Photo of the Week | Hang Gliders and Graveyards - Sean Gallagher - Photographer & Filmmaker | Beijing, China

Photo of the Week | Hang Gliders and Graveyards

Posted by on Mar 29, 2010 in Editorial Photography | 7 Comments

Moving Sands in Dunhuang, Gansu Province. China. 2007

This week’s ‘Photo of the Week” comes with a slightly odd title and to be honest, is admittedly a slightly odd picture.

I created this image in 2007 near the town of Dunhuang, which is situated in western China in Gansu Province. The area is famous in China because of its spectacular desert scenery, an oasis which has been present for hundreds of years and also local grottoes that contain 1500 year-old Buddhist paintings.

I was in the region as I was beginning my work on the subject of desertification, which as readers of my blog will know has become one of my main works over the past couple of years. This was my first trip to begin photographing this phenomenon and I found myself outside of the slightly touristy town of Dunhuang, exploring areas away from the hoardes of visitors. As I tend to do when I visit a new place, I had rented a bicycle and began exploring the area on my own.  My meandering brought me to a very surreal and somber scene. A huge graveyard on the fringes of the desert.

What caught my eye the most was many of the graves were being swallowed by the sand. As I have travelled and photographed desertification, I have witnessed roads, buildings, power lines etc. being swallowed by sand, but this is the only time I have seen it happening to graves.

Treading with upmost care, I positioned myself near one of the tombstones to frame it in my viewfinder. As I did so, I noticed motorized hang gliders flying above me, carrying tourists who were visiting the region and who were trying to get an eagle’s-eye view of the area. As I framed the tip of the enveloped tombstone, the pair of hang gliders came perfectly into the frame.

The juxtaposition in this shot sometimes confuses people when they first look at it. I’ve had people comment that it looks like a coin has been stuck in the sand in the foreground. Others have missed the tombstone altogether and just seen the hang gliders and desert scenery in the background. What did you first see when you looked at it? Did you ‘get it’ straight away?


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    March 29, 2010

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  2. Alex
    March 29, 2010

    Great shot, but i’m not sure that i could define that this is a tombstone without you mentioned it in headline.

  3. Jere
    March 30, 2010

    Agree with Alex. Without seeing the photo ‘title’ not sure I would have guessed this was a tombstone. I was jaded.

  4. Martin
    March 31, 2010

    Great timing with the gliders, they look like a fun way to see this stunning desert.
    Are you sure it’s not a giant coin in the foreground or a primitive stone wheel?
    Love the picture.

  5. Sean Gallagher
    March 31, 2010

    Alex…Jere…It is indeed tricky to pick out that this is a gravestone. If you look into the space between the gravestone and the dunes in the background, you can see small, almost pyramidal structures. These are other graves that haven’t been swallowed.

    Martin…Yes, I am pretty sure it’s not a coin or wheel!

  6. John
    April 9, 2010

    Hi Sean, its a wonderful image that sets the mind working. I wanted to ask, why the tilt on the framing? I often see professional photographers employ this technique and wonder when it should and shouldn’t be used.

  7. Sean Gallagher
    April 9, 2010

    Hi John…I think I instinctively tilted the camera just in order to get both the head of the tombstone in and the passing hangliders. I wasn’t consciously thinking about tilting it. In the moment, it was the most satisfactory and pleasing composition.

    I think you have to ask yourself when you are looking through the viewfinder why you are tilting. If the answer is because it enhances what is already infront of you, then fine. If there is nothing in front of you and you’re just doing it to make it ‘seem’ interesting, then maybe this is the wrong choice.



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