Photographer Travels Two Years and 35K Miles Across China’s 33 Provinces


Tom Carter may have seen more of China, its lands, and its people than any other Westerner on record. The American photographer spent two years backpacking across all 33 provinces of China, traveling over 35,000 miles, seeing 56 different cultures, and shooting over 10,000 portraits of the people he met.

Carter’s project began nine years ago when he moved from San Francisco to China in response to a job listing. That offer turned out to be a scam. Rather than move back to the States, he found a job as a teacher, saved up some money, and then embarked on his epic journey with a 4-megapixel point-and-shoot camera in tow. He traveled by bus, boat, train, mule, motorcycle, and on foot.

Most nights he would stay in extremely cheap $1-to-$3-a-night guesthouses. He spent the trip focused on paying attention to details and befriending the people he encountered.

In addition landscape and architectural photos shot throughout the land, Carter also captured images of many minority cultures that are rarely seen in the media. He says his goal with the images is to dispel the idea that the Chinese people are homogenous in its culture and identity:

China is not just one place, one people, but 33 distinct regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs and lifestyles.

In an interview with the China Travel Blog, Carter says that his choice of a lowly compact camera had its pros and cons:

The camera I was using—an old-school digital point and shoot—had its limitations, so naturally I missed a lot of candid shots that required rapid shutter release, low-light abilities or a telephoto lens. But this just forced me to get up close and personal with my subjects (for the portraits I was as near to them as you see in the photo, just centimeters away), so [my project] ironically benefited from my limitations.

Here is a selection of photographs Carter made during the course of this project:























Carter has since published 888 of these photographs in a 640-page book titled, “CHINA: Portrait of a People“. Pick up a copy if you’d like to check out the entire collection of published images.

You can also find out more about this project over on Carter’s website.

Image credits: Photographs by Tom Carter/Blacksmith Books and used with permission

  • HibikiRush

    Amazing. Might be the strongest case ever for the argument that it doesn’t matter how capable or technologically advanced your equipment is. It’s about the vision, the motivation, and the talent.

  • Pablo Cozzaglio

    Now that’s a photographer. The real example for the rest of us. Spending money in traveling, not in gear, connecting with people, and sharing it with the world, without looking for fame or money. He’s the kind who really deserves the big photo prices, like the POY or the world press.

  • brandon

    good work. very nice.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “The American photographer spent two years backpacking across all 33
    provinces of China, traveling over 35,000 miles, seeing 56 different
    cultures, and shooting over 10,000 portraits of the people he met.”

    Now THIS is a guy who makes the most of his situation. Scammed into China with nothing but a 4-megapixel point-and-shoot camera for photos, but still did something most of us could only dream of. And the results look stunning too!

    I think I’ve just lost the right to complain about my gear ever again.

  • miro

    it’s the photographer who takes then picture, not the camera, always

  • jon

    Great portraiture

  • SteveM

    I was already impressed by the journey and then I saw the photos. Incredible!

  • DudeRocks

    These shots are just amazing. Away for 2 years, taking pictures, meeting people, knowing cultures, being a good human overall – a priceless dream come true!

  • Ivan

    Again, what about that DxO Mark score difference of 0.00087192847% between a super mega high-end camera and that ultra turbo high-end camera? Decisions, decisions…

    This guy puts us all to shame. Great work!!!

    Moral of the story: Grab what you have right now, go out, take photos. Even if all you have is an Olympus C-4000. (If I see well?)

  • michaelp42

    Huge respect!

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    Love his photos and the story as well. And I agree with everyone below. I’m just a bit skeptic about a book with 888 photographs, it’s just too much – even if it’s a book about the portrait of the chinese people.

  • Cy Leow


  • Branko

    Grat story. This C-4000 was my first camera, I sold it to buy my first DSLR, and I recently bought a better C-5050, to be remembered that this is a good camera ( oly C-xxxx series).

  • Crabby Umbo

    Love this, like everyone else on here, I’m saying it’s the “eye” and not the equipment. I’ve often said, that if I wasn’t working directly with clients expecting a “show” when I photograph, I could do everything I need to with a Canon G15 (or 12, or 10, or…).

  • gerfa

    yeah! its the camera that matter

  • chris c

    he is an amazing photographer… amazing… however, imagine how much happier he would have been if he had a x100 or rx1 with him with full frame, 24 mp, etc. etc. it’s a pity that the technology limitations will prevent him from blowing these pictures up, cropping, etc. it;s just too bad

  • Bob

    Must be great being able to afford to travel around China for 2 years! Unfortunately I have to work for my living to pay for the house over my head & the car i drive & all the taxes I pay…..where did it all go so wrong?

  • bro

    No cropping or enlarging? Remember that almost every double truck you saw in the early 2000’s was shot either 2 or 4 megapixels.

  • mrrca

    So beutiful!

  • n.hacker

    Achieved some great photography here. Very impressive, I’ll think of you when I use my little point and shoot camera. Having a good eye for composition and light create endless possibilities. Thank you.

  • James Schooling

    Those photos really do make the case that its the photographer that takes the photo, not the camera. Not many people could shoot photos that nice with a DSLR, let alone a 4MP point-and-shoot. Well done!

  • Roman

    “Middle French mortgage, from Old French mort gage (“dead pledge”).”
    We get loans to live the life that we think we supposed to live. We are becoming slaves of the banks and monetary system…

  • Zee Gorman

    I know the guy. He backpacked/hitch-hiked and was pretty broke..