This week we talked to Tim Jamieson. Originally from the UK and having resided in China for the past few years, Tim has indulged in his passion for photography while trotting across the less accessible regions of Asia. We first came across Tim by noticing his wonderful portraits taken in Northern China, and were keen to pick his brain on how to engage with prospective subjects for his photography (taking into account language and cultural barriers).
Tell us a bit about your background and your life leading up to now:
Hi! Well, I’m Tim Jamieson and I’m from the UK. I currently live in China teaching English, although my contract is soon finishing and I’ll be moving on to something new and exciting!
In 2012 I left the UK to travel in Southeast Asia with my partner and after that we moved to Australia for a year, I loved it so much I decided to stay for another year but before that I took a break to travel some more around Asia. By this point I was completely addicted to travelling, took up photography as a hobby and tried to find a way to extend my adventuring. I have since spent a couple of years teaching English in China as well as travelling in the country and abroad between jobs.
What has your journey as a photographer been? Where did this passion start and how did it develop?
When I first started travelling I had a cheap point and shoot camera and I was just snapping away at the beautiful things I was seeing. I studied design at university so I thought I had a relatively good eye but I was just taking shots to record what I was up to. It wasn’t until I first got to China, after a good few years of work and travel in Asia, that I picked up a slightly better camera and took it a little bit more seriously, mainly just taking pictures to put on Instagram (using far too many filters and edits to make them look ‘cool’).
Since then I’ve been through two more camera upgrades and it’s really only been the past year/year and a half that I’ve truly discovered it as a passion (and regretted all the amazing opportunities I’ve had to get photographs over the past few years! Although I’m sure there will be many more). I won a competition or two and thought, maybe I could take this somewhere, and that’s when I decided to take regular photos, teach myself everything I can about photography, try and get my shots out there and see where it goes.
Can you tell us a bit about your travel journey thus far?
It all started with Indonesia when I flew out to Southeast Asia for four months of travel. After I graduated university I worked for a couple of years and found it difficult to make ends meet. I met a beautiful woman and decided to hit the road with her. I loved everything about travelling straight away, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people, the chaos. I instantly decided I wanted to see as much of the world as possible while I can, and make use of my privilege and health to be able to do so and perhaps record some moments with my camera that other people might find interesting. I’ve mostly travelled around Asia in the past few years, from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and most of the countries in Southeast Asia, to more obscure places like Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I’ve no plans to slow down!
We are big fans of your Instagram page (which is how we originally learned about you). How long have you been running your page? Is it a hobby or has it lead to something more in terms of gaining attention for your (hugely enticing) website?
To be completely honest, it all started with sibling rivalry really. One day my brother Max, who is an excellent photographer, showed me his instagram. He had over 4000 followers. I was like, ‘What the hell! That’s insane, I need to get more followers!’. That’s when I decided to up my game and try and get my work out there. That was a few years ago now and Instagram has changed a lot since. It’s only been a hobby so far but once people started following my work I realised it’s a great tool for exposure so I started posting more regularly. Lonely planet shared one of my shots on their account once which gave me a real confidence boost that I was going in the right direction as well as sending a few followers my way! I’ve also started working on my website which is still a work in progress, but hopefully will be something a bit more professional that I can show to people and get more exposure for my work.
Recently I’ve been writing small stories and information to go with my photos to hopefully give my Instagram a more editorial feel. It also gets me thinking and writing as well, so for me Instagram is a great creative tool!
What challenges have you faced taking photos in a foreign country?
For me at least, the challenges of taking photographs remain the same regardless of where you go, capturing a moment, finding good light, composition, a story etc. The only extra challenge I think while taking photos in a foreign country is when you have a language barrier. It’s much harder to explain why you want to take a photograph of someone, or why you’re waiting around somewhere for the right moment, or finding out what a potential subject’s story is, or trying to gain access to certain areas, so that’s definitely more of a challenge.
Have you encountered any issues transporting equipment?
Not really. I personally like to keep my gear as light and compact as possible with the best shooting potential for high quality images. My gear has gotten a lot smaller recently as I’ve upgraded, and though it’s expensive, a camera is a tool, so you should never buy a camera you don’t want to have with you all the time or that you’re precious with. If you have expensive gear, get travel insurance, and then you’re covered in case anything ever goes wrong. I’ve personally never had any issues so far!
Have there been any cultural barriers you have had to overcome when taking pictures of people?
Definitely. Most of my portrait shots to date have been of people in China. I’m not even close to being fluent in Chinese so the language barrier can be tough however even learning a bit of the language has helped to break the ice and enabled me get some compelling images of people. People often wonder why you want to take their picture and what you may or may not do with the image, so if you can’t communicate that to your subject then it definitely makes it more difficult getting people to say yes. Also shooting people of particular religions can be pretty difficult, it doesn’t stop me from asking everyone though!
Overall, where has been the most interesting place to shoot?
Fortunately for me experience wise, I’ve been to lots of countries. Unfortunately for me, when I visited most of those countries I wasn’t into taking photographs when I was there! So that leaves me with a lot of interesting places I’d love to revisit to take shots in, especially Nepal and India. I had a fantastic time shooting in Mongolia, it’s so rich in culture and landscape. Also it’s a remote, unspoiled and exciting place; a wonderful location for photography. But if I really had to choose the most interesting place with a gun to my head I’d probably have to say China. It’s the place I’ve taken the majority of my favourite photos to date, and it’s also so massive and so diverse there are a plethora of completely different travel and photographic experiences to be had across the country.
Where have you found the most fascinating throughout your travels and where has been the most surprising?
I am fascinated everywhere I go, from the down in the dumps polluted alleyway of a city in India to the fanciest of hotels on the rim of an extinct volcano in the Philippines. To me travelling as an experience is enthralling and it really gets me excited, even if I’m just going to a neighbouring city or town to check it out. Again honestly, each destination is surprising in its own way and that’s what makes travelling so fun and addictive. India is a weird and wonderful place and tested me every day. The most surprising was probably Uzbekistan or maybe Mongolia. Uzbekistan because the architecture is larger than life and wherever you go visiting the old Silk Road sites it feels like you’re transported back to the times of Marco Polo. Mongolia Is also extremely surprising, it really is a fantastic place, from a frozen river in the middle of the Gobi Desert to azure turquoise lakes, singing sand dunes, eagle hunters, soaring mountain peaks and the majority of people living a nomadic lifestyle; there is a surprise around every corner. Oh and China. China never ceases to surprise me every day; it’s a totally weird place and I love it.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into street photography/portraiture whilst traveling? What are some great ways for breaking the ice with a would-be subject?
First off, get a camera. Any camera will do but get one that you can have on you everywhere you go. Definitely do a bit of research too, look online for the old masters of photography. Steve McCurry, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Saul Leiter, Fan Ho, William Eggleston and Constantine Manos are some of my favourites (especially the colour work of Constantine Manos and portraits by McCurry). Nothing beats getting out and taking shots though, research and getting inspired is great but always try and get out shooting every day and enjoy the process of it, and definitely try not to compare yourself to other photographers, especially those on instagram!
Also I’d say don’t get hung up on the technical aspects of photography, learn your camera and how it works inside and out yes, but don’t worry too much about the quality of images, instead try and look for moments and compelling stories. High quality images aren’t the goal, capturing photographs that make people think or that change the world in a small way is, at least for me.
When it comes to people, ask. Ask, ask ask. Get rejected and keep asking. When you approach someone, smile, point at your camera, say something like ‘You look beautiful, can I take a photo of you?’ and see what they say. You will always get rejected more often than not but that’s all part of the process. I still get nervous every time i ask someone for a portrait but when I come away with an image I’m happy with there are fewer better feelings than that. Oh and show your subject the photo you’ve taken after you’ve made the shot, seeing the reaction of someone looking at the photo you’ve just taken and being really surprised and happy is an incredible feeling.
Where is next for you, in terms of travel?
Very shortly I’m coming to the end of my teaching contract in China. After that I’m going to visit South Korea and Japan before returning home for a bit to catch up with family and friends. Both of those places have been right at the top of my travel list for ages so I’m very excited and hopefully I’ll get some good shots, so keep an eye on my instagram! In the new year I’m planning to go and work in New Zealand, so I’ve got a lot of travel coming up and I’m very excited.
What photography equipment do you usually travel with? What is a really good versatile piece?
I used to shoot with an entry level Nikon D3300 camera but I’ve since changed to a Fuji X-T2 mirrorless system. I love it and it’s perfect for my needs, compact, light and has excellent image quality. I shoot the majority of my pictures on a 35mm f/2 Fuji lens, and I also have a wide angle (XF18-55mm) and a zoom lens (XF55-200mm) for landscapes. For me the best camera to have is the one you have with you all the time so you never miss anything. You really can get amazing images with old or bad equipment if you’re a talented photographer. For anyone looking to buy gear though it does depend on what you want to use it for. I always say gear does matter to the point that if you want sharp images and good resolution you need a camera and lenses that are decent enough, as for breaking the bank to get the best gear, I think it’s a waste of time and it won’t make you a better photographer!
Also for landscapes a good sturdy tripod is a must, I have a decent compact one I take with me everywhere because you never know when you might want a long exposure, or a city scene or landscape that you’ll need your camera to be completely steady for.
In my opinion the best versatile piece is the photographer using the camera, so invest in yourself, research, do workshops, online classes and most of all take whatever camera you have available and practice every day, rain or shine!
How do you find China as a place to live? What might someone who has never been to China be quite surprised to learn?
China is totally bizarre and I love it! (I think I might have mentioned that already). China is a massive country and has a diversity of places to live, cultures and things to see to match its size. If you visit a big city on the east coast I think someone might be surprised to see just how ‘westernised’ it feels, coffee and swanky shops, restaurants and bars on every corner. Conversely in more remote places China it most certainly doesn’t feel like home and day to day life is far different. Chinese customs, logic and manners it seems are completely different to that in the ‘west’, so that takes a while to get your head around!
China is a great place to live. It’s certainly challenging, with massive culture and language barriers to face every day, but that is also one of the reasons its fantastic. There are always surprises on the streets of China, there’s never a dull moment. Plus the food is incredible, largely nothing like the stuff you can get from a takeaway at home. From noodles to dumplings to barbecued meat to steamed buns, it’s all delicious; soggy chicken feet aside!
What parts of China do you find to be largely overlooked?
Definitely Xinjiang and the north of China in general as well as the small Tibetan regions inside Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces. Teachers and travellers tend to hit the big cities on the east coast, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou etc, and the more well trodden tourist sites such as Huang Shan, Guilin and the Great Wall. There is definitely nothing wrong with that and those places are extremely popular for a reason. The true gems of China to me though lie in the centre, the small Tibetan town of Xiahe is wonderful, and to the wast, spectacular Xinjiang province, which is going through an extreme crackdown by the government on the Uyghurs (the ethnic people who live in the province) giving it all the more reason to visit and support the people who live there and experience the central Asian flavours of China.