The Story Behind The Image - The Great Wall of China

May 12, 2014  •  3 Comments

We've all heard the saying: a picture is worth a 1,000 words. This cliché is actually backed by scientific proof as the brain processes images 60,000 China, Badaling, Great Wall of China, Sunrise over the wall. times faster than text. However, 1,000 words can be a real stretch for some photos and often depends upon the creativity of the writer using those adjectives, verbs and nouns.

But these words are reserved for the subject matter of the image - not for its backstory. What did the photographer have to do to get the image, what challenges did they overcome? Where did they travel, what equipment was used? What was the inspiration and purpose of the shot?

These are but a few of the many parameters that go into creating a photograph that allows for a millinery of words. This post is the first of a regular series that will look at the story behind Miva Stock's images - elucidating the creative process, hard work and fun that goes into capturing a shot worthy of the expression.
 
I entitled this photograph the Great Wall of Fire not only because of it's fiery appearance, but because capturing it was a true trial by fire...
 
I was on an assignment for 3 week shoot that took me to the celebrated cities and provinces of China. After just a week of planning for the shoot, my first port of call was the capital city of Beijing. The city itself is full of well-known and infamous locations that are worthy destinations in and of themselves, but undoubtedly the most iconic of all of China's landmarks is the mysterious and colossal Great Wall at Badaling.
 
My assistant and I awoke at 2:00 AM for the pleasure of sitting in Beijing traffic in the driving rain. Even at that hour, the roads and highways are congested with cars and trucks constantly beeping their horns apparently just to let the other drivers know they are still alive in their smog encased vehicles. After 2 hours we arrived to the entrance where we were met by a guide who informed us that the gates would not open until 8 AM, which is well after sunrise. The caretakers live onsite and we had to awaken them and present our credentials to allow us onto the grounds. Despite having previously arranged the shoot, the caretakers were upset and tired and refused us entry for 45 minutes. After having both the guide and our driver beg and plead with them by way of a bribe, we were eventually allowed to begin our assent of the fortification.
 
I was looking for something that was a bit different from all of the examples of the Great Wall I had seen previously. To that end we brought with us ropes and climbing gear to get a unique shot of the wall while hanging from the side of one of its parapets. The trouble was that due to the storm clouds, not even the stars were shining and everything was completely black. Because of the wall's meandering and undulating nature, if not for a compass on my phone, we wouldn't even know from where the sun would rise. I wanted to get away from the touristy part of the wall and we set out upon a brisk 1.5 hour hike up and down the uneven ancient brick stairways and mountain tops that the wall passed over.

Fortunately, the rain subsided along our trek, and as the clouds began to part we could start to see the wall stretch out before us. I wanted a location where the wall was built into the landscape itself - harmonious with its surrounding rather than just a monument to the industriousness strength of man. After climbing to the top of one particular hill, I saw a rocky outcropping in the distance that looked like it might be suitable.

From the top of the nearest turret, we tied our ropes and secured our equipment (I was shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II) and descended various parts of the parapet looking for the perfect angle. At that time of morning the wall was ours — we hadn’t seen another soul since we left the entrance. My assistant and I began to discuss the shot and our settings, when out of the stonework, appeared a family of peddlers who descended upon us like pandas on bamboo— trying to get us to buy every trinket and bauble that was emblazoned with the image of the Great Wall. We tried in vain to get them to leave us alone and even bought some items hoping they would move on, but that only seemed to encourage them. Not only had they broken the tranquility of the morning and our shot process, but they seemed so aggressive that we feared descending on our lines as they could have easily been tampered with and our equipment stolen.

Great Wall soldierChinese Military patrolling the Great Wall After a lengthy “discussion” involving all of us becoming louder and more animated with our voices carrying over the distance, three armed military men showed up to investigate. They promptly shooed away the peddlers reminding them they are not allowed on the wall at all much less before it opens, and with fear in their eyes they scurried away as quickly as they arrived. Then the soldiers turned their attention to us and gruffly demanded to see our papers, which we promptly provided.

After being somewhat satisfied everything was in order, they told us scaling the wall was prohibited and they began confiscating our climbing gear. We tried to quickly explain again that it was all previously approved, and began to fret as the sky was beginning to lighten and we still hadn’t found the perfect location. While I would definitely not recommend this approach, we took a chance based on our previous experience with the caretakers, and offered them money to allow us the honor of doing what the Bureau of Touristry had already permitted us to do. In response, the soldiers all clasped their guns in their hands just as the first rays of the sun began to appear behind the hillside.

Our hearts sank as not only were we in danger of not getting the shot, but of actually being shot ourselves or at least taken into custody for our brash action. Then slowly, the soldiers began to smile and bow to thank us for our generosity, and asked if they could help us in anyway to get our photos of their magnificent national treasure. Sighing in relief, I explained what I was looking for and one of them said they knew just the right location and if we ran, we could still make it before sunrise.

Without time to think and with the soldiers now carrying our packs, we all ran on the slick bricks and passed the next turret. Thankfully, the soldier was spot on with his assessment and we set out to get the shot. The soldiers helped us by securing our lines to the ramparts as we readied our gear. They then lowered us down and we were able to get off a rapid series of images just as the sun’s colors enveloped the clouds. The vibrant hues lasted for all of 10 minutes, and then the sun disappeared behind the clouds as it rose. 

The view was like nothing I had ever seen before or would again. The rain had washed away the constant soot and pollution from the air that blankets all of China, and the wall stretched out before us like a fiery dragon winding its way along the mountain ranges. It was glorious and our makeshift photo posse all stood in silence until the last flecks of brilliance faded away. We thanked the soldiers profusely and showed them the shots we captured on the LCD screens of our cameras, and they looked as pleased by our encounter as we did. After a few final bows the soldiers headed off in the opposite direction slapping each other on the back and laughing as they strode off into the distance.

We gathered our gear and began the long walk back to the entrance — we had another section of the wall we wanted to shoot at sunset. However, just as we descended from the turret, along came the same family of peddlers with a new assortment of Mao memorabilia, brochures and “genuine” Rolex watches. They had obviously followed us and stayed hidden until the soldiers left. In the light of day they seemed to be the sweetest of people, doing what they could to make a living, and after we purchased some more items (everything was a real bargain), they even offered us some delicious homemade treats which we hungrily accepted.

The family escorted us as we made our way back, chatting animatedly with our guide who dutifully translated their questions about us, and our questions about their lives along the shadow of the Great Wall. We realized that without these humble interlopers, the soldiers may have never stopped and this sunrise may have never been captured in just this way.

Massive amounts of tourists visit the Great Wall of China While occasionally stopping to shoot and admire the various vantage points we couldn’t previously see in the dark , we began to meet the throngs of people that visit the wall on a daily basis and who help to sustain the town of Badaling and our new friends. The wall no longer seemed like the same place. While still awe-inspiring, it was no longer as mysterious and hypnotic as it was when we walked alone along the precipice of one of the most remarkable structures on Earth. It became garish, crowded and Disney-like. But for a few hours on one autumn day, we had the entire expanse of the Great Wall of China all to ourselves…and thanks to empty wallets and more than a little perspiration, we have a photo of the fiery dragon to prove it.


Comments

Pat(non-registered)
The story was as wonderful and the photo.
Joy(non-registered)
I've never been, but have always wanted to go , and your post makes me want to go even more now! Do you have to be a photographer or celebrity to get to go before it opens? Looks so amazing when it isn't so crowded. Thanks for sharing your beautiful image and story!
Craig(non-registered)
It's a great shot, Michael - would never have imagined all that goes into it - you must have 1,000 of these stories. Keep them coming!
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