Things had been comfortable for me. Growing up in the US and then moving to Beijing during my late twenties, I was used to big changes in life. No matter the circumstances, I found my solace in art.
Photography and the pursuit of industry success brought me to China. I hit the ground running by shooting car campaigns extensively in studio, honing my craft by manipulating light and shadow. As time went on, I actually found myself falling in love with the production aspect of the process just as much as the final product. I started producing shoots for Chinese companies and agencies that wanted to fly in Western photographers to shoot ad campaigns. From sports campaigns with Blair Bunting to fashion projects with Tomo Brejc, I could bridge the culture gaps and work with the top photographers in their respective fields. Even through a variety of genres, we managed to ultimately share the same level of excitement that comes about from mastering the creative process. More simply, to be an integral part of complex shoots with hundreds of working components was one thing, but it always felt great when we wrapped with a cold beer at the end of the day.
…and then the pandemic hit.
I remember walking up to restaurant row two days before the start of CNY to celebrate with an old friend over dinner and a special bottle of baijiu. While approaching I happened to notice that roughly half the restaurants were already closed. Considering it is not completely out of the ordinary for many places to close as staff will go home to visit family, this felt a little strange being so early. We couldn’t help but discuss everything we were hearing about Wuhan and the initial concern with a potential lockdown. Just as we were leaving, the restaurant owner informed us that all restaurants would be ordered to close tomorrow. This would be my last meal outside of my home for quite some time.
My mind struggled to come to grips with what was actually happening, and I was concerned whether or not the fear and panic that was gripping Wuhan would reach Beijing. Everything except for grocery stores closed. A mask was required when leaving your home and there were temperature checks at every door. I travel almost every year for CNY, but as I was busy shooting a product campaign for Western clients I decided to stay in Beijing for the lunar festival. However, the fear and anxiety about the situation at hand kept building in my mind constantly, until it was simply too much.
After two weeks of Chinese New Year stay-at-home celebrations, mandatory quarantines and lockdowns had not expanded outside of the Wuhan province, but social etiquette dictated that everyone stays home all the time. I set up a studio space at home to continue servicing requests from western clients, but ALL businesses in China then closed. After dinner, while editing, I exchanged some text messages with my family and between the alcohol and my brother’s advice, the fight or flight instinct in me turned on.
It was late evening in Beijing, and word on the street was that airports would be closing and flights grounded starting the next day. Some news outlets were already showing how dire things were getting and the fear became too much for me to overcome. While Beijing was handling the situation appropriately and effectively, the density of the city began to feel like a huge risk. I had always admired the health care system of Thailand and I knew the island of Phuket could provide more isolation. I booked the next flight and decided to pack a small carry-on as I did not want to use baggage claim. I tried to sleep that night feeling confident that I had a plan but not knowing what tomorrow would bring.
Having slept just a few hours, I woke to my phone buzzing like crazy. Border regulations were changing rapidly, and at some point during the night the Thai government made a post (which was deleted moments later) stating that they were closing their borders to anyone traveling from China. A taxi raced me to the airport, and I knew right then and there that I may not return home for quite some time, if ever.
I was overwhelmed with everything from excitement to anxiety to fear on the ride to Peking International. It was as if there was a horrible storm that was about to hit and somehow, I was getting to safety just in the nick of time. Arriving at the airport, the situation escalated. Flights to most places were cancelled, and the options of where to flee were growing fewer by the second. I approached the ticket agent to be met with forms, QR codes, and questionnaires all digitally verifying through my cell phone company that I had not been to any high-risk areas. I was finally able to get a ticket issued to Bangkok, where I would find out if I would be let into the country at immigrations (I had heard of this happening to a friend just days earlier).
With a few hours to wait at the airport, I took a mental inventory of my current situation. I had a computer to do work (if that still existed) and money to buy clothes, but one thing remained in my apartment in the city… my camera. I’ve always preferred my Contax T2 when traveling, and while I made sure to bring it, acquiring and developing film would require unnecessary social interaction. My DSLR was still my go-to outlet to create and calm my mind daily at home, and never more have I needed that than right now. Walking the shops of the airport, I made a fateful decision, instead of buying a new camera and having it shipped to some random villa in Thailand, I would buy the newest iPhone.
Initially, I was skeptical as to whether a phone could satisfy my creative needs while in quarantine and beyond. Yet in many ways, the iPhone became the closest thing I had to actual sanity throughout the complete chaos of the pandemic. One part of me wanted to completely check out and play Angry Birds (yes, I know it’s old) until I was mentally numbed, the other part of me wanted to see if there was a way to use the iPhone to improve my life. Fortunately, the latter won, and what started out as a small challenge of taking 100 images everyday soon transformed into a new creative direction. While I admit that I will never be fully comfortable not raising a camera to my eye, I adjusted quickly to using my phone for shooting everything from landscapes to portraits.
Of all the places in the world to escape to, it almost seems as though fate picked Phuket for me. It is a place that was very quick to react to the virus lockdowns, limiting the spread as effectively as possible. Phuket is also an island that runs on tourism, so with most tourist options being shut down, I was left to walk alone many days trying to tell the story of my experience. In addition, I found the beauty of a land I had never experienced before. Like all people with a camera on a vacation, the images started with me photographing sunsets and waves. Yet as time passed and the idea of a return to my former home in China disappeared, touristy landscapes were not enough.
Growing more and more comfortable with meeting new people, and with the safety that Phuket afforded from the virus, I turned my phone towards those who were fast becoming my first friends in my new life. From taking the iPhone out at first to capture brief interactions, I then began to create portraits, something that I had not done since my days in college. It wasn’t long before I was photographing friends during the day, then returning to retouch on the phone at night. I even found that airplane mode helped so that I would not have any interruptions while making adjustments on the day’s imagery.
In a way, buying the phone at the airport began a journey of rediscovery of my passion for an art that I had perhaps begun to take for granted. When I needed it most, photography gave me the sanity to quell my fears and the branch to reach out and connect when human interaction was the baseline of dignity in this pandemic. Somehow buying a phone and shooting only with it changed my eye and perhaps my understanding of the human experience that lives on the other side of the lens.
It was the solace that I found in going through this part of my life that led me to grander experiences and decisions. Last week I signed off who I was and what I had in China, as my life and heart live in Thailand. With a new camera on the way and having found a place in Bangkok, I will not be returning to Beijing. The two hours spent in Peking airport were terrifying, but their unexpected result will be amongst the fondest memory of them all.
About the author: Formerly based in Beijing and Los Angeles, James Goodnight creates images primarily for the automotive advertising market. He has worked with many of the world’s largest companies with imagery appearing in publications around the world. His passion for both art and advertising combine with his education for an insightful approach to creating. This story was also published here.