On The Road; Always Be Prepared; The Rewards Of Research

Right from the start it sounded like it was going to be a challenge. In late summer last year I was hired by the Taiwan tourist bureau for a 10-day shoot to take pictures for a travel magazine advertorial. Since I’d never been to Taiwan before, and my usual way of working is to make all my own plans, schedules, and lists of places to shoot, I did some research as soon asI got the assignment. What I found wasn’t promising.

Longshan Temple, Lukang. With no tripod and no flash allowed, I can thank the phenomenal low-light, high-ISO capability of my D3S for this photo, which was the two-page lead image of the advertorial. I shot it at ISO 7200 and 1⁄100 sec.
All Photos © Maynard Switzer

First, the time of year for my trip promised hot, humid weather and not much happening in the way of festivals or events. But the biggest challenge was the fact that the more I read about Taiwan, the more I realized that there wouldn’t be much authentic ethnic culture to photograph.

And to me that was the key point of the assignment. Most tourists come to Taiwan from mainland China, and the tourist board was trying with this advertorial to get people from the US to visit. Taiwan, though, is a very modern country, with modern highways and high-rise buildings; it’s what I call “highly electronified.” So the challenge was to show things that would be interesting to American tourists, and one of the things you visit a country for are its cultural traditions.

Kuo Chang-hsi, sword maker, Cheding. The big piston flattens the steel he’s just drawn from the fire. He believes the human bones he adds to the fire purify the metal and give it a special quality.

Unfortunately, traditional aboriginal culture in Taiwan exists mainly in heritage or cultural centers scattered throughout the country. Tourists can drive to the area for highly organized tours, complete with visitors centers, souvenir shops, and restaurants. It sounded a little like visiting the French or German pavilion at Epcot.

The back room at the Din Tai Fung dumpling house in Taipei.

The tourist bureau had set up a schedule for me to visit a set of places, including the ethnic villages, and believe me, they were not the sort of places Americans would get on a plane and travel 14 hours to visit. But I’d received the list before I left for Taiwan, so I’d looked up the places and realized right away what the problem would be. The only way I could handle it was to try to photograph these places in a way that made them look as authentic as possible.

But I also decided to take the initiative, and I did some research on my own, looking for some authenticity. And I found it: there was an area in Taiwan in which a lot of interesting and well-known Taiwanese artisans lived. One of them was a sword maker who’d made the swords for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Another was a famous lantern maker; his lanterns sell for thousands of dollars. Of course this town was not on the list of places they gave me, but I convinced the people from the tourist board that we should travel there so I could photograph, and it ended up that they used several of the images.

Details of the roof of the Wenwu Temple at Sun Moon Lake. It’s a favorite place for weddings and wedding photographs. You can make out a tourist boat in the background.

I also found out that one of the things Taiwan is noted for is the quality and variety of its street food, and I was able to capture images at a city market. Then I learned about a well-known restaurant in Taipei that’s famous for its special soup dumplings. I went there and found long lines of people waiting to get in. The restaurant produces 10,000 dumplings a day, but the way to show that was not by photographing lines of people, or even people at tables eating. I talked my way into the back room where there were about 30 men dressed in white and wearing white gloves who were making dumplings as fast as they possibly could. It was another authentic moment captured.

I guess what I’m saying is that thanks to my research and preparation I turned out to be a better guide than the freelance guide the tourist bureau provided. He was helpful, but not very experienced, and my research and the guidebook I carried turned out to be better source material. I was, as the Boy Scouts advise, well prepared.

A maker of temple furniture, Tainan. The handmade cabinet behind him will be used to hold religious and sacred items.

I also had the advantage of knowing what kinds of pictures were needed for the assignment—pictures that would grab people’s attention and get them thinking about Taiwan as a travel destination.

It’s not a bad technique to think about when you’re traveling: just pretend the images you’re taking have to be the travel bureau’s convincing advertising.

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I believe that photos are a commemorative proof that those events and places really do exists. - Gregory J. Daniels DDS