Interview for the Tea Horse Road Project

Bulang woman from Mang Jing village picking tea in a forest tea garden, on Jingmai Mountain, western Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China. She wears ceremonial clothes for this occasion, following the annual ancestor ceremony.

China-based translator, poet and scholar Peter Micic has begun a blog on the Tea Horse Road, which promises to be quite a resource for those of us fascinated by and involved in this ancient trade route:

Photographer and Author Michael Freeman: An Interview

Michael Freeman, The Bivou Lijiang, Shuhe, 2015. 

One of the most widely published photographers worldwide, Michael Freeman has worked for most major international magazine and book publishers in a long career. A leading photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine for three decades (more than 40 assignment stories), Freeman has also published 146 books to date on subjects as varied as Angkor, Sudan, ethnic minorities in Southeast Asia, the Shakers, contemporary Japanese design and architecture, and tea.

His 74 books on the practice of photography, including The Photographer’s Eye, are standard works, and have sold over 3 million copies in 27 languages (4 million for all his books).

London-based, Freeman travels for half of each year on shooting assignments, principally in Asia.

The interview was conducted via email, early March 2018.


(PM): I’m wondering when you were first aware of “photography” and wanting to take photos?

(MF): From a very early age. There seemed something magical to me about capture — that a scene could be made into a permanent picture on a piece of film and then a print. My father has a twin lens reflex, a Voigtlander that he’d found in a shot-up German tank in the Western Desert (he was in the 8th Army during the War), and while he showed me how it worked, I was too young to be allowed to use it (I would have broken it somehow, I suppose). I was about 11 when I got something approaching a real camera — I think it was an Agfa Isola.

Picking leaves in managed agro-forest (infrared), Bulangshan, Menghai County, Xishuangbanna, 2009. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): Was there any pivotal incident or series of events that motivated you to take up photography professionally?

(MF): The problem was that in those days photography was not considered real employment, and as far as my school was concerned, my job was to get into Oxford and improve their ratings. So that’s what I did, to study Geography, which turned out to be not such a bad choice for someone who would eventually be a travelling photographer. I went from university into advertising, in that industry’s most enjoyable days, so I had no complaints, but slowly the call of photography as a full-time occupation (couldn’t call it a career!) got more insistent. I persuaded my agency, Benton & Bowles, in those days a big American agency, to give me a two-and-a-half month sabbatical so that I could go off and travel up the Amazon with my secondhand Hasselblads. Inconceivable nowadays. The story gets longer, but I’ll cut it short by just saying that on my return I had a show of the pictures at the Brazilian Embassy in London, the Time-Life Books Editor and Picture Editor came along, borrowed the transparencies, and several months later ran them as cover, chapter opener and spreads in the first of a new book series, on the Amazon. On the strength of that I left advertising to be a photographer.

Monks in Songzanlin Monastery, Zhongdian (Shangri-la) drinking bod ja (yak butter tea), 2009. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): Have you got better at your craft over the years? Did you ever start out in your early days sketching photos that you admired?

(MF): Yes to the first, no to the second. Improving skills is basic in any creative activity, although given the instant nature of most photography, and the unpredictability of the opportunities that you’re presented with, that doesn’t necessarily translate into the images themselves always getting better. I have a clearer idea these days of what I find interesting and worthwhile. I never heard of the idea of sketching another photograph! Although there were a number of photographers when I started who influenced me, from Robert Frank to Guy Bourdin, I never had any desire to take a picture that was like anyone else’s (see below). I think you have to be very cautious about the influences you follow. There is indeed much to learn from the craft of some other photographers, but I think it’s important to keep that well separated from imitation. In the end, we have to find our own way of seeing and shooting.

(PM): The Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole has said that photography “is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs.” What do you attempt to capture in your photography?

(MF): That sounds an elegant way of expressing Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment (actually a quotation from Cardinal Retz “Il n’y a rien dans ce monde qui n’ait un moment decisif.”). That’s certainly one way of looking at it, and it’s a way I generally agree with, but much of the current photographic art world doesn’t see it like that, and has reacted against the idea of definitive and special. Well, I’m still an editorial photographer in the documentary tradition, so I’m almost always trying to dig into a defined subject. In this case, it’s the many strands involved in an historical trade route which connected a string of cultures. That means that I’m trying to balance a kind of explanation and exposition on the one hand, with a graphically intriguing form. With people, I am definitely looking for an expressive moment rather than a ‘blank’ one, and if it’s strange or elegant, all the better.

Bridge across the Nujiang (Salween River), 2010. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): What goes through your mind when you are framing a shot? And before you click the shutter?

(MF): Pretty much what I just described above, but on the ground things are usually happening fast, so it’s typically highly reactive. I’m looking at both the actual — what’s happening and about to happen, interactions, and so on — and at the graphics — how shapes fit together, colour, light, shadow. It’s also about what I’m trying to avoid, which is the obvious. One of the great picture editors was Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar, and his mantra was simply ‘Astonish me.” He also taught that if you’re looking through the viewfinder at a kind of image you’ve seen before, don’t click the shutter.

(PM): Do you frequently shoot with a tripod? What are some of Michael Freeman’s essential accoutrements carried on all photo shoots?

(MF): Not frequently by any means, but I do carry one when I travel. Generally, I’ll use it for planned situations, but as most of what I do is about people and activity, it’s not usually relevant. Ultimately, to me the best shots are the unpredictable ones, not the planned ones. The only essential things apart from the camera and two or three lenses are a comfortable shoulder bag and comfortable shoes.

Cable slide (liusuo) across the Nujiang (Salween River), 2010. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): Writers often use the language of alchemy to describe their creative process. How would you describe the language of photography?

(MF): I don’t think consciously of a language, but (this will sound pretentious), there’s a lot of sense in Zen ideas, especially that of preparing and practising endlessly, but when the moment comes — meaning when you’re out shooting — put it all away and just react as you’ve trained yourself. The best images usually present themselves as a surprise, unpredictably, so you have to be ready to accelerate instantly to take advantage of them.

(PM): Let’s turn to the Tea Horse Roads. Many readers will know The Tea Horse Road: China’s Ancient Trade Road to Tibet (2011), a sumptuous book that you co-authored with Selena Ahmed alongside your breathtaking photographs. Can you talk about how the project started and when exactly you arrived in Yunnan to start shooting? Had you previously travelled to the province before you started the book?

(MF): It had its genesis one lunchtime with an old friend and publisher, Narisa Chakra. It was a few years since we had made a book together; too long, we both agreed. We should find a theme for a new one, and she wanted to move on from our old projects, all of them focused on Southeast Asia. “Something in China”, she said, “but not too far from our earlier publications”. These had been cultural and historical, in Thailand and Cambodia. They had included a book on Thailand’s ancient capitals, another on the north of the country, five books on Angkor, and more.

I began searching for a subject. It was always going to be a big book, and would be driven by the photography, in the region of 300 pages and 300 images. In addition to my other work as a photographer, I try to have one large, personal project on the go at any one time, partly for sanity and partly to have a new subject and place to explore. Each book means a commitment of two or three years, so choosing the theme is not something to be taken lightly. Inevitably because of the location in southern Yunnan, I came across the Tea Horse Road. What was wrong with me? Why had I never heard of this? Here was an ancient trade route going back to the 7th century, a few to several thousand kilometres long, depending on which way you looked at it, and crossing some of the most varied and interesting territory on the planet. Well known in China, not at all in the West. The more I looked into this idea, the more I realised that it had everything. It was a journey story, which immediately appealed to me. Not only that, but it was virgin territory for publishing, a rare opportunity, and one that Narisa and I seized on immediately. I had been once before, briefly, to Lijiang and then Dali, but for the book I decided to start with the tea mountains. I had a couple of vague contacts, but basically just went to Jinghong to see how it would work out. Does that sound unprofessional? What I’ve learned from doing four decades of stories for magazines is that while advance preparation is essential, planning an entire schedule kills spontaneity, and that spontaneity and discovery are valuable — essential — components in making an interesting story. Bluntly, the fully planned schedule was very much a National Geographic approach. My training was the Life magazine approach, as the Smithsonian magazine was set up by Ed Thompson and his crew from Life; that was, go out and get the pictures and don’t bother us until you have them.

Salt pans at Yanjing, Upper Mekong (Lancangjiang), 2009. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): You’ve traveled extensively around Asia and the globe. What did you find unique about Yunnan ? What were some of the (visual) themes you wanted to highlight or focus for the book?

(MF): It was also much more than a physical journey. It began with tea, a story in itself, and the botany extended to ethno-botany, and took in other cultures, politics, trade, more than a thousand years of history, and the Tibetan horses that gave the road half of its name. In fact, the road became the armature for a story that went beyond the exchange of commodities, tea and horses. It was the twisting spine from the far southwest of China to Tibet, on which I thought I could hang all these different topics. I could happily have gone on for more than the two years it took to do. And then from this book flowed many more projects, which continue.

(PM): I can imagine there were many memorable moments of people, landscapes, weather, stories, etc, along sections of the Tea Horse Roads. Can you share several of them?

(MF): The backstory of any long assignment is one of the private pleasures for a photographer or writer, and I certainly relished the two years I spent shooting in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet — 20 weeks on the road in total. The Nujiang gorge I found particularly fascinating, as it was on the western edge of the routes going north to Tibet, and I’d already watched the affecting film Delamu by Tian Zhuangzhuang, and had also, long ago been to its middle reaches in Burma, where it’s the Salween, with a Karenni rebel group. It surprised me that there were still liusuo (originally rope slides but now cable slides) being used, mainly by the Lisu minority. At one time it was the only way to get horses and muleteers across this very fast-flowing river, with some danger. It was a nice surprise to find that they’re still in use by the Lisu minority, though the ropes have been replaced by cables.

They’re in pairs, sloping diagonally across the gorge. Depending on the weight of the person, the transit speed can exceed 30 kilometres an hour. What you need for this is a pulley with hook attached, and a length of rope that you use as a seat, delicately balanced — a little risky, but I suppose if you know what you’re doing it’s OK. I photographed a boy and his younger sister returning home from school like this, and thought well, if kids do it I might as well give it a try. Like the two kids, one on either side of the cable, I did it with a young Lisu man who offered to show me. The only way to get a shot was to use the widest angle lens I had — 14mm — and hold it high with my right arm outstretched behind me. It sort of worked, except that I had my left hand in the shot, gripping the pulley, knuckles rather white! So we went back for another go, and this time I held the camera with both hands high. The problem then was that my co-pilot looked alarmed as I was riding without hands, and I had to gesticulate to get him not to look at me. That gave me the chance for one shot, which was good, fortunately, but back on land I reflected that he might have had a point. Except that he was already, though it was mid-morning, a little drunk.

Loading a yak caravan, Manigange, northwest Sichuan, 2009. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM): Did you drink copious amounts of Pu’er tea while you were in Yunnan? Did any particular teas stand out, “raw,” or “cooked” Pu’er from a tea estate, tea village or teahouse?

(MF): Quite a bit, but I realised quickly that I knew nothing about tea, despite (or rather because of) being British. The finer points escaped me at the time, but since then I’ve gone on to do a book about serious tea — all types, from Pu’er to oolong and white tea and the others. So now I’m in the position of knowing enough to realise that I know even less than I did then! I stayed for a few days in one Akha village on Bulangshan with a family, and found it special to drink the freshly picked tea as they did, treating it as a green tea. I was drinking the tea from the leaves that I photographed being picked, and that’s where I learned the importance of the concepts of terroir and provenance.

(PM): What other artistic pursuits have informed your photography over the years?

(MF): Not pursuits, but movies and painting (looking at).

(PM): When you are not taking photos, what other consuming passions do you have?

(MF): Writing. The other interests aren’t consuming.

Near the shore of Lake Manasarovar, Tibet, 1997. Photo: ©Michael Freeman.

(PM) One last question. You have spent much of your life looking through a camera lens and obviously doing something you love. What is your idiosyncratic lens on life?

(MF): My eye. The human vision system is remarkable, and we can switch in a moment, without thinking about it, from taking in the whole scene around us (very wide-angle) to focusing on a distant detail (long telephoto). Like any trained photographer, I can see images in any framing possible; the camera’s just the instrument for putting that into practice and making a capture.