The Ancient Tea and Horse Road – An interview with Jeff Fuchs

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After months of following Jeff Fuchs’ blog and appearances at WildChina’s website, I finally met him personally during a presentation at Beijing Literary Festival in Capital M. Jeff’s passion for mountains and tea are evident in his exquisite, almost poetic writing, and the photographs that illustrate his blog have a special quality which caught my attention. Forests of tea trees, hundreds of miles away from civilization; beautiful landscapes of wind-blown, snow-covered peaks; portraits of ancient faces, whose thousand-year old wrinkles tell stories of long-gone ancestors. I wanted to find out more about Jeff’s creative process – where does his inspiration come from, what stirs him, what makes him tick.
The Ancient Tea and Horse Road – An interview with Jeff FuchsI decided to get in touch with Jeff to satisfy my curiosity. Always generous when it comes to sharing his knowledge and experience, Jeff did not hesitate to answer from Switzerland, where he is spending the coming weeks working and climbing. Surrounded by fresh air, mountains and his precious tea (I could sense his longing for China), Jeff wrote the following:

Chelin Miller: I am very curious about your photography, I love your style and many times I wonder how you do it! – Could you tell us about your photographic career, what camera do you use when you travel?
Jeff Fuchs: Until very recently I always had along with me a film camera – including a wonderful old monster, a Pentax 6×7. I had film leftovers from jobs and whenever I encountered a face – especially a face – I would shoot both digital and film as for whatever reason, the film for me kept some of the integrity and dimensionality of the face. I now travel with two digital cameras, both Nikons, and one of these is a small compact, which easily fits anywhere and can shoot brilliant video. I’m also shooting a lot with my Apple Iphone which is far less intrusive and at times the perfect ‘invisible’ solution when the mood is right – it doesn’t disturb and mobile phones are barely given a glance, whereas an SLR still changes people and their feelings.

CM: Do you take all the photos for your website yourself or do you work in partnership with other photographers? The portraits you showed us at the presentation are absolutely stunning.
JF: All of the photos on my blog and website (barring those of myself) are taken by myself.  I often play around with them as sometimes a very simple shot can still be edited a bit to fit the mood of the piece…or my own taste. I think the blog and website should have a certain ‘feel’ that is consistent with my view, otherwise it is simply a temporary and random experience and I see both sites as something long-term, both style and subject-wise. I always feel that if I am going to tell any story, however brief, there needs to be the human element, and that involves getting portraits of life being lived and keeping a ‘feel’ of ‘life-being-lived’.

CM: Do you carry a lot of photo gear when you go on expeditions?
JF: My gear loads have been minimized to a huge extent from even 5 years ago when camera bodies, multiple lenses, and a whole load of ‘insurance’ pieces of kit were taken up mountains, through rivers, down mountains, and everywhere in-between. Now, I’ve got two SLR bodies, two lenses and a small compact. As with many parts of my life, what I find ‘essential’ has been cut down hugely and I don’t feel that I lack for anything. A good shot still needs work and patience.

CM: You have a very distinctive style, very ‘analogue’, sometimes ‘retro’ and yet, you keep up with modern times by posting wonderful images online.
JF: My strong urge is always to shoot people, and I suppose I’ve changed my approach a bit in enjoying simply taking portraits of what is in front of me rather than going for the full ‘set-up’ approach. Some of my favourite shots (taken by others as well) are those shots that are of what is going on, as opposed to ‘creating’ something that isn’t there. Having said that, with technology, one can have a bit of fun ‘post production’ creating something extra with the shot – colour manipulation, mood, tones, etc. Once I see an ‘image’ after I’ve shot it, I get an impression of what – if anything – should be done to enhance the shot, and it is often shots I’ve forgotten about that become pivotal to a story.

CM: You are always very busy, travelling, climbing and on expeditions, it must be challenging to manage your time efficiently. Do you write on your travels, or do you keep notes and then write when you get back home?
JF: On expeditions I jot notes down in a pad, or record thoughts on an mp3 so that the moment ideas – however nutty – come into the head and heart, they are put down immediately. If you value the present – and I do – then its essential to get everything down to edit later on. Those precious thoughts and feelings don’t linger as long as I would like, but they are often the keys to a day, a journey, or simply a moment. When I arrive back I use the notes – and photos – as the basis points for the writings.

CM: What inspires you to write? I know you are passionate about mountains, climbing, exploring and tea, but what feeds your passion? Do you have a favourite author/ photographer/ explorer?
JF: I was lucky in that growing up I had the opportunity to select from a huge library of writings and styles and the written words became worlds in themselves that I felt privileged to be able to access. I suppose I have the same desire to impart and expose what I’m privy to, to others – especially given where I spend much of my life. Certainly the areas that I travel through and observe stir me – regardless of whether I like the area or not. I guess I’m not simply content observing a place, person, or action; I want to impart what the senses take in to others. Growing up and still now, Joseph Conrad’s writings left huge impressions for their ability to communicate the human condition and struggles, while all the while introducing these huge geographies. I love reading Orphan Pamuk as well, and the climber E.E Shipton offered up the world of humans and nature interacting, colliding, and ultimately co-habitating. All of the writers that I’ve enjoyed are able to transmit feelings on a plate to all of the senses and it is this that holds me. Mountains, for me, are one of the great instructors and ‘motivators’ that feed me. Once you start interacting with them, the blood, the mind and the body are hooked – or at least in my case are hooked. They punish, they feed, they edit, and ultimately they draw and shelter, again and again … and it is they who have taught me the lesson, that one needs to take time to seek, and to take more time.

CM: I would love to get a copy of your book, “The Ancient Tea Horse Road” but sadly it is now out of print. In one of your blog posts you mentioned that you are working on an e-book. How is that coming along? I can’t wait to read it.
JF: The e-book comes along well. I am working with a small independent publisher – CSF Publishing – that is run by Pierre Toutain-Dorbec, who himself is a great photographer and fan of the project. The e-book version of my book is going to be far richer in images than the hard copy, so that there is a more tangible feel to complement the text. Hopefully the e-book will be out in the coming months. The title is likely to remain simply “The Ancient Tea Horse Road” – as well as some minor ‘updates’, it will be made available on all of the current e-book technologies – including Kindle, iBook, nook and others. Pierre and I will meet in the coming months to talk of trying to create a ‘multi-language’ platform allowing the book’s translation into French, and perhaps Spanish and German as well.

CM: Thank you for taking the time to share your passion and your experience with us. And I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on National Geographic Traveler having named your Ancient Tea Horse Road trip with WildChina as on of their “Top 50 Trips of a Lifetime”.

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Links:
You can visit Jeff’s blog and his website at http://www.jefffuchs.com/
For more information about WildChina’s trip “Tea Horse Caravan Road” hosted by Jeff himself, visit http://wildchinajourneys.comtrips/ancient-tea-and-horse-road-with-jeff-fuchs

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