Faces of Houston: Chinatown

· 20.December.2019

In April of this year, Wallethub, a personal finance website, declared Houston the most diverse city based on analysis of socioeconomic, cultural, economic, household, and religious diversity. Houston, Texas: The most diverse city in America! Surprised?

My name is Robert Sykes. I am a native Houstonian. I’m twenty-eight years old. I have a beautiful wife. Together, we have a gorgeous two-year-old daughter. I practice Zen meditation. I work full time as an ICU nurse. And, I am a part time photographer.

I feel like Houston gets no love when it comes to photography, especially street photography. Perhaps we are not the most photogenic city? But, apparently we’re the most diverse city. And this means there are all kinds of unique and interesting people walking around. I would like to showcase this. For this particular piece, I would specifically like to celebrate our Asian population. To do this, we’re going to take a trip to one of my favorite spots, Chinatown.

I love Chinatown. The food. The people. The energy. It feels like another world. Walking around, you’ll hear Chinese and Vietnamese being spoken rapidly amongst the families and teenagers dominating the scene. I did some research, discovering via the Kinder Institute, some seventy-one percent of the Asian population in Houston was born outside of the United States. Seventy-one percent! It’s no wonder then why I feel like I’ve been transported to another land when I’m there.

Chinatown on a Friday or Saturday night is buzzing. Lots of restaurants. Lots of people. A good recipe for street photography. Almost every weekend I go out there. With me, is the Fujifilm X-T30 and Fujinon 56mm F1.2 lens, a perfect combination for nighttime shooting. With this lens, low light situations are never a concern. Being able to drop the aperture down to F1.2 is a beautiful luxury to have. Another benefit this lens provides is allowing me to shoot from a distance, due to its 85mm equivalency. I don’t need to invade people’s personal space to create shots that feel intimate. A sense of intimacy is something I try to create in all my photos.

Up close and personal, without being up close and personal. Most street photographers I know don’t use longer focal lengths. Typically, 23mm and 35mm lenses are favored. I like to be different though. I like that the 56mm lens helps me create my own style. And, with this lens, I find that I have to slow down, take a step back, and pay attention. As a Zen practitioner, I love this process. Paying attention is fun. I find that it makes life more interesting, and more enjoyable. You notice details that you wouldn’t normally. Street photography has a way of taking you out of your own head. You’re too busy paying attention to what is going on around you to get trapped on the hamster wheel of your own thinking.

So, why the X-T30? Well, it’s compact and easy to carry. The autofocus speed is lightning fast, a strikingly noticeable upgrade from the X-T20. I can also adjust the focus point rather swiftly with the joystick on the back. I trust this camera. When shooting at night, I set it to aperture priority mode. However, there are a couple caveats. I have the minimum shutter speed set to 1/125, in an effort to avoid blur. And, my ISO maximum is set to 6400, in an effort to avoid too much noise. I try to make habit of checking my settings before I begin shooting. With all of the dials Fujifilm cameras have, it can be quite easy to accidentally push something out of place. After confirming my settings, I’m ready to shoot.

I start walking. “Like a stray dog”, as Daido Moriyama would say. Keeping my eyes and ears open, allowing my senses to guide me. There are however a few scenes in particular I keep an eye out for. One, shooting through windows. Foggy windows or windows with condensation on them are wonderful for creating unique and mysterious photos. But any window will do. I’m scanning inside the shops for interesting scenes or faces. The faces of the older Asian population I find quite charming. I detect a sense of calm, or wisdom, in their facial expressions.

The teahouses are great locations for capturing some lovely moments. You’re likely to find people sitting by the window with a beverage, playing on their phone, or engaging in conversation with a date. Second thing I’m keeping an eye out for are the smokers! There’s just something captivating about a person, standing alone outside, smoking a cigarette. For me, these moments give off a feeling of respite in this fast-paced and busy modern world we find ourselves in.

Lastly, the elderly folks walking around with their hands elegantly crossed behind their back. This posture exudes patience. It reminds me to slow down. Be present. Michelle Viljoen, a photographer from South Africa, was the first I had seen to create these types of shots. I find her photography inspiring. Her moody style and unique perspective is just stunning.

I’ve never left Chinatown feeling dissatisfied. Always, when scrolling through the images in Lightroom afterwards, do I find more than a few that I’m really pleased with. But more than this, I just enjoy the process: walking around a mysterious place; listening to the sounds of the night; observing a different culture’s way of communicating, of walking, of being. I feel privileged to live in Houston. In 30 minutes I can be somewhere else. I can immerse myself in a different world. Houston has little pockets of cultural diversity like this all over town. Chinatown is just one of many.