Note to legal departments everywhere: While the events in this story are absolutely true, all evil clients depicted in this account are fictitious. Really. I swear. I can’t speak for other photographers but all my clients are saints whose only fault is their non-stop nagging me to charge them more. They never abuse me or my time and treat me like they would their mothers. I love each and every one of the blessed creatures. So please don’t sue me for what I’m about to say.

Shangri-LaLa Land
The Himalayan location shoot from Hell

This photo assignment started with locations in Japan, including Tokyo, which we love. The technology! The pachinko parlors! The endearing and annoying nonstop bowing! The frenzied mass of humanity crossing the streets in Shibuya! The beautiful views of Mount Fuji we’ve heard about but never seen because of the ever-present smog!

The Shibuya area is Tokyo's Time Square. It was featured in scenes of the movie Lost in Translation

People traveling to Asia for the first time have no idea how completely different China is to Japan. Where the Japanese are reserved and standoffish, the Chinese are demonstrative and even loud. Or in the case of this particular client: pushy, manipulative, lying and evil. I should tell you in advance that we survived so you don’t get scared.

Pachinko parlors are colorful and LOUD. Chris whipped through a bucket of steel balls in about 10 minutes with nothing to show for it but partial deafness from the noise

This was our third trip to China. Unlike the first, we felt comfortable negotiating passport control, customs and immigration. We knew from past experience NOT to list ourselves as photographers on any documents, especially our visa requests. The current Chinese government takes a dim view of photographers and journalists entering the country, turning down many. They have been burned too often on negative human rights stories. For years now I have listed our occupation on all official documents as Graphic Consultants. Graphic Consultant is close enough to the truth but does not set us up for immigration or equipment import hassles. If I were to tell the god’s honest truth, I would admit that most of the time we enter countries on a tourist, not a business visa even though we are there to work, not play. Tourist visas are quicker and cheaper to obtain. Because we present ourselves as a smiling middle-aged married couple, we seldom get searched. But still, I secretly hold my breath through each and every border crossing.

Every morning across China people gather in public parks to exercise. Some practice tai chi like the incredibly flexible woman here, some bring boom-boxes and ballroom dance!

In hindsight I should have just said NO to this project, but being naturally stubborn (and greedy) I kept trying to make it work out. It started going bad with a phone message to our hotel in Beijing. “Hello, this is Mr. Li (the client from hell), just letting you know I have changed the whole shoot schedule. You will be leaving for the Himalayan location at 7am tomorrow instead of the following day.” What? We still had a day of shooting in Beijing for our primary client to complete. Our schedule had been approved and carved in stone for weeks. This guy had no right or authority to alter the plans, but he pushed and whined and even insisted that I call my primary client to see if a change was possible. I pretended to call but really didn’t. I found out later the real reason he wanted to change the schedule had nothing to do with business - there was a party in Beijing he didn’t want to miss. Numerous frantic calls and multiple expensive plane changes later, we were mercifully back to the original schedule.

Over 7,000 life-sized terracotta warriors have been discovered in underground caves near Xian, China. Each one is unique with different faces, hair, clothes, etc.

Mr. Li had told both our contact at the corporate offices in the States and us that it would take a 3-hour plane trip from Beijing and a 2-hour car drive to reach the remote shoot location. That was lie number two. It took two planes and all day to reach the closest town to the site. Then, by even the most conservative of estimates, it was a 5-hour drive to the location.

Northwestern China is way, way off the tourist map. It’s located north of Tibet. Our destination was the politically troubled area close to the Kazakhstan border. The area has a mostly Muslim population which means we would find delicious prepared lamb dishes and much political unrest. We heard rumors of terrorist-like activity and of heavy-handed government response. Or maybe it was the other way around - probably was the other way around. It’s sparsely populated, mostly barren, high-desert terrain. The area is dangerously hot in summer and, as we were soon to find out, dangerously cold in the winter. For safety, Mr. Li’s company insists all ground travel must be by caravan of two or more cars, never losing sight of each other along the way. I came to appreciate that rule.

Our caravan struck out very early in pre-dawn darkness. Chris and I shared the backseat of one truck with our driver and another passenger up front. I never figured out exactly what the passenger’s role was, apart from sleeping which he took seriously and was very good at. They spoke as much English as we spoke Chinese. Mr. Li rode in the other car. After about 7 long boring hours the drivers insisted on a break and since my bladder was about to explode I didn’t argue. We stopped at an uncharted village inhabited mostly by fur-bundled ox-chart drivers. At this point Chris and I were fairly frantic about the time and the lack of light that would exist at the shoot sight when we finally got there. Mr. Li said it would only take a few minutes for lunch – it took an hour and a half. He said it was only another 45 minutes to the location, despite the rapidly mounting snowdrifts. It took another 4 hours of slow agony.

The lead truck in our small caravan enters the mountain pass

By the time we finally got on site there was less than an hour of light left. We flailed through the knee-high snow in a panic to accomplish our shotlist. In the back of our heads were visions of the awful and awesome mountain pass we had slipped and skidded through on the way to the shoot and would now have to navigate in the dark on the way back. That, and the fact that it was minus 20C, made it very difficult to concentrate and create. We had no way of knowing that a blinding blizzard was already making it’s way toward the pass, waiting for our arrival.

If I hadn’t been so consumed by a white-hot pissed-off anger at Mr. Li, the little lying weasel, the terror of the drive would have been overwhelming. When I could see anything at all through the snow and the dark, I was instantly sorry I had looked. It took over an hour of white-knuckle time to inch our way through the pass. The new-fallen snow made it impossible to make out the edges of the road and there were very few guardrails. Sudden drop-offs into what appeared to me as bottomless gaping mouths of death were alarmingly frequent. That phrase kept running through my mind with each tiny skid, each surprise pothole, each hairpin turn: bottomless gaping mouths of death – shit.

Things got both better and worse when we got to the other side of the pass. The road straightened and flattened out, but the blizzard hit with full force. At this point we had been in the car for over 20 hours straight with the exception of lunch and the shoot, which due to the gathering darkness took about as much time as lunch. We were exhausted, more from anxiety than anything physical. The car afforded no way to stretch out or get comfortable. Our driver resorted to pinning painful binder clips on his ears, eyebrows and lips to keep himself awake. The unknown passenger snored. Several times either I or Chris commandeered our driver’s cell phone and called Mr. Li in the other car, asking, begging and finally screaming to stop at a hotel for the night. He first told us there were no hotels, then said they were all full, and finally that the other passenger in his car (whoever he was) had to be back in town for a meeting. We found out later he had told the non-English speaking passenger that WE were the ones insisting that we keep going through the storm. The truth was that Mr. Li was still hoping to get back to Beijing in time for his party.

When we mercifully uncoiled ourselves out of the truck at the hotel we only had 2 hours before our scheduled return flight to Beijing. No sleep, and little food for 27 hours! If the plane had not been delayed due to the blizzard, Mr. Li would have made it to his stupid party. It’s the first time in my life I was happy to sit for hours in an airport.