ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Snapshots: China - Social Criticism

This series charts the work of photographers in China, India and Russia who explore their countries through their lenses. Because of the keen observation that photography requires, the artists are perceptive witnesses of the societies they inhabit.

AIRED: April 22, 2021 | 0:26:29



Narrator: The upheaval that is occurring in China

is unprecedented in the history of humanity.

How can this unheard of disruption best be portrayed,

and where should we begin?

To understand the crucial period

that China is currently going through,

these films let photographers speak,

for they alone get up close and capture

those decisive moments of mutation that are too sudden

and devastating for the naked eye to grasp.

Their images create both a rampart against oblivion

and a window onto a world in transformation.

Thanks to them, awareness is raised,

and a Chinese way of seeing begins to take shape.



Interpreter: There's one distinctive feature about China.

When you have a problem, rather than try to solve it,

often the best thing to do is leave.

This is Shanxi province.

One-eighth of the land has been affected by coal mining.

In this village, especially after 2008,

cracks started appearing in the walls of the houses

due to mining going on down below.

And in a lot of places, the authorities even refused

to pay for the damages caused.

[ Dog barking ]

[ Camera shutter clicking ]

[ Camera beeping, shutter clicking ]

That's how things are in China --

corruption at every level.

But it was already like that in the old days.

The man at the top would release 1,000 ounces

of gold to build a dike.

By the time the money reached the builders,

there were only 100 ounces left.

The amount diminished at each level.

Narrator: It hasn't been long since Chinese photographers

began capturing reality as a testimony

to their country's various upheavals.

That was 30 years ago.

A handful of these bold men

and women believed the truth could be told

with images freed from the constraints of censure.

By embarking on this new quest for freedom and independence,

photographers have lifted the veil on the ills of a people

battling with themselves,

and have thus opened a very real Pandora's box.

What are China's demons?

Being too idealistic?

Too materialistic?

Believing that new freedoms won in the 1980s

would open the door to brighter years ahead?

April '89 saw the death of leader Hu Yaobang.

He who had supported the pro-democracy movement

took the dreams of an entire generation

with him to the grave.

And in spite of Tiananmen Square,

the economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping

were resumed and even accelerated.

The China of the past 30 years has swung between ideals

and a productivity that is almost beyond limits.

But isn't there an old Chinese proverb,

"Man will conquer the sky?"

And as the '90s dawned,

it was under a new sky that the middle empire

took its revenge on centuries of seclusion.

Entire neighborhoods razed, brand-new cities.

The pace quickened to keep up

with the imperative modernization

of a country desperately wishing for an economic miracle.

Today, the world's second superpower

is starting to become aware of its own weight,

and of the price that comes with this hyper growth.

All the backstage images are now accessible with one click.

In a single generation,

the Chinese have gone from absolute mind control

to representations of reality

that are more and more numerous and more and more free.

This explosive, anarchic, and implacable reality

is an obligation for Chinese photographers,

photographers of a different kind

who are also historians, activists, and philosophers.

Interpreter: These are all 1988 and 1989 editions

of theShekou News.

That's when I came to the town

and started working at the newspaper.

I took all these photos.

Back then, the paper was like a mirror of the community.

We could publish freely. When you opened it,

you came across massive headlines like this --

"The market economy calls for democracy."

"Time to reflect on press reforms."

Actually, society back then allowed us

to openly discuss problems

because they were problems that affected everyone.

Shekou used to be a fishing village.

In 1983, the China Merchant's Bureau

turned it into an export zone.

It was modeled after Hong Kong.

The people found the notion quite attractive,

not only because they could earn more money,

but because new approaches were being tried out

on a social level with justice.

There was more transparency.

Things were done more openly.

So Shekou became thought of as a laboratory of reforms

and openness.




The people who moved here are all brothers.

Most of the first batch, derived from Shenzhen

and Shekou, settled in this neighborhood.

When I got here in 1988, I lived up there.

I had three roommates.

At first, it was mostly electronics companies

and other factories that needed a lot of labor.

For example, Sanyo for electronics,

China Silk for textiles,

Kaita for toys.

Only women worked on the production lines.

[ Warbling ]

[ Laughter ]

Interpreter: For over three generations and beyond,

all Chinese people were farmers,

and that was the case for my family.

So the Chinese can't cut themselves off

from farming people.

It's a reality and it's a fact.

My series on the village of Liukeng retraces the decline

of traditional Chinese agriculture.

[ Man singing in native language ]

In fact, I understand these farming villages,

one, because of my origins, my own past life,

and two, I never stop thinking about it.

I was endlessly photographing the city,

and one day I thought, "What about the villages?

What's going on out there?"

The main reason these villagers are so desperate

to migrate to the cities, often costing them their lives,

is because the gap between rich and poor is so huge,

and even widening.

Because so many people out in the villages

live below the poverty line,

they can't lead a normal life in their home village.

Plus, they don't own the land.

None of the land is privately owned.

It belongs to the nation, but what is the nation?

It's a very gray area. What is the nation?

The state doesn't represent the nation.

It's different than the nation.

But the reality is that the state controls the land,

fixes the sale price,

and decides what to build on it.

We have our home in a material sense,

but there's also another home, a spiritual home,

which I think is more important.

The Chinese have lost this spiritual home.

The civilization we built over hundreds of years,

thousands of years has been demolished

in a matter of decades.

And it has made us all strangers to each other.

Narrator: For 30 years, Zhang Xinmin

has been documenting the decline of farming communities

and their exodus to the cities.

In September 2012,

the new Museum of Migrant Workers opened in Guangdong

with an inaugural exhibition by peasant photographer

Zhang Xinmin.

This way, a knowledge of history is passed on,

especially to the younger generations,

to make them aware of their origins.

Zhang hopes that capturing social rupture in pictures

will give a critical eye to a population

that was, for a long time, denied one.


For other photographers, the violence of daily life

produces many extreme situations that they must cover

one by one rapidly and over a vast territory.

Interpreter: As a press photographer,

the most important thing I can do is leave a trace.

While working, I meet a lot of peasants.

I see how impoverished they are and what threats they face.

That makes me want to publish my photos

to make people aware of this.

First I try to publish in the national press

to see if that will bring about solving the problem.

But if that doesn't work,

I approach the international press or enter competitions.

That's how we've always gone about things.




Narrator: Lu Guang is regularly awarded prizes.

In 2003, he won first prize in the Contemporary Issues category

in the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year

for his work on villages inflicted with AIDS.

Then in 2009, that of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund

for his work on pollution.

Having himself started out as a worker in a textiles factory,

he denounced the extreme seriousness

of environmental problems in China,

mostly due to pollution caused by the clothing industry.

[ Cellphone rings ]

[ Speaks native language ]

Interpreter: This must have been October 2001.

It was later than September, in any case.

I'd seen a short report on rampant HIV infection

in Henan province.

An 8-year-old child with AIDS

had gone to Beijing for treatment.

This news was really important to me.

I managed to track down the child,

and he told me he had contracted the illness in 1993

after selling his blood,

and the situation in Henan

was still spiraling out of control.

So off I went.

When I visited the homes of families stricken with AIDS,

I was really shaken up.

The ill were all laid out, groaning,

some of them crying out, "Please help me, help me."

It was really, really tough.

Whenever I was leaving,

old men would fling themselves at my feet,

grab hold of my legs and say, "Can you save my son?

Can you save my daughter-in-law?"

Begging just like that.

The whole village looked like a war zone field hospital.

That day, I visited the homes one by one.

I didn't get back to my inn until after nightfall.

I was so tired.

I wanted to sleep, but my head was filled with the groans

and the screams of the suffering.

It was totally impossible to sleep.

After three hours, I called a photographer friend.

I told him that in the 20 years I'd been taking photos,

I'd never seen anything so dreadful before.

I told him how shaken I was and how bad I felt.

I said I had decided to put all my energy

into this subject to try to force the government

to intervene more quickly.

and to come and help these people

and to solve the problem.



When I work on a subject,

it's always aimed at making the authorities aware,

like with my work on the pollution of the environment.

It's a very serious issue,

but the trouble in China is everybody lies.

You lie to your superiors. You lie to your subordinates.

People are always trying to hide the truth.

Consequently, when the central power

holds an inquiry, they don't see anything.

They are unable to see what a situation's really like.

However, a photographer who goes alone to a place in secret

does see the true state of things.

So I use my photos to record the facts

and inform the central government of them

so that they become aware and then solve the problem.

In China, this approach to photography is totally possible.

We're free to do that with no difficulties at all.

Narrator: Half war reporter, half highwayman,

Lu Guang regularly goes off to cover

the most sensitive subjects.

Though recognized abroad, he doesn't have many fans at home.

The harsh nature of his pictures shock some

and his freedom disturbs others,

bearing in mind that the Chinese media

has only recently begun to open up.

Lu Guang has revealed issues

that no one else would dare to touch

by taking risks, thanks to his ability

to negotiate tricky ground.

But for some photographers battling with a reality

they find shocking, strategy is incompatible with freedom.

Liu Zheng has always preferred to withdraw from the world

to find the best way of portraying it.


[ Horn honking ]



Interpreter: I have a scientific background.

I studied optical engineering.

My specialty was designing and making cameras,

but I also took an option in photography.

After graduating,

I joined a state newspaper as a reporter.

That's what I really wanted to do.

But in a system where the state controls everything,

I had no freedom at all.

There were huge restrictions. That's why in 1995,

I decided I needed to do something outside of my work

as a reporter.

I bought a camera and some rolls of film.

My idea was simple.

China was going through an exceptional period.

So I thought it was interesting to see

what people thought about it,

how they lived and got by day by day in their monotonous,

humdrum lives.

I wanted to photograph people from all walks of life

living in all kinds of conditions.

I started thinking about a title for the work,

and I decided to call it "The Chinese."



In the last phase of my work in the series,

"The Chinese," I set out to look for things

all these people might have in common

in the genes that reside in Chinese blood.

I started feeling more and more strongly that we were living

in an increasingly suffocating environment.

It was as if each individual was cocooned

in an atmosphere of decomposition

from which it was very difficult to escape.

Liu Zheng began photographing the Chinese in 1995,

and painted portraits of those who weren't part of

official history.

By trying to capture the innermost depths

of Chinese souls,

he revealed darkness, anxiety, and fragility,

which would forever trouble his camera lens.

But why only his?

Still today, his series remains

a landmark in the history of Chinese photography

as a work touching on the unsayable

with an acuity so strong

that it may have anesthetized his contemporaries,

as if from that moment on, there was nothing left to say.




[ Barks ]

[ Barking ]

Interpreter: The way I see it, there's a problem in the way

China's reforming and in the way we're going about it.

But people have gotten used to it

and resigned themselves to it.

The wheels of history keep on turning

and crushing everything in their path.

In order to produce, China is destroying many things,

and an immeasurable amount of energy is being consumed.

The history of China resembles in every way

the description by the writer Lu Xun.

He said China devours people and sheds blood.

Our history is a bloodbath,

but our history books never mention that.


Today, everyone is running after material goods

and the most trivial of lives.

They're abandoning themselves and abandoning nature.

But is it possible to detach yourself from everything?

Based on what I think I know, Chinese culture has both

a kind of respectful fear of nature

and a certain detachment from reality.

The Chinese have always felt the desire for detachment

since the dawn of time.

As Confucius once said of Lao Tzu,

"He gives the impression of sitting on a cloud.

I have no idea what he is thinking."

You can find this dimension in ancient books.

Back then, philosophy represented,

in some way, a complete system.

Back then, I would have been proud to be Chinese.

Narrator: And there we have it.

Being able to say "I'm Chinese"

and embracing one's heritage

in order to build a future to match its size.

Will the images of today make individuals more of a group?

Now civil society is being emancipated in China.

With Internet and the increasingly active role

of NGOs, society is becoming informed, exchanging ideas,

sometimes even making light

of a still deficient freedom of expression.

Chinese photographers are rising to this challenge

to go beyond political censure and the laws of the market

and to finally give a face to a society

eaten away by corruption and desperate for justice.





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