Photos: China’s Cultural and Economic Revolutions

At The New York Times’ Lens blog, Sim Chi Yin talks to Li Zhensheng, who worked as a photojournalist in Heilongjiang during the Cultural Revolution. Li describes how, after initially being caught up in the excitement of the movement, his growing disillusionment led him to keep a secret alternative record.

In August 1966, I saw the Red Guards attack the St. Nicholas Church and Jile Temple Buddhist temple in Heilongjiang. They were burning sculptures and holy scriptures. There was fierce criticism of leaders, criticism of the monks. I started to have doubts. When I started to waver, I started to take more pictures documenting different sides of what was happening. All of us photojournalists had a saying at the time: we take two types of pictures: “useful” and “not useful” pictures. “Useful” means they could be used by newspaper. “Not useful” means they could not be used by newspaper.

By this judgment, half of the pictures in my book (“Red-Color News Soldier”) or more than that, were not useful. Those of people cheering and studying Mao’s sayings were positive. And then there are those seen as “negative.” I knew they couldn’t be published; I didn’t know when and how they’d be useful but I had a feeling they’d be useful somehow.

[…] Many people, when they saw that my Cultural Revolution pictures won big prizes, they said, “But Teacher Li, we didn’t live in Cultural Revolution, so we can’t take such great pictures.” I remember feeling the same when our teacher showed pictures he’d shot in Yan’an [the Chinese Communist revolutionary base in the 1930s and 1940s].

But this is a naïve way of looking at things. It’s not reality that creates heroes, but heroes create reality. I’m not saying I’m a hero; I always tell my students to shoot what’s around them. No need to track down disasters and wars, but just shoot what’s around them, just pick up your camera today and shoot.

Li also laments that he did not record enough of people’s everyday lives during this tumultuous period. As if heeding his advice, another Heilongjiang photographer Huang Qingjun has spent almost ten years creating portraits of Chinese people with all their belongings arrayed in front of their homes. The collections of seemingly mundane objects offer some insight into what China’s economic growth has meant for each household.

“I wanted to show ordinary people. Show them in their environment and at home, the connection,” says Mr. Huang, a tall 40-year-old from Heilongjiang Province on the border with Russia. “Because China is a place that is changing.”

The link between people and their possessions is apt, because above all, China is getting richer — though that’s perhaps not the first thing a viewer sees in the photographs, which focus on ordinary people who don’t seem to own much.

[…] Next year, the 10th anniversary of the start of his project, Mr. Huang wants to revisit families to see how things have changed.

“With annual economic growth over 8 percent, I guess a lot has changed,” he said.

Both articles include slideshows of the photographers’ work. Li’s can currently be seen at the Barbican in London, and Huang’s at the Southern Barbarian restaurant and café in Beijing. See also the work of Liu Jie, whose portraits of rural families divided by labour migration show China’s economic rise from another angle.