-- Written by Alex Merola
From Henri Cartier-Bresson’s documentation of the of civil war to Martin Parr’s account of increased consumerism in the age of contemporary China, Thames & Hudson’s recently published tome, Magnum China, provides a panoramic portrait of the perpetually-changing country through the lens of some of Magnum’s most iconic photographers. In light of this, Alex Merola speaks with co-editor Colin Pantall, who discusses Magnum’s enduring involvement with China, the turbulent social, political and economic history of the past century, and what the future might hold for this enigmatic yet influential country.
Alex Merola: Do you remember your first impressions of China?
Colin Pantall: My first impressions of China were arriving in Shenzhen on the ferry from Hong Kong and having a gut-filled awe that this country I had just arrived in was a world in itself and that whatever mattered outside didn’t necessarily matter here.
A.M.: The book commences in January 1938 when Robert Capa first stepped foot into China. This also marks the period of the Sino-Japanese War. What prompted this early interest in China during such a time of conflict? Was there a connection to Capa’s famous documentation of the Spanish Civil War just before?
C.P.: War made it interesting. It was a bloody occupation by the Japanese with the Nanjing Massacre alone leaving 200,000 dead, maybe more. I don’t think that anti-fascist element translated well into China where the corruption, shifting alliances, distrusts, and betrayals between the Nationalists and Communists resulted in an unclear picture that was compounded by the scale of the country and the difficulty of access. Capa was restricted in his work by the wife of the Nationalist leader, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.
That being said, the historical significance of the images Capa made were at odds with historical Orientalist and imperialist depictions of a defeated China as the “sick man of Asia”. 19th century China has an incredibly destructive history and includes the humiliation of being forced by Britain to become a client to its opium-dealing companies. Britain literally was a pusher-nation that put a gun to China’s head to force them to buy drugs.
In our conversation at the start of the book, my co-editor, Zheng Ziyu, writes about the significance of Capa’s image of the young Chinese soldier:
‘He a has child’s face, but it’s resolute, shot in close-up form a low angle. This image was published on the cover of Life magazine and is, as far as I am aware, the very first time that a Chinese person has been shown by a western photographer on the cover of a high-selling influential magazine with a strongly defined character that goes beyond the usual stereotype. The typical image of the time, taken by tourists, missionaries, diplomats and scholars built an image of the Chinese as a people wallowing in ignorance and dejection. There is a sort of historical truth to this, but at the same time they also have Orientalist and even racist elements. This is not a judgement based on nationalism, but based on the history of visual communication between the west and China since photography was introduced into this country a few years after its invention. Robert Capa came to China at a turning point in the anti-Japanese war in which China became an ally of the world’s anti-Fascist forces. Capa witnessed the Nirvana of this country with his camera, and created one of the most influential symbols of China’s resistance to Japanese expansionism.’
A.M.: Following decades of war and destruction, on 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic. Considering the social, political and economic turbulence of the period that followed, what is most striking about this chapter of the book is the absence of images depicting suffering and violence. Does this absence reflect the political isolationism and domestic censorship of the time, and did this propose a challenge during your research?
C.P.: Photography renders only a partial view. The photography of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as depicted by Bruno Barbey and Marc Riboud, shows us political performances which were put on as explicit expressions of political power (and were there to be photographed as such), but not what lies beyond – a photographer like Li Zhensheng and his compelling book Red-Color News Soldier (2003) does provide other perspectives. I think western photography of China treads a narrow line between regurgitating a party line view of China as this identikit nation of fervent revolutionaries – a line which feeds into racist and Orientalist views in itself – and a humanist, ‘family of man’ perspective of the individuality that lies beneath the surface.
The work of Riboud treads this line incredibly successfully, because of the power of the photography and the extreme poetics of its human vision. I cite the example of the woman with the cape. The fact that the book starts pre-revolution with Capa and Magnum co-founder Henri Cartier-Bresson also adds a very different perspective, and you see that in Cartier-Bresson’s pictures from Shanghai in particular.
Death is not apparent in the post-revolution images. That’s part of the process of having minders and people behaving for the camera, people ignoring the camera, and the understanding of the propaganda-value that photography played. There were places people simply were not allowed to go.
China’s greatest disaster, ‘The Great Leap Forward’ of 1958–62, was characterised by an absence of images. In Mao’s Great Famine (2011), Frank Dikotter estimates 45 million people died in the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (including 2.5 million tortured or beaten to death, and 3 million from suicide), yet somewhat remarkably there is not one single photograph of those deaths readily available. Here, I would refer you to read D.J. Clark’s article, ‘A Single Image of Famine in China’ from Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis (2012). That being said, while nothing visually filled this gap during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, there are the powerful images by Li Zhensheng which capture the violence of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in detail.
A.M.: Could you explain your inclusion of René Burri’s 1964 photograph of the dead lotus flowers? In its artistry and abstraction, it stands out amongst the mix of processions and Red Guards.
C.P.: When editing the book, we had to consider the history of China, the history of Magnum and the life of individual images. Burri’s image of lotus flowers on Kunming Lake has a life of its own and was always going to be included. It’s part of a poetic view of China which you can see throughout Burri’s work, but also in the pictures of Riboud, of Guy Le Querrec, Inge Morath or even Michael Christopher Brown. China is beautiful, and so is Burri’s picture.
A.M.: The image is elegiac in its tone, and seems to act symbolically for the millions of lives lost during this period. Thinking about closures as well as beginnings, the death of Mao in 1976 marked a shift away from political isolationism and ushered in a new era of reform and ‘opening up’, launched by the new central leader Deng Xiaoping. In what ways did this newfound openness affect Magnum’s photographic approach?
C.P.: It opened their ways of working immensely. The foreign photography of China during the 1960s and 70s, was heavily focused on the political overtones of the time. It was difficult to gain access and photographers were shadowed and working to briefs that were dictated by what was deemed newsworthy – essentially the spectacle of political China. You can see that in Barbey’s images in 1973 and you can still see it today in almost anything from North Korea.
Once Mao was gone, Inge Morath, followed by Eve Arnold, sought redefine the face of China; a China of cultural curiosity, diversity and domestic intimacy respectively. The same thing was happening to a much greater extent in China itself and Lu Nan’s brilliantly raw work is a reflection of that. It was an almost deliberate counteracting of the angry face of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ with something more human. It was a rediscovery of China beyond the limited and oppressive range of the ‘Cultural Revolution’.
As the Chinese economy began to expand at a rapid rate, images emerged depicting the changes in lifestyle, in housing, in leisure, in luxury goods. Ian Berry did this through his striking images of the communities affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, and Chris Steele-Perkins showed us the human cost of the rural/urban economic divide with his images of the kids left behind by the parents heading off to work in developing Chinese cities. Martin Parr specialises in consumption of course and, on a more geographical level, Michael Christopher Brown’s Instagram pictures show us a world defined by road and construction infrastructure.
Patrick Zachmann presented a sophisticated view of the ‘opening up’ of China in his 1982 image of a ‘long nose’. This is what Ziyu writes about it: ‘Six years after Mao’s death, China was slowly a new turning point in its relationship with the west. Most photos recorded how western photographers saw the changing country, but this picture captured how the Chinese saw westerners, the so-called ‘long-nose’. In what looks like a simple street encounter, this photo freezes a typical street scene with a wealth of detail. There are different faces with complex emotions and gazes staring at the ‘long-nose’, making eye-contact not only between the objects and the photographer, but also between the objects and the reader. Since the late Qing Dynasty, China was pushed to a path of learning from the west and this course was figuratively described as opening the eyes to see the world. This image could be a metaphor of China’s modernisation, expressing the two-way interaction between China and the west.’
A.M.: How significant was Stuart Franklin’s record of the 1989 Tiananmen Square events, and what role did images of protest play in the public’s consciousness generally?
C.P.: The whole event had a huge impact both for the Chinese and those living overseas. Of course, there was a large photography and art scene in China that was extremely active and critical. That changed very quickly. Tiananmen consumed people’s lives. Franklin’s indelible pictures are an iconic reflection of that, and that iconicity preserves the memory that would otherwise be lost.
You can see the struggle to create a visual record of these events in the BBC documentary I Was There (2018), which features BBC reporter Kate Adie recalling how her team made and smuggled out the only footage of the event’s end game, when the dead were lying on the ground and bullets were hitting the people next to Adie. It is a classic example which demonstrates where imagery and reporting really matter, and where there is a state interest in not having images shown. There are images, there is footage, there is literature. It’s very hard to overestimate the expectations and after-effects of Tiananmen, and photography (and Franklin’s most iconic photographs in particular) is part of that.
A.M.: In a 1997 interview on Le Cercle des Arts, Riboud stated: “Today China is Chicago; it’s Dallas. Cars, houses, people, miniskirts, McDonald’s, everything is like here [the west]. It’s much more difficult to photograph.” How do you interpret this statement?
C.P.: It means China looks like everywhere else, in the same way a high street in one British town now looks like a high street in another – betting shops, charity shops, boarded-up shops. It’s like that but a bit more glitzy and bigger. There’s a great book about urban development in China by Jiang Jiehong called An Era Without Memories (2015). It’s a great title, and one that is also reflected in a very different way through the writings of Ma Jian.
For photographers, narrow lanes, slate-roofed houses, vibrant street life and the mass energy of small industries make for “great” images on the surface. But the strength of Riboud was his ability to pull you into the mind of the people he photographed. It’s the same with the Zachmann image Ziyu wrote about. Making interesting photographs (and this goes above and beyond genre and also applies at a conceptual level) is about understanding and communicating how people see and how they feel. What Ziyu picked up on was that seeing is a two way interaction between the photographer and the people photographed. And that provides a different way of seeing, one that goes beyond the backdrop. The problem is when people don’t see and don’t feel – when they have no memories, which brings us back to Jiehong’s book An Era Without Memories.
A.M.: On reflection, to what extent have Magnum photographers challenged, as opposed to continued, the pre-existing stereotypes of Chinese culture and society?
C.P.: There are multiple stereotypes at work in the photography of China; minorities, urban/rural, rich/poor, developed/undeveloped etc. I flick between being a romantic and a cynic but I prefer to be a romantic. When I am a romantic and I like to believe in the immediacy of soul and authenticity in photography (think August Sander) – the immediacy because those ideas don’t bear too much examination but those are the things that work on an unconscious level. I think that essential ‘family of man’ humanity, for all its problems, is still incredibly powerful and an example of how you can go beyond the stereotype. That’s Magnum all over.
For me, the most powerful work in the book comes from Chien Chi Chang. Both The Chain (2002) and Escape from North Korea (2007–11) are incredibly powerful bodies of work. But the People’s Republic doesn’t really feature. The Chain is from Taiwan, and is a brutal visualisation of an asylum ruled through the chain that binds inmates together. Chang tried to gain access for years and years and in the end only photographed for a few hours. But there is a humanity there, the people are treated as individuals, there are relationships there from one end of the chain to another. And in Escape from North Korea, China serves as a backdrop to a different geopolitical imperative. It’s massive and it’s marginal, but it serves as a transit route for North Korean defectors to escape through. China doesn’t feature. When China doesn’t feature, there’s no stereotype.
The book concludes with images from Christopher Anderson’s recent work Approximate Joy (2018), which meditates on the future of a society leading the way technologically. How do you see the future of China playing out, and what role do you think photography will play?
I don’t think photography will play any part in the future of China except in terms of surveillance, facial recognition and the erasure of memories that you can see playing out in places like Xinjiang. The future of China is unwritten, but it’s global. It’s happening in Asia, in the Pacific, in Africa, in Europe, everywhere. It’s a future of unsustainable and unquestioning growth, with China transforming from being a producer to a consumer. There is a mass of migration, and with it a mass of capital transforming and distorting local economies and environments, and with that comes lessened transparency, a loosening of civil society, of democratic institutions, of the media, the judiciary and accountability. And ultimately, China is part of the world. It’s an overpopulated, environmentally-fragile, over-consuming, growth-obsessed country in an overpopulated, environmentally-fragile, over-consuming, growth-obsessed world. What’s the future for the world? That’s the future for China. It’s the future for everyone.
Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in England. He has written and photographed for a wide range of publications on photography, the environment and the arts, including The British Journal of Photography and The Far Eastern Economic Review.