Ever since Henri Cartier-Bresson documented the final days of China’s civil war in the late 1940s, the images of the country beyond its borders have been defined largely by non-Chinese. In the meantime, China has grown ever more connected with the wider world, though little of its domestic photography has gone global.
This year, “China Through Chinese Eyes,” an exhibition that features the work of 20 Chinese photographers, met the American public for the first time at Photoville in Brooklyn, New York. On display are photos by three Sixth Tone photojournalists:
Wu Yue, Zhou Pinglang, and Chen Ronghui.
Founded in 2011, Photoville is one of the largest and most visited photography festivals in the U.S. With shipping containers as exhibition spaces as its distinguishing feature, it has attracted talent from top international media organizations such as Time magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times, Getty Images, and Instagram.
Drawn from dozens of photo galleries published over the last two years by Chinese media, “China Through Chinese Eyes” explores the social, cultural, and economic issues central to the Chinese people. Visitors will see stories about the rise of China’s middle class, how Chinese society is tiptoeing toward acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and what the China-Africa relationship looks like on a micro scale. Together, these stories help piece together a more nuanced view of the country, as the artists help China understand itself.
Sixth Tone’s contributions include the story of a young Chinese couple who escaped the Cultural Revolution by
swimming to Hong Kong, a look inside China’s first etiquette school, and a surreal series on the country’s eclectic theme parks.
The festival runs from Sept. 13 to 17 and Sept. 21 to 24 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
‘Where Gods Live,’ by Pan Chaoyue. Members of the Gaoshan opera troupe perform a ritual for good luck after the first snowfall of 2017. Their style of opera is unique to Wudu, a city in northwestern China’s Gansu province. Modernization has been slow for this rural, relatively poor region, and this is one reason older traditions have persevered.
‘Seven Years of Mr. Wang,’ by Liu Lei. Three days after getting married, villager Wang Zhibao brings his bride to his ancestor’ grave to pay tribute. For 13 years, photographer Liu Lei documented his hometown in rural Shandong province, in eastern China. Seven of those years were spent following Wang through both major events and quotidian moments.
‘The Man Who Swam to Hong Kong,’ by Wu Yue. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Chan Hak Chi, pictured here, and his then-girlfriend, Li Kit Hing, hatched a plan to escape China. On July 16, 1973, the couple swam for six hours from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. They mark that day as their wedding anniversary, and Chan continues to swim every day in his adopted home.
‘A Homesick Migrant Workforce,’ by Zhou Qiang. In Shenzhen, Ah Jia, a migrant worker from the Yi ethnic minority, cries from homesickness. The Yi live mainly in Yunnan and Sichuan, two landlocked provinces in southwestern China. Disadvantaged at home, some Yi move to China’s coastal provinces in search of work, joining the nation’s ever-growing migrant workforce. Photographer Zhou Qiang followed Yi a group of migrant workers to Shenzhen, a high-tech manufacturing hub that is home to more than 11 million people.
‘E-Cigarette Expo,’ by Yang Wenbin. Two models pose in a cloud of smoke at an e-cigarette expo in Beijing. At roughly 300 million, China has the world’s largest population of smokers. Currently, only a small percentage of the world’s e-cigarettes are purchased in China, yet roughly 90 percent of all devices are manufactured there.
‘Robot Invasion,’ by Feng Haiyong. A factory has elected to use robots to construct Buddha statues, replacing 300 workers in the process. In China, the robot revolution has arrived in full force. Major manufacturers such as iPhone maker Foxconn are already replacing their human workers with robots, and more factories are likely to follow suit.
‘Africans in Guangzhou,’ by Li Dong. An African student carries fried dough sticks and soy milk — a typical Chinese breakfast — in Guangzhou, southern China. In 2013, photographer Li Dong moved into an apartment building in an African immigrant neighborhood of the southern city. He spent the next eight months documenting the lives of his neighbors.
‘Cici,’ by Zhang Lijie. Liu Yin is a 32-year-old Chinese woman born with albinism who goes by the nickname “Cici,” after the 1955 Austrian film “Sissi” about a Bavarian empress. Zhang and Cici collaborated on a series of staged portraits, with Cici choosing her outfits and locations, as well as writing captions that explained her thoughts and ideas for the pose. For this shot, Cici wrote: “Sex was a secretive topic during my education. The physical needs of people with disabilities in China are often ignored.”
‘China’s First Etiquette School,’ by Zhou Pinglang. Sara Jane Ho discusses the finer points of English high tea with two of her students. Ho is the founder of Institute Sarita, a Chinese version of a Swiss finishing school. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Ho traveled across China teaching Western etiquette to the country’s nouveau riche. Her ten-day course costs 80000 yuan.
‘Homemade Aeronautical Projects,’ by Xu Xiaoxiao. Zhang Dousan sits in the Dousan No. 5, a vehicle of his own creation, in Shantou, Guangdong province. In parts of rural China, farmers design and build their own aircraft using scrap metal and household objects. Xu Xiaoxiao traveled across China to photograph their attempts to become airborne.
‘China’s eclectic theme parks,’ by Chen Ronghui. In China, visiting theme parks has become a popular leisure activity. Discourse on these parks follows two paths: On the one hand, they are the byproducts of modernization; on the other, they can be eccentric symbols of postmodernism. This contradiction is just one example of the discord between the arts and everyday life.
Ye Charlotte Ming curates the Photoville festival.