China, Captured: Witnessing History With Liu Heung Shing
This article is the first in a series about some of China’s most renowned photographers.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Liu Heung Shing sits back and muses on the notion of objectivity. In China, he says, there are two ways to approach the subject. “Do you look at the Chinese people as individuals?” he asks. “Or do you have more overarch[ing] ideas of where China has come from … and where China is going?”
In total, Liu spent around three decades covering China — and a number of other countries — for American media outlets like Time and the Associated Press (AP). For him, a great photograph responds to both of the above questions, showing how individual experiences stack up against the bigger story and history of China.
Born in Hong Kong in 1951, Liu spent his early childhood in the southern Chinese province of Fujian. He moved back to Hong Kong in 1961 and later migrated to the United States for college, where he studied political science and journalism. Liu’s first trip back to China was to shoot on-the-ground reactions to the funeral of Mao Zedong for Time in 1976. Not long afterward, he became Time’s first contract photographer in Beijing since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.
Over the next three decades, Liu built an illustrious career that developed in tandem with China’s breakneck modernization. He witnessed how reform and opening up transformed the country from a largely collectivist society to a more individualistic one. From a cash-strapped bride in 1980s Beijing with only enough money to rent a veil for her wedding photo to two women in a convertible gliding through Shanghai’s financial district in 2010, Liu’s photographs tirelessly chronicled China’s transition.
Liu’s perspective on China is quite different from both his Western and Chinese counterparts. To both sides, he says: “No, China is not what you think.”
While Westerners tend to pursue an idealistic and exotic China — the works of Marc Riboud and Henri Cartier-Bresson come to mind — Liu says that many mainland-educated photographers tend to view art in proscriptive, formulaic ways, as if there’s a recipe for great pictures. “We all know photography is as subjective as it is objective,” Liu said. “Cameras record, but where you focus your gaze is something very, very subjective.”
Thanks to his “one-thirds Chinese mainland, one-third British in Hong Kong, and one-third American” background, Liu is able to contextualize the changes in Chinese society in subtle, varied, yet accessible ways. Visualizing political and economic policies has always presented a challenge for photographers, but Liu shows how they penetrate the daily lives of ordinary people. One picture captures a young roller-skater soaring past the statue of Mao at a university campus in Northeatern city of Dalian in 1981. In another, three young men are seen in identical army-style uniforms, wearing bold, futuristic-looking sunglasses popular in the ’80s. In a picture shot inside the Forbidden City, a man in a khaki winter coat touts an opened bottle of Coca-Cola, a newly imported product from the West that signified a coming era of free-market globalization.
These familiar scenes resonate with many Chinese viewers. But even Western audiences, who might not pick up on the symbolism, can still feel the sense of intimacy in his images. “They see that I get quite close to the people,” Liu says.
Liu’s long career as a foreign correspondent was not limited to China. After working in AP’s Beijing and Los Angeles bureaus, he served as the chief photographer for South Asia. Later, he moved to Moscow and witnessed the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union, an assignment that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
But these titles and honors did not prevent Liu from feeling overstretched and emotionally drained by the countless conflicts and disasters he’d seen, a fatigue that eventually convinced him to leave AP. “Most people didn’t realize how much war I have seen,” Liu says. “You do not suffer fatigue if you don’t apply your heart and mind to your story. It’s easy to say [photographers] are mechanical, we are professional, we [are] a piece of steel — no, we are not, we are human beings.”
Liu now resides in Shanghai, where he spends most of his time editing books on Chinese photography and running an art museum, the Shanghai Center of Photography, which he founded in 2015. His goal: to help start new conversations about photography and inspire artists and photographers alike to be more creative in telling the China story.
Additional reporting: Ming Ye; Editors: Ming Ye and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A man brandishes a bottle of Coca-Cola inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, 1981. Courtesy of Liu Heung Shing)