Photographing China, from Rich to Poor, East to West

The New York Times highlights two photography projects aiming to capture different aspects of China’s diversity. Following a six-month photographic trip across the United States, Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer conducted a grand tour of China, taking portraits of the people they encountered. From Kerri MacDonald at the Times’ Lens blog:

Most people the couple met along the way were warm and welcoming — and surprisingly spontaneous. But Ms. Fischer and Mr. Braschler did run into trouble, logging three arrests during their journey. In a place like China — here follows a travel tip from the experienced — it is best to be discreet when using a 4-by-5 camera equipped with a flash and a soft box to make a portrait of a trash collector.

“People loved it at the beginning,” Ms. Fischer said. “You have to imagine — dozens of people surrounding us while we shoot.”

But when they tried to make a portrait of a truck mechanic in Xinmin, Liaoning Province, bystanders agreed that the man was too dirty; he would give an international audience a negative impression of the country.

[…] Yet they were overwhelmed by the beauty — and the range — of the physical landscape, mountains and all. “It was just so much to digest,” Ms. Fischer said.

Twenty of the pair’s images are included in a slideshow at Lens.

In an op-ed accompanying some of her own photographs, Sim Chi Yin also described the challenges of engaging with her subjects, the rich and poor on opposite sides of China’s yawning wealth gap.

With the “rats” and “ants,” the trash collectors, cobblers and couriers, it took time to build rapport and trust. But it was even harder to get wealthy Chinese — perhaps like rich people everywhere — to open up. Most live in gated, guarded communities on the outskirts of the city, and socialize behind closed doors. A few months ago, I was granted rare permission to photograph inside an exclusive club in Beijing for high rollers, and only at a party where some members were in costume.

The migrant workers and the poor mostly accept that life is unfair, at least for now.

“There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above,” Zhuang Qiuli, 27, a “rat tribe” pedicurist who lived in a basement apartment, told me in Beijing. “We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.”