In 2006 I volunteered the first time for a charity, the Kang Yun Foundation in rural China. An international shipping company supported the organisation to build schools in the unaccessible hinterland of the Yunnan province.
Reading about the stock market crash, the financial and military power and the general influence of China made me remember what I experienced. The organisation literally built schools from scratch and brought education to remote places. In some places I was told to be the first western visitor ever.
Comparing this to the ever fast growing economy, to the images of polished cities like Shanghai or Beijing and the news on the impact Chinese economy has on the rest of the world it feels completely surreal and alien when I look at some of these images.
Shanghai at night time when I arrived. I left to the province of Yunnan early next morning.
A classroom in the Fangyan Primary School.
Smaller children normally share one of those bunk beds.
The first time I saw the little kid in his grandfather’s arms I immediately had to think of The Tin Drum. That boy reminded me so much of Oscar. The look on his face, critical and curious. The way he had his ice cream without moving his eyes. Actually it felt a bit creepy.
But after a few minutes later he warmed up to me was was happy to be photographed. His grandfather was very conscious about the dirty environment in their Roma ghetto on the outskirts of Sofia. He wanted me to take their photograph only in one direction – towards their house.
This is actually one of my first images I took in London when I moved here 12 years ago. I arrived in September 2003 and this was shot in winter. It’s on Ridley Road Market, I guess one of the most original East London places. Funny enough I just recently moved into the very same street as I did back then – a circle closed after many flats, areas and even countries.
The area has changed massively, gentrification at it’s best. But for some reason the market has survived it’s genuine feeling, the amazing atmosphere and the fact that one wouldn’t really think it’s central London. Pass it and you’ll be able to experience probably 100 nations.
From 5pm onwards the whole area gets cleaned – in winter already very dark. I was impressed by the absolute mess. Incredible work the guys from Hackney council do to clean it up – every single evening, six days a week. But you can still smell the exact spot of the fish mongers even at nighttime.
Next to the Concordia building in Sofia is a massive soviet industrial complex. From the outside it looks almost scary. Dark. Run down, concrete only. The entrance lets one wonder what’s behind the doors saying “Keep calm and rule the world”. The old Dacia cut into pieces and converted to sofas is the first hint to a world of art.
The staircase leads up to a few storeys of various sizes. All artist’s studio. All artists welcomed me straight away, gave me little tours in perfect English and invited me to spend time with them.
The complex looks and feels like a life art gallery, work in progress and full of creativity. Every room is different, around every corner another surprise waits for you. I love this room that’s half storage, half installation. The telephone on the desk, the two chairs, the sign on the back wall all remind me of the movies about the cold war taken into a different context.
One of the artists who works mostly with steel. A new mould for a scull sculpture.
Sometimes you have to let go. We visited this Roma family in Sofia, Bulgaria and were rejected. No photos. Absolutely no. We still had a chat we as we were genuinely interested and started a conversation. Next day we came back and continued. After a while I noticed that one of the guys kept looking at my camera. I got up, put it around his neck and asked him to take pictures of me if he wanted. Not at all… he went straight to his family members and had a great time shooting them. That’s him:
Here are a few of his images. Without hesitation I have to admit I wouldn’t have been able to take these intimate and beautiful portraits myself. All of a sudden the allegedly dangerous ex-con transformed into a documentary photographer. Next day he actually asked me in a very nice but also insisting way to buy him a USB stick and give him a copy of all files – he certainly got it.
The most fascinating part of that experience would still wait for me. At some point they all liked the experience and put on some music. A few minutes later we all started dancing on the street. One can imagine the slightly irritated people passing us… Don’t want to miss a minute!
Concordia took me to some of the most deprived areas around Sofia to show me the appalling conditions the Roma have to live in. At first glance it’s indeed not very intriguing but after a while one realises that not everything we consider good or bad might be the case for someone else. I saw such a strong and beautiful community. Certainly the government should do a lot more to improve their status and accept their way of living. But for me personally it was a fantastic experience. Again, the positive, the emotional and also the fun draw my attention and not so much the circumstances.
When these guys came along with their horse cart I was expecting a lot but certainly not one of the funniest pictures I have ever taken. It happened so quick and in hindsight I am still wondering who’s got the better teeth?
Roma Community Sofia
I am really proud that I was able to shoot a picture that actually did have an influence. This picture inspired one of my clients in Romania. Struck by the young athlete he started comparing the lives of the children looked after by Concordia and his own 12 year old son who is one of the most successful swimmers in Europe at the moment. Currently plans are being discussed to invite the children to take part in free swim training. Also there are plans to support the various houses with electricity – the core business of the client is solar energy. Fingers crossed that both projects will go ahead.
If you discover the man you can get an idea of how great it is…