Having been a social worker on the overnight streets of Manhattan, I secured a volunteer position in Oaxaca, Mexico working with families living in the surrounding mountains. A year later, with my suburban ruse dismantled, I knew there was no going back. I traveled by bus through Central America and eventually wound up studying photography in Quito, Ecuador. I started taking portraits, printing the images and bringing them back to the people. This exchange broke down language barriers, cultural differences, economic disparities and complex social mores. Photography was bringing me deeper and deeper into the lives of the locals. My process is simple. I make contact with a group. I live with them for a month or two. And when it feels right, I use my camera as a means of cultural exchange. When my time is up, I head to a city where I can process the film and make the prints. Then I put them in a box and send them back. I’ve done projects with the landless farmers movement in Brazil, Indian schoolchildren who lost family in the tsunami, indigenous tribes in Mexico and Peru, gypsies in Turkey and seven foot tall drunken fishermen along the Danube river in Serbia. Three years teaching English in China and the occasional freelance project has helped finance my work. My home is where I land. And everything I own fits in a backpack. I use a forty year old Rolleiflex 2.8f TLR and typically shoot black and white film. I don’t publish or sell any work.