Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer & Photographer Tom Carter

In art, essays, journalism, nonfiction, photography, travel, writing on December 20, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Tom Carter

Tom Carter. Photo courtesy of the author.

An introduction to travel writer and photographer Tom Carter, whose recent book CHINA: Portrait of a People is being hailed as the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China published by a single author. The book is organized by region with thoughtful descriptions for photos that offer a candid and moving glimpse of life in China. As Carter says in the introduction, “Where I have been, you will be; what I have seen, you will see.” Carter, who is originally from San Francisco, California, is now at work on a few books, including another photo book, INDIA: Portrait of a People.

Quick Facts on Tom Carter

  • Comfort food: Back home: anything Mexican. In China: suan cai yu (sour spicy fish soup).
  • Top reads: Aztec by Gary Jennings; anything by Pearl S Buck; anything by John Steinbeck; classic literature, in general.
  • Current reads: Struggling to get through Tai-Pan by James Clavell (not nearly the page-turner that Shogun was).

What are you working on at the moment?  

I’m working on several different book projects concurrently: a photography book about India; an illustrated book about China; a nonfiction anthology about China; and a novel about China.

Where did the idea begin for CHINA: Portrait of a People?

I arrived in China in 2004 as an English teacher and saved my salary so that I could go backpacking across the 33 provinces. I took pictures just for fun along the way, and after another two straight years and 35,000 miles on the road, I had amassed a vast cache of photos. I found an independent publisher in Hong Kong who saw the potential in my work, which eventually became CHINA: Portrait of a People.

What do you hope people will take away from your work?

The photos that appear in my book were a mere afterthought while traveling the land and meeting people along the way. But after sifting through the thousands of images I had taken, what I found is that I had captured almost every aspect of life and humanity of modern Chinese society. In that regard, it offers readers a rare glimpse into “real” China that is not often portrayed accurately by the media.

“A rare glimpse into ‘real’ China.”

Do you have a philosophy for, or an approach to, how and why you write?

Writing is actually a painfully slow process for me. I love it, and I hate it. Inspiration either strikes me or it doesn’t; I’m not the type of writer who can just sit down and write. I agonize over every sentence, and sometimes take an entire day to craft one paragraph; and it’s impossible for me to move forward until that paragraph is perfect. This is especially true for my fiction writing; my nonfiction travel writing is a little easier. 

What do you find most challenging about travel writing?

Coming up with something original that hasn’t been written about ad nauseam already. Finding that unique perspective about a location that will say something new and different. More often than not, this comes about from the unique experiences I have while traveling, which are usually not a little exciting and dangerous. Readers like to hear about this stuff more than just the usual “facts and history” of a place.

As a photographer, how do images inform your writing?

It depends on the situation I get myself into, such as the adventures I have and the people I meet. I don’t like to stage photos or go somewhere with an agenda; I just let life happen naturally, and then the photos and writing follow naturally.

“I just let life happen naturally,

and then the photos

and writing follow naturally.”

What do you concentrate on when composing a shot? What are you looking for when you look through the camera lens?

I am simply trying to capture the moment. I prefer not to compose or frame shots according to some preconceived idea or conventions. Lots of my pictures are crooked or out of focus or grainy–just like life. So, I suppose you could say my work is a combination of street photography, travel photography and photojournalism.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I write only when inspiration strikes. If it’s not coming to me, I don’t bother. I never write just to write. I am a very reluctant writer.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Somewhere where the internet doesn’t exist. I love exploring the net, but I find it to also be the biggest time-waster in the world, which usually kills my writing spirit. As far as geography, I’ve written in isolated villages and big noisy cities. I’m not particular about location.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

Oh, heck yes. I must, must, must have music in the background. Usually classical in the morning, jazz mid-day, and then electronica or trip-hop at night. As long as it doesn’t have words, I can write with it on. Or I should say, as long as it doesn’t have English words. I often play Chinese or Japanese pop music in the background, too, because I can’t understand any of it.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

I used to write just because I was inspired to be creative. Nowadays my goals are more professional: asking myself which publisher would be interested in this project.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

None that I can think of. For inspiration I need only flip through any John Steinbeck novel.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

“Follow your heart, not trends,

when it comes to telling a story.”

Follow your heart, not trends, when it comes to telling a story. Nobody likes a copycat.

Is there something that you wish people would ask about your work more often?

I’d be flattered if people took the time to analyze the nuances and details of my photography. My book CHINA: Portrait of a People is rich with symbolism and pop culture references, and maybe someday someone will do a critical analysis of it.

When you’re not writing or taking pictures, what do you like to do?

Walk the streets, drink in the life and culture around me. China is perfect for that. So is India.

About Tom Carter

Travel photographer Tom Carter was born and raised in San Francisco, California and graduated with a degree in Political Science from the American University in Washington, DC. Following a political career with a number of high-profile state and national campaigns, Tom decided to “peek over the fence” and subsequently spent 18 months backpacking down the length of Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. Tom later spent one year in Japan, one year in India, and four years in the People’s Republic of China, traveling extensively throughout the country’s 33 provinces and autonomous regions. The result was his first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People.

Buy CHINA: Portrait of a People, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer & Photographer Tom Carter.” Words With Writers (December 20, 2012, edited March 2019),

  1. […] Interview With Writer & Photographer Tom Carter, December 2012 […]

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