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The Would Be Photographer Saves His Roll

Last updated by Mark_smith at 2008/3/12; Destinations:

The idea is to capture not an image, but a feeling within the image.? Not a detail, but a culture within the detail.? And in Tiennanmen Square, the feeling and the culture of the place were going to be bound in a single object: a kite.

Tiennanmen Square, beyond its infamy as a place of political protest, is a beloved haunt of kite enthusiasts in Beijing.? Where else can you find such an open expanse, free of line-tangling trees and powercables, framed by the grandeur of Mao's Mausoleum and the Forbidden City?? It is an awesome and terrible place.? And the kite rises above it all.

Of course, it would have been an impossible shot without my telephoto lens.? Let the naysayers have their phallic jokes: this lens could take you to the moon.? Or at least to a kite.? Snap.

"Mark, look," Mary said, giving my arm a tug.? I wheeled around, thinking, in my annoyance, I would remind her never to tug at the arm of a photographer at work, until I saw what she was pointing at.? I lifted my camera to my eye.

Magnified within the lens—did I mention how long it was?—were four police officers in uniform, standing over someone in a dirty yellow overcoat.? The person was sitting—lying down—perhaps a woman, perhaps homeless, atop the underpass at the south end of the square.? A taxi driver had is car parked on the road directly adjacent to the scene, and was standing, leaning on the open door of his cab, saying something to the officers.

And then pointing at me.

I lowered the camera quickly from my eye, made slashing motions with my hands as if to say, No photo, no picture.? The sign language was lost on them.? They marched quickly toward me.

"What do we do? Mark, what should we do?"

"Don't worry, I didn't take a picture."? I should have worried.? We had been to the Great Wall that morning, fantastic shots that we weren't going to get again.? We had to protect those photos.? Had to. They were upon us.

They yelled something at me in Chinese, pointing at me, the camera, the underpass. They wanted the camera. The cabbie moved his taxi adjacent to us, now.

"No photo, no photo," I said desperately.? Either they didn't understand, or they did and they didn't believe me.? The lead officer was turning my camera over in his hands, pushing button after button, trying to get to the film.? Fortunately, he seemed not to be familiar with 35 millimeter single-lens-reflex cameras.

A well-dressed woman approached us, a woman my wife would later refer to as "an angel, an English-speaking angel."

"Can I help you?" she asked with a smile.? I asked her to tell the officer that I hadn't taken any pictures of them.? She did, and said they just needed to check.

"Tell them I'll get it out for them."? Again, she did.? And before anyone knew what I was doing I had removed a pen from my pocket and thrust it into the inconspicuous film-rewind button on the underside of the camera.? The tiny motor began to whirr. Safe.

The English-Speaking Angel told us that the police wanted our film, but with a little sincere negotiation, it was agreed that we would get them developed immediately so that they could see I was telling the truth.? The other officers left, along with the taxi driver, while the fellow that had earlier shouted at me accompanied us stone-faced to the nearest closet-sized photo shop on Qianmen Dajie.

We piled in, uncomfortably close, as the police officer explained to the shop employee what he needed.? When I say uncomfortable, of course I mean that we were uncomfortable.? The fact that we were pressed against one another didn't seem to bother the officer at all.? Nor did it bother the clerk, who was probably cloistered in this shop every day without complaint.? It seemed odd, however, that the only door in the shop was the one off the street.? Where did they actually develop the film?

I expected the man in the shop to take our roll out of the store to develop it elsewhere, as some stores do back home.? Instead, he pulled down a rope hanging from the ceiling.? A trap door with a little ladder attached.? He ascended with our film into the black ether-world above.? We waited.

It actually did get too stuffy for the police officer.? For thirty minutes, Mary and I sat on small chairs while he stood outside the door.? At last the clerk descended again, and handed the envelope to our "escort."? He maintained the same stoney-frown as he flipped each picture back, and back.? Then his face softened to a smile as he handed me my photos."Sorry," he said, and again, "sorry!"? He bowed gently several times, raising his hands in apology, and smiling like a friend.? I couldn't figure out why he was apologizing to me.? I just felt lucky to have gotten out of this so easily.But when I looked at the photos, I figured it out.? The photos I had taken were terrible.? He must have meant "pity."