BEHIND THE PHOTOS
In 2014, I embarked on a project to photograph the Chinese taking photographs of each other. The rituals of Chinese amateur photographers fascinated me. They shoot incessantly, often with family members looking on and directing, and with an intimacy with their environment that borders on stagecraft. During the next two years, I traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou, often wading through enormous crowds to uncover and photograph private moments between people who were strangers to me. Unable to speak Chinese, I worked like a silent ghost, wandering around with a vintage Leica and Tri-X in a country where film is no longer even sold. Few Chinese possess family photographs from the past, as so much was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, which may explain the intensity of the photography I saw wherever I traveled. I call the project THE OUTSIDER because as a Westerner in the East, and a stranger in a foreign culture searching for authenticity, I allowed myself to be a spectator to the photographer/subject relationship. These are portraits of the Chinese by the Chinese. By giving up my familiar role as portrait maker, I became instead an eyewitness to the birth of a new collective visual memory.
Yet, as an outsider I can’t be sure that what I witnessed made me any more aware of what is true. Did the young Chinese woman in Chanel sunglasses and designer clothes pose on the wall depicting the Workers Revolution because she admired the background, or was it an ironic political statement? Do the bride and groom hugging in front of the surreal cityscape of Shanghai, cling to each other with intense love or desperate anxiety? Are the crowds of Chinese with cameras preserving memories of happy moments, or inventing happy moments to memorialize in photographs? Or are they trying to obliterate memory, to wash away the horror of the harsh years by recording an optimistic, fresh, modern personal history? I don’t know the answers.
All the Chinese photographers I encountered had either digital cameras or smart phone cameras, but the sheer amount of image making, and the excitement all around me as people frenetically shot photographs of their friends and family, made me remember the thrill of using a hand-held analog camera. I used a Leica M6, with a 28mm lens, and Tri-X film. I was largely an invisible presence among all the Chinese photographers, only attracting attention when I loaded film into my camera.