Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Although he was talking about hockey, that is basically my approach in photography.
As a camera user and industrial designer, I use many camera systems with different formats but still experience the same curiosity whenever a new camera is brought out. My primary medium format systems in these digital days are Phase One IQ backs on Hasselblad H camera and Alpa12 and Phase One’s own XF100 for studio work. When Hasselblad X1D was introduced in 2016 I immediately bought one to use as a portable solution medium format digital system. I prefer it over Fujifilm GFX50S which I found had rather a dated concept although I do not question its capability and image quality. When the 50R model was released I thought it would be a good bet as a street camera with its zoom lens so I got one, along with 45mm, 110mm and 32-64mm zoom lenses.
A couple of days later I met Gao Ming Ming, a young Chinese woman from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province who was travelling backpack-style in Bangkok, Thailand. I noticed her not just because of her pretty face but her calm and confident manner which I found intriguing, so I started talking to her.
I found Gao was 23 years old and speaks only Chinese. She was on her third day in Thailand. We exchanged names and where we came from and then I asked her why she was in Thailand. I learned that she had been travelling alone in northern India for two months and then in Bangladesh for two weeks before landing in Thailand. She did her travel basically with a smartphone as her travel translator, guidebook and payment system (Chinese WeChat Pay and Alipay) with a 65L backpack and travelled by local bus or train, often on overnight buses between cities. She described them as: “That kind of bus that has endured a war and where every part shakes when it runs and when it is not running all one can smell is the fumes.” She stayed at budget hostels everywhere. I know it is not easy for a woman to travel alone in India and it’s probably tougher in Bangladesh, especially because of the way she travels, so that ignited my interest. I started to think about taking some portraits of her to test my new camera so I asked whether she would be interested in having her photo taken. I told her I am an industrial designer and a photographer and showed her the kind of pictures I would like to take on my smartphone while offering to buy her another cup of coffee. She declined the coffee but accepted my invitation for portraiture.
The pictures I showed her were those I shot at Bangkok Railway Station so I asked her whether it would be okay to meet at the train station at 7:15 am the next morning for coffee. I explained that I wanted to start shooting early because the light would be better and it wouldn’t be as hot then. She took a few seconds to say yes because she probably doesn’t get up that early!
I told her ahead of time that in some situations I might touch her hand or part of her body to adjust her pose to get particular angles and she shouldn’t take it as anything else. Then I asked what she would wear and advised her that anything pastel or with a print doesn’t shoot so well. She told me that she had some dresses from her trip to India and she would pick one in a darker tone. Finally, we exchanged our WeChat ID on the phone and she asked me to send her the location information before I left.
I woke up early the next morning to go to the train station to get some morning shots of travellers. Around 7:05 am my WeChat received a message from Gao saying she was already at the station, so we went to have a coffee before the shoot.
Over coffee, I told her what Wayne Gretzky once said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” I said I had expected her to say no to my invitation to shoot her because it is the answer I would expect my daughter to make to a stranger. I said I wouldn’t be upset if someone declined my invitation and would only regret not asking at all. And the rest are the pictures.
The shoot in the train station lasted over an hour then we went back to the coffee shop and chatted about her interesting travels and my travels, and then I learned she only chooses to work part-time so she can leave a job easily to go travelling. She works as a delivery girl for an online food platform “Meituan” in the northern region of Inner Mongolia during the winter to earn money to travel. I told her about Russia, a country I very much enjoy visiting and showed her the pictures I took in Russia before I returned in early November. She said that she once worked on the Chinese/Russian border where the village scenery looked exactly the same and showed me the pictures on her smartphone, including those from northern Inner Mongolia.
Sometimes we are skeptical about strangers at first and I must admit I am too, particularly regarding such an independent young lady. When she showed me the pictures of where she had been and I saw the travel blog on her WeChat, Gao Ming Ming is even more amazing than she appears in the pictures.
Using Fuji GFX50R for these portrait shots ended up being a good decision not only because I wanted to try the new camera but I found the medium format camera to be more methodological to operate, which slows me down. That helps to tackle the fact that not only is Gao Ming Ming not a professional model, but in fact has no experience at all, while her tough independence gained from all her travels gives her the easiness and calmness to help my shoot.
The image quality from Fuji GFX50R is quite good, as expected, and the RAF format supported by Capture One makes editing easy. As a Leica M camera user, I will not say the GFX50R experience is rangefinder-like, in fact far from it. Fuji is a capable company with brilliant engineers and will not produce a flawed camera but it is a camera with compromises to meet various goals and I have no doubt we will see improvements in future generations of cameras. Until then I am sure I will get used to the camera in my hand even it is not perfect, because no camera is.