Working on a Smile

Look at the faces of each of these people in this coal mining village outside the city of Datong. They’ve taught me so much. Their curiosity is insatiable, and their smiles contagious.
Whenever I would stop to take a photograph in this part of China I would be surrounded by locals. It was hard to get work done, so I decided to just go with it and teach a little boy how to use a 4×5 camera, or explain the difference between film and digital, to someone who lived during the rule of Mao, with sign language and the “Rough Guide to Basic Mandarin.”
The funny thing about this photograph is I was setting up my camera to make an image of their bathroom. You should have heard the laughs when they looked through the back of my camera and realized what I was doing.
What I’ve been working on, and why I’m showing you this photograph, is something the photographer Ed Kashi said at OU while talking about improving his work for National Geographic. “Before I could become a good photographer I needed to first work on being a better person.” This is true for all of us. Before we can become better mechanics, better bakers, or better candlestick makers, we first need to become better people.
For me that meant realizing why I was taking photographs in this part of the world. What is it I want to say? It meant not getting angry and frustrated when I couldn’t make photographs because too many locals were in front of my camera staring at the lens in amazement. It meant accepting all those things I couldn’t change and respecting these people for those things they can’t.
In this part of the world I’m a representative of white people, of Americans, but most importantly of a human being. They will remember the white man with all the equipment. I hope they also remember my smile and my humility, so that next time someone like me comes through they treat him as well as they did me. When we travel we often forget the memories and impressions we leave behind.

Posted July 25th, 2007 in Uncategorized.


  1. Robbyn:

    What a moving post and photo, Jim. The rest of the OU crew took off from Chicago about 30 minutes ago to join you tomorrow afternoon (or middle of tonight for us) in Beijing. Dropped off the faculty (aka the “fearless leaders”) at the airport this morning.

  2. garyoke:

    What an awesome post!
    Both the image and writing.

    What is that you’re shooting with? Is that a Rollie with a digital back?

  3. Annah:

    This is the first time I have seen you in three weeks. You look wonderful and I love seeing you in your environment. These people will remember you, like so many of the people who cross paths with you. Thank you for sharing your world with us in a more personal way. I wouldn’t mind more posts of this nature 🙂

  4. POPs:

    This is great stuff if more people thought this way the world would be a better place.
    Thanks for the great post.

  5. kim:

    something that occurred to me reading this post is that much of the reason you’re there is to gawk, investigate and pursue your own curiosity. that is exactly the same sentiment that stops the people you are photographing and compels them to watch you and wonder. you are the same!

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