China 2019: Summiting Emei

It was a slow morning, to say the least. I spent last night slamming whiskey with some Thai guys at Mojar after playing a few rounds of pool with a flamboyant Uzbek friend I met there last week. Life is good in Chengdu, and the nights know no limits. I'm happy to have met so many new friends here already. This city is one to remember...

A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.
A view over Jin River from Anshun Bridge in Chengdu.

In terms of my photography, it feels like I'm firing on all cylinders. Last weekend was a high-octane adventure to the misty summit of Mt. Huajian and this weekend I plan to summit Mt. Emei, the highest of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China.

Signing off from a crowded train to work on Line 1,

Thursday, 22/08/19.


Tonight we played cards in a cobblestone courtyard lit by both red paper lanterns and neon stage lights from inside the open-air hotel bar. As it got later in the night, the six of us walked outside the stone gate and grabbed delicious street food barbecued with Sichuan spices and sauces. After we sat back down at the table, we spent the rest of the night listening to the surprisingly rhythmic sounds of drunken karaoke singers, an electric guitar, and bongo drums. A baby cat that looked like a snow leopard stalked us for most of the night as gambling men yelled in the background...


It was a humid night with a rare breeze, a little hotter than Chengdu but still cool enough. Emei is a relaxed city with a jovial vibe where you can enjoy the excitement of a new place away from the traffic of congested cities or tourist traps. Additionally, the small city is only a two-hour train ride from East Chengdu station and sits next to a mountain of immense beauty religious significance. I cannot wait to stand atop it by the end of tomorrow. 

Signing off from Emei,

Friday, 23/08/19

The first hour was near-unbearable. The lack of a filling breakfast and a good nights sleep, intense humid heat, heavy bag with two large waters, steepness of the climb, and the sight of a man lying broken-legged and bloody-faced in the first thirty minutes was enough to make me regret choosing to partake on this adventure...


As the day drug on, though, breezy weather, good conversation, and the ever-nearing end in sight made the trip enjoyable. Our final destination for the day was a red dot on a map labeled Xixiangchi, a Buddhist temple in the mountains. Before we could reach it, however, a number of obstacles stood before us...

The main concern ahead was an hour-long stretch of trail referred to as the "death climb." As our stone trail snaked through the mountainous landscape, we came to a halt by a pop-up shop on a forested ridge. From this shop forward, it looked like the steps spiraled endlessly into the sky above. We knew this was it. I bought a Snickers bar and started to climb...


As we ascended the cliffside, my legs began to burn as they had done at the start. I took a quick break and was passed by a hiker with a large bamboo stick. I assumed it was a walking stick. It wasn't. During the climb, I started noticing signs on the trail warning hikers of onslaughts from militant monkey gangs...

The first attack came during the "death climb." Our group had become fragmented, but I was able to join up with two other interns, Ferdi and Denys. As we ascended further into the clouds, a massive Tibetan macaque jumped onto the trailside fence. When we approached, it leaped towards us and jolted at Ferdi. It proceeded to jump on his back as we ran. It ended up only stealing a bottle, but because we had our wallets, visas, and passports on us, which we needed for the train from Chengdu to Emei, the situation became a bit more serious...

Shadows followed us as we moved through the mist until we came across an old wooden structure. At long last, we had reached the steps of Xixiangchi. We were the first to arrive at the temple, which looked abandoned. There were no signs of life besides the silhouettes that lurked in the distance...


Visibility was low, so the oxblood temple complex became a maze of empty alleyways, incense-filled prayer rooms, and marble courtyards. It was difficult to discern what was a statue and what was a macaque. After exploring the temple, we sat on the steps by the entrance and awaited the others...

Once we regrouped with the others, we raced into our shared room to avoid the oncoming macaques. Dozens of them crept outside our windows trying to find a way in. Thankfully, they never did and we were able to safely enjoy our dinner. The sunset that night was incredible. The other guests staying at the temple wandered out from their rooms and admired it together in front of the complex's entrance. It was a moment of serenity and bliss, a stark contrast to the adrenaline-racing afternoon. Seeing the stars rise over the mountains and the mist creep up from the valleys below was a moment I won't forget.

Signing off from a temple in the clouds,

Saturday, 24/08/19

Eating breakfast under watchful eyes
Eating breakfast under watchful eyes

We awoke to the sound of screams as the monkeys evidently took another sacrifice just outside our door. We could hear their footsteps on the metal roof above us like rain in a thunderstorm. In the early morning, we bought bamboo sticks for fending off the monkeys that surely awaited us on our trek to the summit. Although some monkeys immediately recoil at the sight of a raised stick, some are indifferent. Those are the ones that terrify us...

We made our way higher into the mountains, further into enemy territory, pushing our bodies to the limit, sweating waterfalls, and chatting away. There came a point, however, that we reached the bus stop and, soon after, the entrance to the summit's cable car. The trail became swamped with tourists gorging themselves with food, taking photographs of fat monkeys they had just fed, and throwing used tissues over the guardrail and into the forest. As Ferdi and I struggled up the steep steps, the final push of our day-and-a-half-long journey, we received stares, gawks, and laughs from most of the Chinese tourists that passed us. They had taken the cable car up and then walked down the mountain. As sweaty Western tourists who had hiked for over twelve hours with little food and even less sleep, we became a sort laughing stock for several groups we passed. It was one of the rudest displays of humanity I had ever seen. I was disgusted by the complete and utter lack of respect shown for other people and the surrounding natural landscape. The fat spoiled tourists, some of which were being literally carried up the mountain by local elderly men, had no idea what we had been through, seen, or felt. How a cold a world was this, one that had no understanding, only comfortable ignorance. I could only imagine how the local men and women who had to carry slabs of concrete and a sack full of sand up the mountain to the construction sites that cater to this massive wave of tourists brought to the mountain by the cable car. 

There was a man we saw before we reached our accommodation last night who stopped every three steps and knelt to the ground, touching it with his forehead and rotating his hands before rising again. He walked the entire mountain this way, with little to no belongings on him. I wonder how he felt, seeing all this. There were, of course, some nice people who passed by and smiled, said hello, asked how tired we were, or stopped us for a photo. I'm not sure if the latter group only did this to show off meeting foreigners to their friends, as was common in other parts of China during my visits, or for other reasons. On the whole, however, the tourist trap was indeed what its name suggests: a trap. It's a disgusting cesspool of human indifference. Upon reaching the summit, I collapsed by a stone wall in front of Mt. Emei's giant golden spire. The sun began to shine through the clouds and the monument gleamed in the afternoon light. I exhaled and smiled, reflecting on how far I had come and what I had experienced since beginning my climb of Emei. 

The summit of Mt. Emei
The summit of Mt. Emei

The temple grounds were overrun with tourists, as expected, and portrait photographers screamed through loudspeakers into the crowd. The place felt like a Buddhist Disneyland, but I was at ease. It had been a long day and I was happy to close my eyes and breathe in the humid, cool mountain air. What an amazing world we live in. I walked around the summit and enjoyed the pleasant view and weather. Afterward, we descended the mountain by bus and grabbed a quick dinner as a dark yellow haze set in on the horizon. What a day it has been. 

Signing off from the evening train from Emeishan to Chengdu,

Sunday, 25/08/19


. . .

China 2019: My Life in Chengdu 成都

Upon touching down in Chengdu after a long flight from Los Angeles, I found myself back in a world I had been apart from for four years. The last time I was in China, though, I was visiting with a group of some of my closest friends for two weeks. This time, however, I was alone and would be living there for over a month and a half. I have no problem living on my own, but compared to my home town the city might as well have been on a different planet. I couldn't speak the language and I wasn't accustomed to the culture, food, or social cues. What was I even doing there in the first place?

In the spring of that year, I was walking back from playing soccer with a friend of mine at university in Cardiff, Wales. On the way home, we passed by a career fair in the university's main hall, where I picked up a pamphlet for an internship opportunity in China. An online application and a couple of phone interviews later, I secured my place on the program and started looking at round-trip flights to a city I had only ever heard of once or twice before in my life.

After I arrived at my apartment in Chengdu, I dropped my bags and went for a walk. I wanted to explore the city on foot and get a sense of my surroundings. After walking for over an hour and a half, I realized that I had only passed through two high-rise neighborhoods and a business center. The city was so massive that two hours of walking eventually landed me two centimeters away from my house on a city map. I knew it was a big city from my research back in university, but being able to see the scale firsthand was much different. Even the size of the buildings astonished me. Not just the size, but the shape as well. Modern Chinese architecture is an art of its own. The attention to detail and the use of patterns and irregularity was particularly astonishing.

The photo above on the left is from when I walked past Chengdu Polytechnic University in the Hi-tech Zone on my way home. The illuminated building is the same in both images, but the second is the view of it from my room. The lights on the building would turn on at exactly 8:10 pm and would turn off at midnight.

Jet lag kept me up at night through the first weekend. I didn't mind because I found the night to be better for exploring the city than the day. Afternoons in Chengdu had two moods: windy with torrential rain or oppressively hot and humid, while nights were usually cool and cloudy. I tried to balance my walks through the city between tourist traps and local favorites. Each night, though, would bring me back to the same spot: Anshun Bridge.


Over time, the rainbow-lit steps by the bridge became my favorite place in Chengdu. Local musicians played their guitars and sand to the crowd as pedestrians came and went. I would usually walk there late after work or nights spent on the town and sit for hours. The crowd would change every half-hour or so, but almost every person came in a group of two. University students drinking canned cocktails, a mother and her boy, a blind man and his wife, star-crossed teenage lovers, a businessman and his small dog...All of these different people sitting and listening to music together, sharing the same moment under a moon-lit sky.

Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.
Making friends on a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.

The picture above on the right is the first hotpot meal I had in Chengdu. A group of interns and I were led through the restaurant to a private room in the back, where we were given translated menus and tea. The idea behind hotpot is that the entire group uses a pot of boiling water to cook the raw meats and vegetables they order. By tossing different ingredients into the boiling water, you basically create your own custom broth to cook the food in. Our hotpot was segregated by spice level and food preference, with the pot on the left cooking mild vegetables and the pot on the right cooking spicy meats. Hotpot is a communal experience and was a perfect way for the group to make conversation, share a few laughs, and get to know each other better. One particularly comical moment was when we ordered a pig's brain for the hotpot. The majority of the group seemed both curious and nervous to try it. Once the brain arrived, a friend of mine started to lower it into the spicy pot. Suddenly, it slipped from the spoon and into the mild vegetarian pot. The entire group screamed and fished the brain into the correct pot, apologizing profusely to the vegetarians who found the funny side of it, thankfully. As the night drew on, we realized that each person in our group of twelve was born in a different country: Israel, Poland, England, France, Lithuania, Germany, Ireland, and the United States. It was both an honor and pleasure to have dinner with such a diverse, friendly, genuine, unique, and all-around fantastic group of people.

I am not a beer drinker. If a restaurant offers any kind or quality of wine, I would happily drink a bottle of it before a beer. This particular hotpot restaurant, however, did not. Determined not to be the only person in the building not enjoying a drink with their dinner, I asked one of the internship coordinators if there was anything else to drink besides beer. He replied, "Yes. You can try Baiju." I had no idea what that was, so I simply nodded my head and suddenly a small glass bottle of clear liquid was placed before me. Baiju, I would come to learn, is a Chinese grain-based spirit. After my first sip, I instantly recognized my mistake. Finishing the bottle was a painful experience. Some people enjoy it, like some people enjoy sipping straight vodka, but I am not one of them. It was cheap, though, so if you're looking for a bottle of discount vodka while in China this is a solid option.


Another memorable experience during a dinner with the interns was at a Pizza Hut celebrating my flatmate's birthday. Like many Western chain restaurants in China, the menu at this Pizza Hut was unlike others, sporting local favorites such as the durian pizza. It was on this night that my friend Katie and I hit a language barrier with the waiter. After the guy sitting across from us ordered a pepperoni pizza, we ordered a plain cheese pizza to share. He said that they were out of them. Katie and I exchanged confused glances and looked around for help. Another intern showed the waiter the cheese pizza on the menu and he shook his head. We asked if there were other pizzas available, and he replied with a range of options, all including bread, red sauce, and cheese. Figuring that something must be lost in translation, we asked him if we could have a pizza with just those three basic ingredients. He nodded his head, confirmed the order with us, and left. Twenty minutes later, we received the pizza pictured above. Somehow, a pizza with 'just bread, red sauce, and cheese' came out as a pizza with mayo, potato slices, and a buttery egg base. At that point, we were too tired to try again so we ate it. It was strange.

A fun day at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu is often known as the home of the giant panda, the birthplace of Chinese tea culture, and the artistic, historical, and cultural hub of all Sichuan. For a city that’s thousands of years old, Chengdu has increasingly become a symbol of Chinese modernity. This is seen in it’s growing population of eight million residents, in the number of supercars present on any given street, and in the construction of the New Century Global Mall.

Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from the ground.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.
Tianfu Square from satellite view on Baidu Maps.

Back when I was applying for this experience in university, I was given a link to a list of potential companies I could work for across the city. I chose my top three, all in media-related fields, and emailed them to one of the internship coordinators. He emailed me back saying that none of the companies I chose were offering opportunities that year. He then sent me a link to a company that was not on the initial list, a company called Walkingbook. They were an event organizer looking for someone to help with social media and marketing. I jumped at the prospect and, after an interview with the leader, Karan, I happily accepted the position.

Working for Walkingbook was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Little did I know that a "social media and marketing" position would offer me so many new skills, friendships, and opportunities. Aside from shooting promotional photographs and videos from the summit of a 12,000 ft mountain covered in storm clouds, a normal day was spent at the city studio in Tongzilin designing advertisements, building the website, and managing social media accounts.

Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.
Paint & Sip at Walkingbook.

There were several days that stuck out to me looking back at my time working at Walkingbook. The first was the day of my first 'Paint & Sip.' It was a Wednesday during our first week and my coworker Alina and I arrived at the studio expecting another day of media-based tasks. When we met with Karan, however, she handed us a pile of supplies and pointed to the walls, asking if we have ever put up wallpaper before. We shook our heads and before we knew it we were wallpapering the entire studio. Six hours passed and Alina and I were tired and sweaty, taking turns standing in front of the studio's air vent. It was almost 6:00 pm and we had to finish before the night's event. After putting up the last slab of wallpaper, Karan congratulated us, poured two glasses of red wine, and asked if we wanted to stay for the event. We shrugged and took our seats in front of our easels as guests began to pour through the door.

This event is the crown jewel of Walkingbook. Hosted in our studio, Paint & Sip brings locals and visitors from across the world to a shared table to drink wine and paint whatever they want. At the end of the event, the guests share what they painted, why they painted it, and what the finished work means to them.

After everyone had shared their paintings, Alina and I stepped outside and made conversation with a couple of American visitors. They told us that they were on their way to Lan Kwai Fong and asked if we wanted to join them for a few drinks. At that point, I was already a fair few glasses of wine down and I was up for anything. We met up with Alina's boyfriend, David, and before we knew it the entire group was packed in a taxi headed for a night of hilarious memories and antics.

This was the culture. This was life in Chengdu. With each adventure, I grew to love where I was and who I was with more and more. Every day was a new story, every moment and opportunity to laugh, learn, and grow...and this was just the beginning. This was week one. I couldn't wait to see what the rest of my time in Chengdu would bring. Looking back, I'll tell you now that it did not disappoint.

. . .

Shooting to Edit: Playing with Photoshop Filters in Tokyo

Street photography has never been easy for me, which is probably why I love it so much. I love the challenge and resulting growth that it provides. In a cityscape, I'm not only looking to create something out of nothing, but often nothing out of something as well. A mega-city like Tokyo, for instance, is packed full of various colors and shapes. I found that this ocular chaos was reflected in the images I was taking. My goal in a cityscape is to find moments of peace amongst the chaos because I personally find that dichotomy to be both visually and ideologically compelling. I struggled to find such moments in Tokyo outside of the tourist attractions like the Meiji Shrine or Sensoji Temple, and I had little desire to focus all of my energy on such destinations. Instead, I wanted to create something extraordinary out of what would normally be considered mundane, like a street corner, pedestrian crossing, taxi, etc.

After struggling to create such serenity through the wires, billboards, and crowds of Tokyo, I thought of a new approach. If I can't find moments like these naturally, can I create them artificially?


I found my solution in the post-production process. Through selective-color editing, I was able to direct the attention in my images to the subtle vibrancies of Tokyo. I am forcing the eye to focus on, for instance, a taxi, a pagoda, or a bridge. I want the viewer to unpack the city and admire its finer details, the ones I fell in love with during my stay. By simplifying the content of the photographs, I found it easier to focus on the subjects, like a man walking beside a train.

The process was incredibly simple. All I did was drop an image into Photoshop and open up the 'Hue/Saturation' menu. I then moved through each color profile within that menu and decided which color I wanted to keep. Finally, while leaving the chosen color's saturation at 0, I completely desaturated the others. After saving and exporting, I had my image.

When I first tried this technique, I was using images I had shot the previous day. After experimenting with a large range of old shots, I was ready to shoot the following morning. When my friends and I explored Akihabara the next day, I found that the way I looked at my surroundings had changed. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. When shooting, I always try to see the world as if it was through a viewfinder so that  I can plan and frame shots in my head long before I take them. On this particular afternoon, I was looking at the colors of buildings, cars, signs, clothes, and food, trying to visualize what different scenes would look like if I was working in Photoshop.

What defining colors were present? What shapes or subjects did the colors emphasize? Was there enough of one color to fill the image? Was I shooting a wide variety of colors or focusing too much on one throughout the day? These were all questions that played on my mind as I shot to edit.


Manga is a widely popular variety of literature. Although it has a foothold in the United States, it is massive in Japan. Every bookstore will feature a section dedicated to manga. By appearance, it looks like a comic book on psychedelics. I wanted to pay tribute to this art style by editing images of my own to look as if they could appear in a manga.

Nowhere to go

Compared to selective-color editing, this process was technically much easier but required more experimentation. All I did when editing these images was place Photoshop filters on them from the 'Filter Gallery' menu. I simply used the filters 'Torn Edges' and 'Stamp' and their sliders to adjust the contrast and lighting of the photographs.

In the past, I had never been a fan of harsh editing practices. I always wanted to uphold the reality of my photographs and anything that could compromise that honesty was never welcomed in my portfolio. The idea of throwing a filter on an image seemed like taking the easy route. It almost looked like cheating. Over time, however, I've come to realize that this was a limiting belief. By using these edits, I was able to tell stories I never could have told before. I crafted fantasy worlds that were based on aspects of the real but deviated into the imaginary. I had access to a toolbox for storytelling that I had never even considered before, and I loved it.


What I found was that, as opposed to the selective-color edits, the filters emphasized the shapes, symbols, patterns, and textures of the scene. Color became completely irrelevant. At this point in the trip, I started to look through the city for both selective color scenes and black and white abstractions. Through practice, I trained myself to look for both edits interchangeably as I walked through Tokyo, a difficult feat in a city so tall, wide, and condensed. The result was a collection of images that represented both the colorful vibrancy and the architectural brilliance of the Japanese capital.

. . .