Power Play: Inside a Chinese Student Council

2017-11-23 12:32:46

SHANGHAI — For Chinese students, graduating high school means going from 12 years of exam-oriented education to the relative freedom of university life. But some freshmen are soon caught up in another world of strict rules: the student government.

Yang Wenbin is a 21-year-old senior studying photography at Beijing’s Communication University of China, and a self-avowed “visual author.” When he started documenting his school’s student council, he discovered an organization fraught with power dynamics and hierarchy.

In his photo project “Society of University,” Yang dives into the politics of this mini-society. “My purpose in photographing the student council or other organizations is to record scenes of authority, people living under authority, and people shaped by power,” he told Sixth Tone.

College senior Yang Wenbin shares the inspiration behind his award-winning photo project, ‘Society of University.’ By Tang Xiaolan and Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

The project includes photos, screenshots of council members’ conversations in online chat groups, and audio recordings from council meetings. Earlier this year, “Society of University” won a 200,000-yuan ($30,000) prize for “new documentaries,” sponsored by a Beijing gallery.

Student councils can be found at all universities in China. They are strictly organized and purportedly defend students’ interests. But because they are ultimately supervised by school administrators, they are often criticized as toothless. 

Yang recalled his own experience during freshman orientation, when older students show newcomers the ropes of university life. The mentors had only just started their second year of university, but they already looked down on the new students. In his freshman year, Yang said he remembers an older student warning him that he would “meet a terrible end if [he] tried to make art” at the school.

During the project, Yang’s subjects sometimes gave him the cold shoulder. When he asked for permission from the council’s chairman to photograph a meeting, he was never given a straight answer. When he arrived, though, the door to the meeting room was locked. A friend of Yang’s who is a council member recorded the meeting, during which a professor called Yang a “troublemaker.” Yang took a photo of the closed door and named it “Unable to Enter.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: ‘Red Song Party,’ 2015, from the photo project ‘Society of University.’ Courtesy of Yang Wenbin)