ALL ARTS Documentary Selects


Snapshots: China - The Pursuit of the Self

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 08, 2021 | 0:26:04


[ Car horn honking ]


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.



[ Upbeat music playing over speakers ]

Hoo, hah.


[ Computer dings ]

Zhipeng: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Woman: [ Laughs ]


[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: For a long time, I had a recurring dream.

I was lying on my bed,

and suddenly, I was flying, like on a magic carpet.

I'd go out the window

and fly over the roads, the forests,

the skyscrapers, the crowds,

until I arrived over a huge field near a lake.

It was a really pleasant dream.

It gave me a huge amount of pleasure.

I always wanted to keep on

walking around without being disturbed,

and to share what I experienced, I needed a camera.

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

[ Laughing ]


Narrator: Strange times,

even when paradise is privatized.

Is the communist ideal of sharing everything

no longer the dream of young Chinese people?

Yet, those who grew up in the 1980s

remember a community lifestyle

in which individuality stayed in the background

to benefit the collective,

just as things were in the days of Confucius.

But they particularly remember a joyous time

when great economic reforms stretched the borders

of possible leisure and pleasure.

Those were the days of only one child --

a little emperor, the center of attention.

But while growing up, people changed, consumed,

went on vacations and business trips,

and money enabled people to completely reapprehend

that which previous decades had repressed.

That was the China of the '90s --

permissive and corrupt through and through.

In the capital, some only listen to jazz.

Others, only to rock.

Fashions change.

People mix or tempt fate.

It's an age of experiences, of performance art,

and a more and more personal rebellion.


Society as a whole jumped on the bandwagon

at the dawning of the new millennium

with the Internet revolution.

Thanks to this new tool,

individuals could start forging their own opinions

and expressing themselves.

But they also faced themselves alone

in an exponential urban space

that both excites and disorientates.

While the modernization of China is all the rage,

youngsters are frenetically connecting to the virtual world

and take on the mantle of their favorite manga characters.

The photographers in this episode were born here,

in cities that grew faster than they did.

They have all had dreams and nightmares

which have inspired their work,

and they all seriously question

whether one can be happy in a disenchanted age.

Who better to tell us about it

than the most sensitive of these children?

[ Both speaking foreign language ]

[ Camera shutter clicks ]

[ Distant chatter ]

Tao: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: We both graduated in 2000.

Then, he went off to study in Britain until 2004.

We were often in touch on Internet,

chatting about photographic equipment.

I'd send him photos saying, "Take a look at this!"

And we'd discuss it.

Then he'd send me photos of London.

"Check this out."

I'd reply, "Is that what London looks like?"

[ Laughs ]

I know every inch of London he discovered.

I did the same. I showed him Shanghai.

It made him want to come home.

It's his hometown, after all.

[ Laughs ]


And then, in 2004, we started working together.

[ Sighs ]

[ Cup clinks ]

Narrator: In choosing their hometown -- Shanghai --

as their photographic playground

and as a reflection of their own youth,

the duo, Birdhead, have never stopped shooting.


They had to capture the chaos of a city

thrust into consumer society.

After all, they were 20-somethings

in a Chinese metropolis looking for a way ahead.



[ Laughing ]

[ Zipper zips ]

[ Train wheels clacking ]

[ Brakes squeal ]

[ Stirring music playing over speakers ]

Man: [ Singing in foreign language ]



Tao: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Maybe we're just idealists.

In fact, we're trying to find out who we are.


Which presupposes the question,

"What is the world?"

[ Singing continues ]

However, if we can work out who we are,

the world can just keep on turning.

But that's pretty idealistic.

[ Singing continues ]


We both grew up here.

This park was designed

for neighborhood people to come and relax,

soak up the sun, take it easy, and kill time.

When I was a kid, I lived in that apartment block.

It hasn't changed. It just got older.

After 20 years, it sure has aged.

[ Whip cracks ]

[ Whip cracks ]

[ Whip cracking ]

[ Indistinct chatter ]

[ Distant singing continues ]


We don't go looking for special things to photograph.

No way.

That's probably why

we would never take war or riot photos.

We photograph things from daily life.

For example, that laundry hanging on the line.

There's a handkerchief attached with two bamboo pegs

hanging on a wire covered with blue plastic.

The handkerchief is wafting in the wind.

I'd photograph that for sure.

[ Distant music continues ]

[ Birds chirping ]

[ Indistinct chatter ]



Interpreter: Compared to the time in the Cultural Revolution,

things are less strict, right?

Interpreter #2: Yeah, we're lucky.

We were born into a period that's a lot less oppressive.

Or, at least...

it's a different type of oppression.

Let's put it this way...

a pizza on a plate.

You cut the pizza into six portions.

One represents sex and violence.

The next, feelings and tenderness.

The next, the fight for survival.

The next, thought.

We're not allowed to eat the sex and violence portion,

so we leave it alone,

but we still have five portions to eat,

so we can express ourselves.

Narrator: For the past 10 years,

Birdhead have been totting up photos of Shanghai.

Their melancholic vision of this fast-forward fracas

has found its place in Chinese contemporary art.

Their thousands of photos regularly travel the world,

from MoMA in New York to the Shanghai Biennale.



[ All speaking foreign language ]

Weiyu: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: Little by little, you grow up and mature.

Now we want to express

our personal feelings through nature.

Tao: Once you reach a certain age,

you realize people from back then

and from today are the same.

People are confronted with death, love,

ancestors, history,

and they must also work out their own future.

But it's like I said earlier.

It all originates in how you see yourself.

We basically need mirrors.


Narrator: In the first decade of the 2000s,

Chinese youngsters deal with reality

by dreaming day and night of leaving.

Their elders flew a little too close to the sun

on Tiananmen Square,

and the fledglings are now finding it hard to fly.

For them, the camera is a mirror

which tells them they are truly here,

feet firmly on the ground.

It helps them in their interior travels

and gently lands them in an existence

where intimacy no longer needs to be hidden.

On the contrary, it even becomes a statement.

[ Camera whirrs ]

[ Peppy music playing over radio ]

[ Speaking foreign language ]

[ Music continues ]


[ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I started doing this in 2004.

A friend left a message on my blog

asking if I could photograph her.

I said yes.

The second time we met,

I did a series of photos with her.

It was that series that led me

into doing the kind of photography I do now.

I thought, "Why not photograph friends and acquaintances

to develop a real work method?"

That was the easiest way to go about it.

Plus, it meant I could take the photos that I wanted.

So I posted some messages on Internet, saying,

"If you're interested, I can photograph you."

Then, two weeks ago, on Weibo,

I offered to photograph gay couples.

I wondered how many people might be interested.

Well, actually, quite a lot.

After two weeks, just over 50 couples

said they'd like to be photographed.

I guess most people want to keep

a kind of souvenir in images

of something which is different to their daily lives --

of them in situations they've never been in before.

Maybe they also find in my photos

things they aspire to...

things they'd be incapable of attaining

if they took the photos themselves.

They're looking for a form of freedom,

a different kind of visual sensation.

I think a lot of people come to me with this in mind.

[ All speaking foreign language ]

[ Plastic film tearing ]

Zhipeng: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I see photography

as a witness of my own personal development.

My pictures are a kind of retranscription

of my path to maturity.

[ Distant banging ] [ Indistinct chatter ]

"Photography gives you more solid memories,

allows you to see through the light of emotions

to completely understand people and objects

in a precise moment in time.

Thus, we travel to remember things better,

and it's through photos that memories exist."


Narrator: 223 is tattooed with several coded passwords.

He took the name of the official number

of the cop in Wong Kar-wai's cult movie "Chungking Express,"

making the enigma of self a premise.

This spotlighting of the self has won over young men and women

who also want to stand out from the crowd,

assert themselves, and exist more intensely.


Zhe Chen left her adoptive California,

stopped off in Beijing -- her hometown --

then traveled to Yunnan Province in southwestern China.

She's an intrepid, yet fragile young woman,

like many a true traveler,

and she's also a photographer

who crossed the ocean early in life

in order to distance herself

and turn her private pain into a healing process.



Chen: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: I'd call it a "Dear Diary" series.

When I took these photos,

I didn't do so as a photographer.

It was more of an experiment on the self.

I'd been having certain feelings

and found myself in a particular state of mind.

It was this state that drove me to self-harming my body.

Back then, I always had a camera at hand,

so I'd take photos and save them on my computer,

but forgetting where.

Much later, in 2010,

I realized I had a huge number of photos

and that I could turn them into a series to tell a story,

because there was a potentially interesting link between them.


Narrator: This first series, entitled "The Bearable,"

was born in America, far from home.

Using a foreign language

and through continued exchanges

between her teacher and his students,

words began to come more easily,

taking her out of her silent anonymity

and unleashing not only words, but also pictures.

She had become a photographer,

her first work exploring the boundaries of the bearable

to keep them at distance and to cross them no more.


Interpreter: My first series was like a mirror.

I was looking at myself.

The second was a window.

I looked through it outside towards others.


[ Engine rumbling ]


A lot of my preparation work is done on Internet,

on forums, social media, and in online communities.

At first, I didn't join communities

with the idea of taking photos.

I already belonged to some.

And within these groups,

people swapped advice and helped each other out.

They also talked of their state of mind.

Then, I started sending them invitation messages.

I'd start by introducing myself

and explaining what I was doing.

Then, I'd talk of the psychological incidents

of the previous few years

linked to the injuries I'd inflicted on myself.

And, if it was important,

I'd explain what I'd experienced

and what I thought of it now.

At the end of this first paragraph,

I'd include a link to my first series,

"The Bearable."

That way, people could check out the photos

from my period of self-harming.

In the second paragraph,

I talk about how I saw my new series,

and I'd finish off by asking if they'd agree to get to know me

and let me into their life.


Narrator: With this new series,

Zhe Chen sought to put faces

to what she affectionately calls a community of vulnerability,

thus calling into question the fixed image society has

of a group of people, each with his or her own story.


Explosive work in a country where traditional social order

still requires sons to obey their fathers

as subjects did their emperor,

and where mind control therefore begins

inside the family unit.




Interpreter: This generation had very early contact

with the West.

Like Zhe Chen, who studied there,

and therefore has a Western background.

Their visual experiences

and their experiences of life and society

have moved on a lot compared to those

of the previous generation.

It's even possible that there has been

a complete split between them.

Chinese conservatism,

which is a direct product of traditional culture,

seems to be more and more broken apart.

And in my opinion,

this has led to the breaking of taboos.

[ Both speaking foreign language ]

[ Laughs ]

[ Laughs ]

Chen: [ Speaking foreign language ]

In China, people have typically Asian reactions.

Here, everyone thinks that your skin,

your eyes, and your body come from your parents.

That means your whole body is a gift from them.

So, mistreating your body -- harming it --

is tantamount to being ungrateful towards your parents,

and this is considered a lack of filial respect.

In ancient times,

that was the worst thing you could possibly do.

This tradition lives on in Chinese minds.

They believe you have no right to self-harm your body.

That's why, when the series was exhibited,

a lot of people found it hard to accept.

They questioned how someone could treat their own body

in such a way.



Meng: [ Speaking foreign language ]

Interpreter: In photography, since the year 2000,

we're seeing more and more personal forms of expression.

In my mind, there's a clear link

between the time we're living in now

and the internal changes Chinese people are undergoing.

With this way of expressing things

in the first person, youngsters are seeking

to establish links with the world, with society.

That's how I see things.

Some may think that this type of self-expression

traps youngsters in a kind of narcissism

and exacerbated individualism

which lacks an objective criticism and sociability,

but I think, on the contrary,

that it's the way youngsters have found to enter into contact

with society and the world.

Overall, this generation doesn't ask too many questions

about what the previous generation did.

I think that's positive.

They're progressing in their own way

and at their own pace.


Narrator: Maybe China's a bit like Zhe Chen --

it's still a young, fragile country, in a way.

California dreamin',

trying to understand itself and free itself.

It's now up to the young generation

to forge an identity of its own in which the individual

will have an increasingly bigger place.


Of course, there will always be paths

to make people believe "life might lie elsewhere,"

as Milan Kundera wrote in a novel

that remains renowned in China.


And before getting started and reinventing everything --

reshaping the world in front of a screen or in a karaoke --

Chinese youngsters are dreaming and having fun like any others.






  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv