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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Galleries >> Gallery Fifteen: Making travel portraits that define personality and character. > Fast food worker, Shanghai, China, 2004
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Fast food worker, Shanghai, China, 2004

Huge tubs of steamed breakfast buns are made ready for Shanghai commuters who grab a bite as they dash through People's Park. I call this an action portrait, because it stops life in its tracks, and reveals the character of the subject by preserving a moment in time. I simply stood among the customers gathering outside of this stall and shot picture after picture of this woman at work. This was the moment that said it all for me. She prepares food in large quantities and shows great capability and confidence in her ability to do so. We can see this by the size of that bamboo tub, and by her spontaneously casual attitude captured by the camera. The chaotic steamy environment in which she works underscores her positive attitude. There are more tubs to lift and carry, more buns to make and serve, and little room or time to relax. Yet looking at this portrait, I feel as if she might savor the challenge.

Canon PowerShot S400
1/500s f/2.8 at 7.4mm full exif

other sizes: small medium large original auto
Phil Douglis14-Nov-2006 18:54
Thank, Alistair, for this comment. The environmental context adds considerable depth to the capable, confident subject.
Guest 14-Nov-2006 18:10
this is a great "working" portrait: the tubs, the steam, even the bicycle int the background, and the concentration on her face as she moves one of the steamers
Phil Douglis23-Feb-2006 05:58
Thanks, Shirley for this comment.Yes, the tub is on that table. Yet she is obviously either getting ready to lift it or else she has just put it down. Which means that she has a tough job on her hands, but a good attitude to handle it with.
Shirley Wang23-Feb-2006 04:30
Definitly makes me hungery :-)
I like the illusion that she seems to be holding up a seemingly-heavy tub and still keeps a relaxed expression (that's before I noticed it's actually put on a table).

Phil Douglis25-Jul-2005 03:47
Thanks for the amplification. Bamboo it is. I shall change my caption accordingly.
lbb 25-Jul-2005 02:32
Phil, it is the bamboo tub, not wood. haha.
Phil Douglis26-Dec-2004 01:58
Thanks, Michael. Glad you were attracted to this image and found if worth looking at. It is one of my favorite portraits. And thanks, too, for giving a name to those buns. Bao-tze. Sounds good to me.

Don Cuevas26-Dec-2004 01:21
I was immediately drawn to this picture by the huge bao-tze in the steamer. The whole effect is very impresssive.
Phil Douglis30-Nov-2004 20:50
Thanks, Filip -- sorry you don't like those buns. But glad you like the context I've added to this portrait -- the steam and the worker in the background certainly add meaning to this image.
Guest 22-Nov-2004 08:50
Me, I've grown to hate these buns. When I first arrived in China a few years ago and settled into daily life in Shanghai, I'd always pick up one or two on the way to work. After a few months of buns I was so sick of them that I've not eaten one since.

I really like the framing of the bamboo steamer as well as the steam itself giving character to the whole scene. The other woman in the background works well as a secondary subject. Excellent work!
Phil Douglis13-Nov-2004 21:25
This is one of my favorites, too, Kathryn. The steam was what attracted me to this stand in the first place. It symbolized the work at hand, and adds rich context to the pride she takes in her job.
katwilkens13-Nov-2004 18:56
Wonderful composition. I like the steam in the background which I didn't even notice in the thumbnail.
Phil Douglis28-Oct-2004 05:27
Thanks, Ted,

Your comment are more than welcome. As one 50-years-in-photography photographer to another, let me urge you to go out and get that digital camera. It is the most liberating and creatively stimulating thing I've ever done in photography. My images here are the evidence. Buy one, enjoy, learn, and grow. That's what I've done. I am 70 years old and am like a kid in a candy store. Good luck, Ted.
Ted Trainort 28-Oct-2004 04:46
As a retired professional photographer (nearly 50 years at it), I appreciate and respect your
excellent images. This particular one is an absolute "keeper"! Though I've been inactive in picture taking the past 5-years, I'm considering buying (my first) digital camera. Your pictures are encouraging!
Phil Douglis20-Sep-2004 18:57
Go ahead. Post it. Why keep me in suspense?
Anna Yu20-Sep-2004 15:08
My favorite image in this gallery, but I don't dare to post my PP-suggestion.
Guest 14-Aug-2004 19:14
Very Good!
Phil Douglis07-Aug-2004 21:30
Thanks, Celia, for not only leaving this comment, but by going into such thoughtful detail on why this portrait expresses meaning to you. I am sure you have seen workers such as this in your own country -- Malaysia -- and because of this picture, perhaps you will look more closely at them the next time you see them. Your comment precisely describes what passed through my own thoughts as I stood before that little stall on the edge of the People's Park in Shanghai. I was able to get such an intimate shot because of several factors. I was standing in a crowd of people waiting to be served, so I did not stand out. I was shooting with a tiny Canon S-400, a "digital Elph"-- not much larger than a pack of cigarettes, so I was not as intimidating as if I was boring in on her with a big DSLR and a long lens. (I won't use a DSLR for that very reason --I feel it would be simply too intimidating a tool for my style, which often is based on intimate imagery.) She was also lost in her work. The last thing she was thinking about was some guy with a camera out there --she had more important stuff to do, and a lot of it. And finally, I shot her again and again and again. I made horizontals, verticals, wideangles, telephotos, and photographed as she worked on a wide a variety of tasks. This was the image that said the most to me, and obviously to you as well. Your words are very gratifying, Celia. For the last thirty five years, I've been teaching this very thing to the organizational photographers who attend my "Communicating with Pictures" workshops, and who have been reading the columns I've been writing for the magazine of the International Association of Business Communicators since 1964. What goes into a job? What is the meaning of work? Who are these people, and what makes them tick? I teach my students how to answer such questions by making and publishing substantive photographs. I am delighted you feel that in this picture, at least, I've been able to practice what I preach. Thank you.
Cecilia Lim 07-Aug-2004 20:26
Phil, this definitely ranks as one of my favourite portrait shots that you've ever made. Let me start by saying that portrait/people is probably one of my weakest genres in photography, but I absolutely get what you wrote in your introduction to this gallery - That portraiture is more than just showing WHAT a person looks like, but about WHO the person is. I call this picture an environmental portrait and it is my favourite type of portraits because by showing how a person interacts or expresses himself in his environment, it allows us to get more intimate with the person, as it often reveals some of the person's nature and way of life. I feel that this is usually more rewarding than just looking at the physical description of a person.

And in this picture it is your description about the expression on her face and her working environment that tells us so much about the life and nature of this "pau" (steamed-buns) maker. You set up the shot by showing quite a bit about her environment - stacks of bamboo steamer baskets everywhere reveals to us how busy and repetitive the work is; the steam that envelopes them while they work indicate how hot, damp and uncomfortable the working conditions must be. Yet above this uncomfortable and hectic workplace, the pau-maker smiles as she works away, handling her task with great confidence & grace. This is an incredible insight into her nature as a person who finds pride and pure joy in making this humble, simple food for people, even though her working conditions are less than comfortable. And we get a sense that she gets job satisfaction too from the smile she gives with her service, because her customers obviously enjoy her food, judging by the large quanitites that they are making. What a wonderful portrait of who this person is behind that simple white shirt and apron! You simply would not have painted such an in-depth portrait if you had chosen to zoom in on her face without any reference to what she was doing, her body language or her environment.

And I believe that this is partly what makes the great photographer that you are - being able to decide precisely how much you need in your frame to tell the story that you want to tell! Excellent, excellent, work Phil!
Phil Douglis20-Jul-2004 17:08
And your response thrills me, Marek. You see in this photograph what I saw as I made it -- an image evoking another time and another medium. What takes us into another time is the nature of the task -- the young woman hoisting a huge basket of food is more reminiscent of Old Shanghai than the 21st Century dynamo it has become. The scene is timeless, and the steam rising in the background also implies another era -- the great age of steam powered energy at the turn of the 20th Century. As for the woman, she has a lot more on her mind at the moment than Phil Douglis and his camera. Yet she handles her task with a casual grace and sense of pride -- and that comes through here as well. And yes, I can see how you would equate this image with a painting. The light is diffused, and the composition is based on classical triangular form. This image also proves that you don't need a lot of fancy equipment to make a meaningful image. I was out on my morning walk, and had only my tiny Canon S-400, a four megapixel "digital elph" in my pocket. I saw this stall with steam pouring from its sides, and knew my modest equipment would be up to the task.
Guest 20-Jul-2004 11:08
It always thrills me to see something like this -- it's a 'grab shot', but it might as well have been painted by one of the great turn of the century artists, after several sketches, models and location scouts. You have transcended the photographic medium here and have given us a fine oil painting. The light, colour, composition, DoF, all work to produce a finely-balanced and expressive image. The woman who is more concerned by the task at hand than a photographer in front of her would have 'sat' for this in the old days -- whilst you have captured the scene in a brilliant instant.
monique jansen14-Jul-2004 13:12
Another one of my favorites - a person going about her daily business. And such good food it is too!
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