The story behind the image
A lot of people have been asking me about this image, a cropped version of which appears on the masthead of this blog, so here’s the story of how it came about. I shot this photograph in 2007 whilst on a 2 month tour of south west China. It was taken on the last day of the yearly Sisters’ meal festival of the Miao people of Guizhou Province. The Miao are a beautiful highland dwelling tribe with a strong tradition of silver jewellery making and embroidery and this festival is one chance for the women of the tribe to show off their fantastic traditional dress. In particular, it is a time for the young single ladies of the tribe to get pro-active and attract a suitable partner and as such, the four days of the festival involve a series of elaborate rituals and community dances specifically designed to encourage new relationships amongst the youth of the tribe, many of whom travel from outlying villages to take part in the gathering.
Much of Miao culture has evolved from the significance of rice in their daily lives and the Sisters’ Meal festival is no different. Throughout the festivities, young Miao men will give small parcels of multicoloured sticky rice to the ladies who they have their eyes on. As a sign to their prospective partner, a woman will bury a pair of chopsticks inside the rice and give it back as a symbolic acceptance of their advances. However, a single chopstick in the returned package denotes interest rather than full acceptance, while what every courting Miao male fears the most is receiving a chilli, which signifies a refusal.
If you are planning to visit this festival, my advice is to travel to Shidong in advance and stay there for a few days. The festival happens at a number of locations around the area but Shidong, with its beautiful location on the banks of a river, was the most authentic in my experience. The majority of the handful of foreigners I met there had just come for the day and, in my opinion, missed some of the best aspects of the festival. It is possible to find many enchanting pictures if you get up early and walk around the nearby villages visiting families in their homes as they prepare for the festival. The Miao are a very friendly bunch and I was invited in to countless houses to share food and see the ladies getting ready. Proud people like the Miao are a joy to photograph because they love to show off their colourful culture to visitors.
If you want to shoot a picture like this you will need a fast prime lens, preferable f1.8 or less. If you don’t have any primes, I would suggest you go out tomorrow and buy yourself a second hand 50mm f1.8. It might just change your life. They are incredibly cheap and will open up a whole new world of photographic opportunities that may have previously eluded you, especially in low light situations where you will be able to shoot in places you probably never dreamed possible with your f4.5-5.6 zoom lens. Additionally, using a fixed lens will train you to focus on the specific area around you at that lens’s particular focal length without being distracted by the barrage of potential opportunities that zoom lenses seem to offer the user. Pick your focal length, then move around to find the images that fit that lens and forget everything else. Remember that one of the best tools at your disposal with a fast lens is depth of field, so play around with it as much as possible by filling the frame with plenty of out of focus objects but don’t forget to use these points to lead the eye into the main focal point of the image which must be absolutely pin sharp, in this case the lady’s eyes and gaze.
As you can see from this wide image, the full scene reveals the fantastic photographic opportunities available at that dance. With so many beautiful women in amazing costumes there was plenty of time and opportunity to find a striking image.
Last year I was lucky enough to receive one of the first new Canon 5D mark II cameras when they came out. Niger was to be the trial run for this new SLR which also shoots high definition film, something I am very excited about. With the help of BBC cameraman Toby Strong and a random gathering of women that we met in the desert, we experimented with its filming and photography capabilities. Here is the result…
A big thank you to Jasper Montana from our BBC team in Bristol who edited the movie at very short notice from our extremely minimal and experimental rushes!
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My time in Niger didn’t start as planned. After 4 days travelling from Ethiopia, via London to pick up a new camera, I arrived in the capital Niamey with some new bags under my eyes. Unfortunately, they were the only personal bags I’d be seeing for a few weeks since my luggage never made it with me to Africa. Experience has taught me always to carry my cameras as hand luggage, so it was a minor setback. My schedule for rendezvousing with the rest of the team near Lake Chad was very tight, so there was no time to wait for the next flight to arrive. It wasn’t all bad news though – in Lost luggage I discovered a bag belonging to our cameraman Toby, which had been sitting there for 3 weeks whilst he had been travelling across the Sahara on another shoot. The same thing had happened to him as it turned out, so I acted as courier and took it with me on the 2 day journey to hook up with him and the rest of the crew in the east. By the time I arrived at our meeting point I was definitely ready for a change of clothes. My salvation came in the form of Cecilia, our producer, accompanied by our all knowing fixer who whisked me off to the local market where we managed to commandeer 2 lovely new outfits which would end up lasting me my entire time in the desert.
Well what did you expect? Jeans and a T-shirt?
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Interested in more stories from Niger? Try HERE