When researching where to photograph panda bears in China, it became increasingly clear to me that it would be over ambitious to spend days trekking around the mountain valleys near Chengdu in the hope of a fortuitous encounter with a panda in a bamboo forest. The free roaming panda is rare in China (estimated numbers are less than 2,000) and even if there was a chance sighting, there could be no guarantee that I would return with a picture that did justice to the bear’s extraordinary face. My predilection towards getting close with the use of remotes or decoys was certainly going to be ruled out by the vegetation and topography of the panda’s habitat. As my principal goal was to come home with a visually striking portrait full of soul and detail, not a hurried snapshot from a distance, I became reconciled to working with pandas in protected domains.
Over a local beer, we focused our attention to Dujiagyan – a new and little visited Panda Rehabilitation Centre an hour north of Chengdu. Good access was this time secured with the help of cash and my interpreter – probably in that order.
My final result – Kung Fu Panda – was certainly good reward for some frustrating experiences on the way. There is unusual vitality to the image – pandas do spend much of their time sitting on their backsides eating bamboo. He is coming head on at me and this symmetry clearly adds to the power of the portrait.
Compared to the brown bear, and most certainly the white polar bear, the panda bear offers a more marginal threat to humans – these bamboo shoot addicts are not alpha predators. But they carry great economic and political symbolism – to many this fluffy, flat faced and large eyed bear with strikingly contrasting colours is the face of China. Andy Warhol said his favourite colour was black and his other favourite colour was white – and on that basis, he must have been very fond of pandas.