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Its an open-air show about life in Lijiang long ago, using Jade Dragon Snow Mountain as a backdrop

Last autumn, I travelled with a group of friends from Malaysia to Yunnan province in China. It is a beautiful region, significantly less polluted than cities such as Beijing and rich in mountains, lakes, rice terraces and gorges. We visited Shangri-La City, Dali, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Lijiang national park, where I took this shot.

We were there for a day. We spent the morning seeing the sights of the park, and in the afternoon we went to watch the Impression Lijiang show. It is an open-air theatre performance of song and dance by one of the top directors in China, Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). It depicts daily life in the area a long time ago. The actors are cast from the Naxi, Bai, Yi and other local ethnic minority tribes.

This shot of a staged performance is unusual for me. I dont usually work with concepts. I consider myself a casual hobbyist. I take photographs wherever I am: at home in Kuala Lumpur or abroad. I like to travel, and I shoot whatever I find. The older I get, the more I am drawn to shooting people and telling stories.

The performance is quite unusual, too, an open-air show on a large-scale set designed to mimic the red clay earth of the region, and which uses as its backdrop the real 3,100-metre peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. It is a big production with real horses, effects to create fog and mist, and a singing cast, a soundtrack of traditional music. The story is narrated over the speakers in Mandarin, with subtitles running on an LCD screen at the bottom of the stage, just out of shot.

The audience was huge: there are so many tourists in China. We were sitting to the side, so I got up to move closer to the VIP section in the middle to be able to shoot this composition. I ignored the guards. Luckily, they didnt carry me away. I just smiled, held out my hands and took a few pictures on my phone.

I often shoot on my smartphone. Im quite old now. I have been taking photographs for over 30 years, and sometimes carrying around a heavy camera hurts my back. Besides, phones are really good nowadays, especially if you have bright light. This was a bright, overcast afternoon perfect, really, for taking photographs.

I had been waiting for something, a scene that would sum up how I felt about the show. And this was it: the pattern, the rhythm of the workers, the way they draw a zigzag line as they traipse up the slope. And then the colours, too, that red hue of the ground.

This part of the show depicted the harvest: the workers are carrying crops in their baskets. I loved how orderly it all was, the harmony and balance on display. It showed discipline, teamwork, coordination and cooperation. It spoke to me of humanity, and being together. I think that makes this a good photo for corporate training! People have asked for my permission to use it in the context of public speaking, and I always say yes. Beyond work life, it speaks to family and to society.

Usually, my work is documentary. I go for scenes from real, daily life. Villagers in rural Yunnan gathered around a fire pit to warm themselves before going to work on an autumn morning. A girl in a red top paddling in a white boat on a still river, in Kashmir. Worshippers in the light and shadow of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Festivals, celebrations, traditions anything that puts an emphasis on mood and emotion, as well as story.

This is a mysterious image eye-catching, certainly, but also eye-opening, I hope. For me, photography has the power to move souls and bring changes to our life. My friends and I came away from that show, and that place, with a sense that harmony was still possible: that, in contemporary life, if we put aside our differences and work towards the common good, we can live harmoniously with each other. That is why I titled this image Synergy of Humanity.

I shared it on Instagram and a lot of people asked how I managed to capture such a scene. My answer is always I was just lucky enough to be there.

EC Tongs CV

Born: Kota Bharu, Malaysia, 1969.

Trained: Self-taught.

Influences: Steve McCurry, Alex Webb, Vineet Vohra.

High point: Being shortlisted in the culture category for the 2019 Sony world photography awards.

Low point: None worth remembering!

Top tip: Dont go crazy buying the most expensive equipment right away. The more photos you take, the better youll know about what kind of camera to get when its time to upgrade. Much more important are your creative skills and knowledge of camera settings.

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