China Back Mania
There was once a time when any photo taken in China was high value. That was decades ago, when the documentation of life here was strictly limited and visitors were few and far between. The last twenty years changed all that, of course, and now, through the combined efforts of security agents, journalists, satellites, artists, and uncountable camera and cell phone wielding amateurs like me, the once shadowy PRC is one of the most extensively recorded
places on earth.
For photographers, this golden age of voluntary and involuntary surveillance presents problems: Now that pure documentation is declining in value, how does one show China in less objective terms? Now that the backdrop is familiar, how does a photographer present a place not as simply a habitat for humans but as a showcase for their humanity?
I started shooting portraits from behind almost immediately after moving to China. Initially I wasn’t so interested in backs, but I found that whenever I tried to take a photo of someone’s front, the presence of my camera and/or blue eyes and orange hair drew attention and deformed the moment. So I adopted a less conspicuous, slightly creepier technique, sneaking up behind the subjects, capturing them before they noticed me. As I took more and more back photos, I noticed that they contain something frontal images don’t – space for imagination. By minimizing the subject’s personality, they encourage the viewer to envision the subject’s experience. These are some of the my favorites from the “I got your back” series. Through them I’ve tried to background detail and foreground emotion, to capture China not as it looks, but as it feels (to me at least).
Originally published in Urban China 29 (July 2008)
China Scar Tissue
It requires very little time in a Chinese city to fall in love with wreckage. It is omnipresent and very powerful, the physical manifestation of the ambition and recklessness that drive the new (old) superpower. Within days of moving to Beijing in 2007, I began taking photos of urban scarring. It started out with visiting destruction sites in my neighborhood, but soon mushroomed into a sort of visual addiction that made it very difficult for me to walk the streets of the city or arrive anywhere on schedule. At the time, the city was in the throes of its pre-Olympian makeover and the whole place seemed to be either going up or falling down. I guess I developed an aesthetic fetish in response to my own discomfort with the brutality of the moment: the camera provided a kind of buffer between what I was seeing and the massive urban trauma that it represented.
Things are more orderly in Beijing these days. The city spruced itself up for the big show and post-Olympic construction – though plentiful – seems better controlled. Many of the most beautiful cases of scarring were either painted over or cleared away before the Games began. Two years later, these band-aids are becoming filthy and frayed and it appears that disfigured Beijing may be resurfacing. I’m not proud to admit that I’m pleased by this.
New York Money Problems
Liquidity freeze frames: September 29 2008, 4:30-5:00 PM EST
I was sitting at my friend’s house watching TV when it became clear that the bailout wasn’t gonna go through and no one seemed to have any idea what that meant or what would happen. So since it was, according to everybody on TV, a bailout for Wall Street and I happen to be in New York now, I decided to head down to the financial district and check out the scene. As it turns out, the scene was weird. There were camera crews everywhere of course and, accordingly, there were also lots of zealots representing various ideologies (socialism, conservative Islam, free market fundamentalism, etc.) shouting I-told-you-so’s to anyone who’d listen. The traders were post-traumatic/pre-alcoholic. And on top of it, there were scores of mostly European tourists who were taking the whole scene in with a sort of giddy glibness.
Street Corner New Orleans
“When Umberto Eco visited New Orleans, he saw ‘one of the few places that American civilization had not remade, flattened, replaced.’ Where most cities are functional and orderly, New Orleans is lyrical. Just read the street signs: there’s the counterflow of Piety and Desire, parallel streets in opposite directions. Humanity intersects with both Arts and Music. Race meets Religious not far from the river. It’s a place where the imagination can float, too.”
– Joshua Ellison, “Through the Water.” Habitus No. 4 (Fall/Winter 2008)