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The China countryside is frigid and gray as seen Jan. 27 from the bus from Beijing to Shanxian, where many migrant workers are heading home to their villages for the Spring Festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

The driver reflected in the rearview mirror guides a full bus as it plunges into the countryside bringing travelers home Jan. 27 to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Travelers are reflected in a door leading to the bus bay where a loaded bus prepares to leave a Beijing station Jan. 27. Millions migrate from the big cities to thousands of countryside villages to celebrate the Spring Festival with family.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Knifing through a bustling street market Jan. 27, the bus to Shanxian detours on a local road near Beijing to deliver a package.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Neighbors and family gather outside the Lilou Village home of Li Guangqiang as he arrives from Beijing on Jan. 27 to celebrate the Chinese New Year. His wife, Sun Fengzhi, stands on the far right.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Poplar groves line the main street through Lilou Village in China.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Lilou Village children show off toys they received as gifts for the Chinese New Year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A string of fireworks explodes on the street in Shanxian, China, on Jan. 28 to announce a wedding inside a nearby hotel. Many villagers marry during the Spring Festival because friends and family are home for the holiday and find it easier to attend the ceremonies.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

People from surrounding villages in Xian County, China, flock to a street market Jan. 29 to load up on supplies for the Spring Festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A poster vendor tends to his wares at a Xian County market. People believe if they look at pictures of healthy babies often, they will have similarly healthy children.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A mother helps her toddler light sparklers outside her Shanxian market in the days leading up to the start of the Chinese New Year celebration.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A street vendor cooks up sausages on the streets of Xian County, where thousands of people from nearby villages come to shop for Spring Festival supplies. This part of China features mostly pork, lamb and chicken.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Li Guangqiang smiles as he chats with a neighbor inside her home in Lilou Village. Li Bingze, 1, stands nearby. Lilou Village is a small village made up of a handful of homes surrounded by wheat and corn fields.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Sun Fengzhi, 39, prepares the new year's meal at her home in Lilou Village. Sun, the wife of Li Guangqiang, has raised their two children mostly alone. "He went away and I had to take care of everything," she said. "It was really difficult for me. I had to take care of the kids myself; I used to hold them so long my arms were in pain. I had to be their father and their mother. No one helped me."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

On a frigid day, Li Guangqiang pauses to smoke a cigarette in the living room of his Lilou Village home.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A Lilou Village home is adorned with new banners that will hang until they are replaced during next year's Spring Festival. Messages of greetings, wealth, health and good luck are written on the banners.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Sesame oil stokes the fire as a Lilou Village cook prepares the lunch menu Jan. 31 for locals and visitors.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A resident of Lilou Village honors dead relatives by burning "money" at their grave sites as part of the new year's celebration. Large sheets of paper that have been rubbed by real currency are used to make the fires. People are cremated and buried in full-sized coffins beneath crops near their homes. Large mounds of dirt mark their graves.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Dumplings are prepared in a small Lilou Village kitchen, where they will be boiled over a small brick oven, fueled with burning corn husks.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A New Year's Eve feast is prepared in a small kitchen in the home of Li Gongyan in Lilou Village, where residents will eat homemade dumplings, mutton stew and numerous other local delicacies.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Li Guangqiang fires back at a photographer with his own camera as he and friends watch a CCTV (China Central Television) new year's broadcast in Lilou Village. A big part of New Year's Eve is the hours-long variety show telecast throughout greater China.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A large burst of fireworks is lighted in the main square of Lilou Village on Feb. 2 as locals celebrate Spring Festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Li Guangchang, left, Li Gongyan, center, and Li Guangli of Lilou Village watch fireworks on the town's main street as they celebrate the Chinese New Year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Fireworks plume all over the city of Shanxian as midnight approaches to ring in the new year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

An exploding firework lights up the street where dozens of people walk from a bus stop at 4:30 a.m. Feb. 3 in Shanxian. Celebrants continued lighting fireworks for days after the official start of the Spring Festival.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

Young children pose for photos inside the mouth of an oversized rabbit Feb. 8 as Spring Festival revelers attend a temple Xian Grand Temple Fair.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

A "two headed" woman is briefly displayed during a sideshow at a Beijing temple fair Feb. 6. Unlike the modest celebration of Lilou Village, millions of people attend dozens of temple fairs in China's larger cities such as Beijing.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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Behind the lens: A photographer’s China journal

By Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles Times

It’s known as the largest migration of people on Earth. Millions in China pack trains, buses and planes in big cities, such as Beijing, and head to their hometowns and villages to celebrate the Lunar New Year, their most important holiday.

On assignment with Los Angeles Times bureau chief Barbara Demick and reporter Megan Stack, we set out to document the trip through the eyes of one man. And along the way, I had my own photographic journey through this visually rich country.

We met our subject, Li Guanqian, a 38-year-old construction worker who agreed to let us follow him the 400-plus miles to his hometown. He was friendly and polite but obviously uncomfortable having his picture taken. I had no way of communicating with him other than using one of our staff translators. Normally, I am able to develop a rapport with a subject. It’s my goal to reach the point where he trusts me enough to forget that I’m nearby as he goes about his life. That wasn’t possible in this case. There’s always something lost in translation, and real trust is the first to go.

Since 2011 is the year of the rabbit in the lunar calendar, photographer Robert Gauthier donned rabbit earmuffs that he had bought in China.

Just to capture a candid moment or two, I often had to fire my camera from my hip as I pretended to look away. Despite many pleas from our interpreter to ignore me, he would turn away from me if he noticed a raised camera. It would take days before he loosened up a little. As we boarded the bus following a stay at a dank rest stop, he offered me a can of almond water and a can of cold meat soup. I seized this opportunity to break the ice, so I cheerfully popped open each container — ready to eat. I couldn’t muster more than two passes at either as he wolfed his down. I’m not sure if he noticed, or took any offense, but it was then that I realized this wasn’t going to be easy.

Twelve hours is a long time to ride on a rickety bus. As most of the passengers, many of them with hacking coughs, slumbered in their grimy seats, I became more aware of the bus we were riding in. It wasn’t too old, but it certainly hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. Still, it purred like a cat as our driver sped southward, cutting in and out of traffic like he was driving a Porsche. I finally became used to the driver pulling into oncoming traffic to pass smaller cars at full speed — often facing down other buses and large trucks.

From the front seat, I had a great view of the countryside. Through dew-streaked windows, I watched the scene change from bustling, crowded street markets to gray landscapes of trees reduced to branches in the frigid winter air. Miles of vast swatches of land pass by, dotted with small villages and the occasional yet startling sight of hundreds of massive construction cranes — all poised to raise multilevel apartment buildings and manufacturing plants. It seems these are boom times in this ancient land.

We arrived in Shanxian and were immediately loaded into a minivan and driven to the village. In the darkness of night, we arrived in the driveway of Li’s home.

“Here’s the money shot,” I thought. As a photojournalist, I try to anticipate moments that help illustrate the thesis of the story. In my mind’s eye, I pictured Li arriving home after months away, children scrambling into his arms, a loving wife’s long embrace, tears of happiness streaming from everyone’s faces.

Zonk! Instead, a hesitant father politely introduced his reluctant wife as the children stayed outside. We all stood awkwardly in a dimly lighted living room, with Li nowhere near his wife. No Norman Rockwell moment here. This is how stories like these generally go. You have to expect the unexpected.

The next day, I was able to explore Lilou Village, a small enclave of houses surrounded by fields of garlic, winter wheat and groves of ash and poplar trees. It was freezing cold and clouds were constantly swirling around its residents as they prepared for nearly three weeks of the new year’s holiday. Clouds of smoke from burning corn husks mingled with the steam from the pork dumplings they were warming in Li Qiaolian’s kitchen.

Smoke billowed from the flaming sesame oil as a cook in a roadside restaurant masterfully flipped an iron wok filled with veggies, spices and chicken while chain-smoking men drank Chinese liquor at a nearby engagement party.

Trails of smoke lingered behind and mixed with the road dust kicked up by a passing vehicle long after a young boy, no older than 5, tossed firecrackers he had lighted with a cigarette lighter.

I was transfixed by the way these smoky scenes played out before me, and I wanted to capture their sublime nature with my camera. The light was gray and flat as the sun barely glowed through the hazy sky. Finding contrast and color became the challenge of the day.

Capturing the essence of the people living in this village offered a different challenge than searching for light and color. Unlike our intrepid Mr. Li, his neighbors wanted to be photographed. I was still trying to be the “fly on the wall.”

Unfortunately, it was too cold for insects around these parts and I was more of the “elephant in the closet.” At 6-foot-2, with skin lighter than noon and a Chinese vocabulary of “ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you), it was hard to avoid being the center of attention. I was well known in Lilou Village as “Dage” (the big one). For a remote village, they sure had a lot of camera phones. I posed for fewer pictures at my wedding.

Despite my large shadow, it didn’t seem to dampen the festive and joyful spirit of these families, who were excited to share their most special holiday. I’m surprised at how my frustration turned to inspiration as I let go of the idea of blending in and began to use my freakish looks to my advantage. They seemed to quickly accept my presence and I was able to move freely in and around the street.

New Year’s Eve (Feb. 2) promised to be spectacular. Everything is big in China, and its fireworks displays are unmatched. A photographer’s dream, colorful explosions lighting everything for miles. Not in Lilou Village. The blue haze of dusk hovered over the village of a handful of brick and mud homes. Explosions vibrated through the valley from nearby villages in all directions, but all was quiet in our humble neighborhood.

People were busy hanging red banners (Chun Lian) over their doorways. Some were using packing tape, others a homemade paste of flour and water to secure the traditional greetings of good luck, prosperity and happiness. In the garlic fields, men knelt, lighting fires with replica paper money and delivering quiet prayers to piles of dirt and twigs.

Below the mounds were dead relatives, their cremated remains buried in full-sized coffins. “I miss you, father,” said Li Guangchang. “I wish you were here to celebrate with us.” No rocket’s red glare but an amazing moment to witness.

Later, a handful of villagers stood in the middle of the road, staring up into the night sky. Their faces glowed a second or two, then faded into the darkness. Twenty-five explosions. Fireworks sent skyward from a cardboard container purchased for 65 yuan (about $10).

Minutes later, the street was all but deserted.

Read the story Gauthier went to China for “China’s annual long march” and see more photos.

1 Comment

  1. February 20, 2011, 9:26 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Claire, rupeshnandy. rupeshnandy said: Behind the lens: A photographer’s China journal #HR […]

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