Wanhua: not for the faint hearted

Wanhua is not the type of place you want to walk around stick a camera in peoples faces and click away. Much of what goes on here treads a fine line of legality from the gambling houses and hostess dens to the street workers and men probably cheating on their wives. Photographers aren’t exactly welcome and on more than one occasion I was warned not take photos.  As Wanhua is small, once you have walked around people notice you and what you are doing. Taking a break by visiting the nearby temple or surrounding streets is a good idea and can reap some worth while photos.

Shooting from the hip or hiding the camera and taking it out at the last minute are some of the techniques one can employ but actions are fleeting, you need to be ready at any moment, be able to anticipate what might happen, while being prepared to take a few chances.

As there are not many Westerners here  you will standout. Blending in is possible when it’s crowded but I was there during Chinese New Year with the novel Corona virus threat hanging over peoples heads. This meant far less people and less opportunities for images.

Having an angle or point of view developed either before or while you are shooting will help you get the most out of your photography here. For me, I usually develop it half way through or after I have taken a few shots and got an understanding of the place and what I want to focus on. The men stood out and I thought I could get some interesting profiles and strong characters so I started to work that angle.

But as the night progressed I started seeing a lot of interactions and a lot of interesting scenes which happened so quickly that I missed them. On the first night I was using my 50mm f1.4. It’s one of fuji’s best lenses but you need to be able to put yourself in the right place and when the streets become narrow you really need something wider. On the second night I took my 10-24mm f4 which is nice and wide but not very bright. Shooting in A.P mode results in slow shutter speeds so I had to set it to a happy medium and deal with the under exposed shots in post.

On the second night (the first night it rained heavily) I actively sought interactions hanging around until 1 – 2am to catch a few couples staggering from the bars and men swaggering around checking out the ladies. Patience and lucky are certainly required for project work.

Being in touch with the vibe sounds a bit like a cliche and if you look at what other photographers have made of the place you can see different approaches and different aspects highlighted, but for me the vibe was about sex and the secret liaisons hinted at from beyond the doorways of bars and staircases that led to who knows where. Women were sensitive to having their photo taken and I respect that but I still needed images.

Its debatable whether I should photograph them as its obvious to all what they are doing but then again it is a public space!

There was also a listless quality about the place with woman just standing around and drunken men permanently perched on seats, market stalls serving the infrequent customer and police quietly standing sentinel in the surrounding streets. I perhaps should have come in the day time or afternoon for a different perspective but I wanted the night scenes. This place really comes alive at night and the garish lights, the grime and grittiness is the backdrop I wanted for the soap opera of Wanhua to play out to.



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