Given the art world’s general indifference to documentary photography, FotoFest‘s devotion of the gigantic exhibition space at Winter Street Studios to just three Chinese documentary photographers seemed like a dubious decision. But few doubts remain after viewing the thought-provoking and astonishing bodies of work presented in Independent Documentary Photography, 1985-2008 (IDP). These images dramatically represent the critical first wave of photographic expression that arose in China after more than a decade-long government blackout on art, photography and information.
Modern Chinese photography was born in 1976 after a massive public outpouring of grief following the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, who had provided a glimmer of relief from the stranglehold of the Cultural Revolution. Policemen and soldiers stormed the historic gathering, beating and arresting thousands, and later raided homes in search of any amateur photographs of the incident, threatening the death penalty to anyone who didn’t turn their photographs over. Some held out despite the threats. Eventually, 500 illegal, anonymous photos of the demonstration were compiled in a subversive book called People’s Mourning. This watershed publication was seen throughout the country and provided most Chinese with their first views of independently created imagery in over a decade. It also awoke many to the emotional and reportage power that photography was capable of wielding.
Photography salons and exhibitions began to sprout up throughout China, as people were finally able to see images that were personal, rather than propagandist, although saccharine and sentimental scenes were the order of the day. In the early 80s, an influx of Western art and literature introduced Chinese artists and audiences to photographers as diverse as Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz and Cindy Sherman, even though the historical context and pictorial theories behind the images were frequently lost in translation. Following this massive aesthetic exposure, many photographers returned to their cameras with a new sense of political freedom and artistic aspiration, launching China’s photographic "New Wave" with a surge of subversive and deeply political documentary projects.1
Lu Nan’s searing photographs—particularly The Forgotten People: The State of Chinese Psychiatric Wards—exemplify this impassioned marriage of personal vision and political critique with a crushing artistic mastery that rivals any Western documentary work of the past 30 years. Mental institutions are familiar if ethically dubious haunts for photographers, having attracted everyone from Avedon and Arbus to Sweden’s Anders Petersen, whose Ingen Har Sett Allt was shown at FotoFest nearly a decade ago. I have never seen photographs like Lu Nan’s, though, and can recall few images or works of art that affected me so viscerally.
The Forgotten People opens with a photograph of a handsome man in his late 20s who hunches contrapposto in a too-small sports coat, eyeing the photographer contemptuously. He stands between a stone house and shrubby overgrowth; trees shoot toward the sky, and the thatched roofs and eccentric masonry of the buildings lend the scene an almost pre-modern quaintness. If this photograph had been taken a decade prior, peasants would have easily filled the small village spread, reading Mao’s quotations through forced smiles. But the Cultural Revolution’s chipper, forced idealism is shattered in Lu Nan’s photograph.
The man in the photograph is not simply leaning against the tree—he is bound to the trunk by ropes with knots as big as fists. The caption informs us that he "has been mentally ill for five years. His family has never sent him to a hospital. He has the tendency to be violent. Family members have to tie him up on a tree during daytime and then tie him up on his bed at night. This has been the arrangement for two years." Returning to the tethered man’s gaze, it is impossible not to feel the menace radiating from his tense resignation. The inhumanity of this man’s "treatment," his violent rage and the failure of the government to help are the central themes of The Forgotten People.
In one of the most stunning photographs I’ve ever seen, an older man sits with his mother on a stone curb, their faces creased with years of grief. They pose for Lu Nan in front of a megalithic structure about the size of a garden shed, constructed from massive boulders. To the far left side of the image, a human hand shockingly reaches out from the gaps between stones, like an appendage emerging from a crypt. The caption says the hand is attached to the seated man’s son, who murdered his mother and attacked his father on a visit home from college years earlier. At a loss for what to do with his homicidal child, the man built a living tomb for his son, where his grandmother passes him food and water through the small openings in the stonework. Murderous, and confined to an almost primeval chamber, the young man still feels the desire for connection and representation so strongly that when Lu Nan photographs his family in front of the cell, he extends a single hand so that he, too, may be part of the family portrait.
Horrifying as these conditions are, Lu Nan takes care not to blame the Chinese families, who are virtually without recourse in caring for their sick relatives. Press images from the exhibition arrive with a message from FotoFest’s Wendy Watriss, looking to temper and contextualize their sensational aspects: "Families who can no longer afford the meager public care or support are often forced to take their relatives home and don’t have the means, medicine or knowledge to enable them to take proper care of the mentally ill, who are often violent or destructive. These they have to chain, tie up or confine."
Lu Nan’s photographs of the state-run mental wards are just as haunting as the images of the house-bound and entombed, and illuminate why so many are reluctant to send their family members off. A particularly chilling photograph finds a large woman (though hardly obese by current American standards) curled naked on a cot. We learn that the psychiatric hospital doesn’t have any clothes that fit her, so she has lived completely undressed for years. Another photograph shows a man dying of tuberculosis. The caption reveals that mental patients are rarely given any medication beyond the minimal necessities for their psychosis. All other ailments, whether the sniffles, bedsores, or TB are left to the body’s natural immune system. The subject of this portrait, like so many others in the show, died within months of being photographed.
The contrast of these brutal images with One Allen Center’s relentlessly upbeat photographs of the Cultural Revolution is brilliant, and could only be made more dramatic if the shows were exhibited in the same building. Lu Nan’s remarkable body of work on Catholicism in rural China (where Christians are routinely imprisoned and harassed) is as rigorously envisioned and executed as The Forgotten People, but the mental exhaustion that accompanies the asylum photographs make them a nearly impossible act to follow.
The second photographer in the show, Wu Jialin, offers exquisite scenes of daily life in the Yunnan Province that provide a welcome tonic of hope and levity in IDP. FotoFest introduced Wu in 1996, and smartly contextualize him here within the Chinese documentary New Wave. The high-mountain Yunnan province was remote enough to escape many of the Cultural Revolution’s worst atrocities, and Wu’s photographs lovingly portray a relaxed world of human warmth, gratifying labor and an expressive, ever-underfoot animal kingdom.
Photographically, it’s almost impossible for piglets, geese and puppies not to upstage humans, and the fauna of the Yunnan province were born for Wu’s camera. "Animals in the human environment are also one of the main themes of life, part of the people and their living environment," the photographer states. "The domestic fowl and animals… possess rich emotions, have a mutual dependence with people, and live in the human environment." In Wu’s world, old women who walk down the village street are heralded by honking geese who clear her way, while less dignified sows pile themselves against an outdoor wall like errant children in time-out. At an outdoor public gathering, a miniature horse breaks from his carting duties and contemplates the photographer quizzically, indifferent to the scowling mugs of his pint-sized human freight, who wish the buggy ride would start already.
This tender humor is found throughout Wu’s photographs, although recent pieces address the region’s gradual modernization more directly. One photograph presents an elegant young woman in a sleek, modern dress sauntering through the village; a flock of children ogle her from behind, but the barefoot peasant woman working at the nearby loom concentrates on her work, not even lifting her head for the passing vision of youthful glamour. Many photographers spend their entire lives trying to immortalize scenes of visual serendipity like this one; precious few are so at the ready for them as Wu Jialin. These benign scenes of languid harmony, however, conceal a subtle political undercurrent. Wu’s glorification of simple, timeless Chinese qualities—a relationship with nature, strong work ethic, playfulness and resourcefulness—are gently persuasive rebukes against Communist rule, which insists that individuals function well only under totalitarian dominion. Wu’s photographs demonstrate again and again the inherent goodness of human—and animal—nature in its unfettered state.
The final photographer in IDP is the youngest and most experimental of the bunch. The creative progression in Li Lang’s three series bear witness to his critical thinking about the medium, while also pointing to economic and artistic trends that do not bode well for the country’s documentary tradition. Li’s earliest series, The Yi People, is a conventional documentary portrait of the rural minority culture. His images of snow-draped fields and huddled, stoic villagers are finely crafted but feel overly (almost suspiciously) stylized and aestheticized. They remind me of the pictures that skilled commercial photographers bring home from foreign travels, where the impulse to romanticize and beautify the locals occludes any meaningful complexity. Li Lang evidently sensed the dissatisfying afterglow of exotic reportage as well, as his next series, The Portrait of Yi, takes a radically different approach.
Any photographer with an ounce of thoughtfulness has a sense of personal and artistic responsibility toward the people he photographs. Many gift prints to the strangers who pose for them; some consider non-consensual photography an ethical violation; others take this invasion as the central tension within their work; still others make painstaking efforts to leave the communities they take from better than when they found them.
Every photographer must determine and readjust his position for himself, and Li Lang works through this question in The Portrait of the Yi, a series executed in collaboration with the people he had already "captured" so extensively on camera. Using the cheesy painted backdrops of an itinerant photographer, Li set up makeshift studios, complete with props and wardrobes, where the Yi could pose as they wished, while experiencing the relative glamour of a commercial photo shoot.
The lo-fi charms of painted backdrop portraiture from underdeveloped countries have become increasingly popular in recent years, and have been revitalized by artists like Leandro Erlich and Judi Werthein, who photographed Cubans against snowy Alpine vistas in 2001. As with most examples of the genre, Li Lang’s willfully naive portraits are long on charm: Tough guys act cool in front of enchanted forest playscapes, young women mimic poses gleaned from fashion magazines and elderly villagers stand rigidly before crudely painted Tahitian beaches.
The photographer pulls back far enough to reveal his lighting and backdrop apparatus, as if to say, "no tricks up my sleeve here; this is all in the name of fun." It certainly looks fun, and the sitters appear genuinely pleased to present themselves as they want, independent of socioeconomic reality. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we must concede they look foolishly happy. The outdated American styles, the faux-James Dean sneers, the sitters’ glee at the nominal pleasure of being photographed strikes us as adorably unsophisticated, and we smile at their earnestness with the delight of an audience at an elementary school talent show. While these photographs may please the Yi, one has to wonder how the photographer anticipated the images being received by more culturally sophisticated and Western audiences. The most cynical conclusion would be that Li Lang dressed them in ridiculous costumes, told them they looked great, and shoved them into the world for all to see.
The photographer, however, has already moved on, as his most recent series forgoes the human figure entirely, and focuses instead on the interactions between man and nature in remote Chinese landscapes. Large format color scenes of industrial litter, towering pylons and dull slabs of cement recall any number of contemporary landscape photographers, and are rather unremarkable in and of themselves. But as one phase in Li Lang’s ongoing creative re-evaluation of photographic responsibility, they provide an interesting chapter.
The most interesting, if indirect, point about Li Lang’s landscape photographs, though, came from Shanghai scholar Gu Zheng, who spoke at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston about the general state of contemporary Chinese photography. Because of China’s extraordinary boom in the art market, he explained, many documentary photographers were abandoning their practice to cash in on more salable, artful styles. Li Lang was not mentioned directly or even alluded to, but when Gu lamented the loss of documentary visions to flashier trends, it was impossible not to think of Li Lang, who shifted from frostbitten village reportage to colorful Nu-Objective landscapes within the span of a decade. While his photographs are certainly the least realized of the three artists in IDP, Li Lang’s restlessness demonstrates an intellectual and formal curiosity that reaches its apex in FotoFest’s final program, Staged and Conceptual Work.
1For a more thorough account of this development, see Wu Hung’s "Between Past and Future: A Brief History of Contemporary Chinese Photography" in Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, Smart Museum of Art, 2004.
Notes on the first two images, from Lu Nan’s series The Forgotten People: The State of Chinese Psychiatric Wards, 1989-1990:
Family, Shanxi, China, 1990
“Wang Pingzhe (left), a nineteen-year old girl, has taken on the role of the sole breadwinner of the family. Her 28-year old sister and her 25-year old brother are both mental illness patients. Their 83- year old grandmother has already lost her vision. Farming is done by Wang Pingzhe alone. A year ago, Wang Pingzhe was being engaged to a young man in the village. But her brother was worried that there would be nobody to take care of the family once his younger sister was married, As a result, he fell ill. Sorrowfully, Wang Pingzhe had to cancel her marriage.”
Family, Guizhou, China, 1989
“Wang Mingcai, 28 years old, has been mentally ill for five years. His family has never sent him to a hospital. He has the tendency to be violent. Family members have to tie him up on a tree during daytime and then tie him up on his bed at night. This has been the arrangement for two years.”
All images courtesy of FotoFest.
Chas Bowie is a writer in Portland, OR. He has published in Art Papers, Tokion, Anthem, the Photo Review
and many other art and culture magazines. He was one of Glasstire’s
first writers, as well as the Exhibitions and Publications Coordinator
for FotoFest 2000.
Read FotoFest 2008: Photography from China, 1934-2008, Part 1 by Chas Bowie