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Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Lu Guang: No right to ask questions

Image by Lu Guang - Fake sheep grazing on the polluted ground that poisoned the live sheep that are now dead sheep

It was good to see Magnum China reviewed in New York Times and then see this review of the book by Melanie Chapman on Photobook Journal and to see it on the Photobook Journal's Interesting Books for 2018 list.

Magnum China is a photographic overview of the 20th century in particular. As is noted in the Photobook Journal review, images of the more traumatic events of China's history are absent. There are stories on the human costs of migration, of the destruction of communities during the building of the Three Gorges Dam, of the nerve-racking journey North Koreans make across the country and to freedom. Tiananmen ends with Magnum photographers under lockdown in their hotel. And there are no images in the book of the violent convulsions of the Cultural Revolution (but you can look at Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier for that). There are no pictures of the suffering enduring during the Great Leap Forward, when a combination of incompetence, brutality and callousness resulted in the deaths of 40 million people people.

But then there are no pictures of the famine  anywhere (yet), there is a visual absence in history. You get many visual absences in history and they're never an accident. Between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. The pictures existed, they just didn't get published. There was a rationale for why they didn't get published. But that's a rationale first and foremost and there's also a political reason for why they didn't get published.

That's on one level, on another level entirely is the absence of pictures during what Frank Dikotter calls Mao's Great Famine. Censorship on this level is not just a matter of not publishing pictures, it's not even a matter of not allowing people to take picture, it's a matter of making sure people don't take pictures because they are so scared of the repercussions. It's about getting into their minds and forming false memories from the absence of images.

Taking a picture of a dead body that has been beaten, starved or frozen to death in 1959 is the act of a counter-revolutionary and subject to all the punishments that might entail. If you're a photographer, you don't want that image on your roll.

If you do have it on your roll, then you are making a statement and you might get killed for your troubles. We decry the idea of the heroic photographer, the photographer as witness because so often it's empty rhetoric filled with empty posturing, dumb machismo with a big lens.

But when real danger ensues from making pictures and those pictures tell a story that would otherwise remain untold, or unseen, then perhaps the witness idea is appropriate. So just as photographing a body in 1959 might render you to arrest, so a picture of pollution, or of detainment camps, or tortured bodies might do the same in 2018.

That certainly seems to be the case  Lu Guang, the Chinese photographer who disappeared in Xinjiang Province almost a month ago. It's not a good place to disappear in as Steven Butler states here.

"Chinese authorities must immediately account for Lu Guang's whereabouts, allow him to travel freely, and halt the harsh measures taken against journalists throughout the country," said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Lu's detention is a high-profile illustration of the cruel and arbitrary way that China detains journalists and other civilians in Xinjiang."

Lu's  work is sensitive and it's political in a way that benefits everyone, except the wilfully negligent, guilty and corrupt. It looks at  environmental degradation in China, at pollution, at AIDS Villages. It unravels the deeply cynical failures of factory owners, of businesses, the party, the state to deal with issues fundamental to human welfare. The picture above is one from Inner Mongolia, showing model sheep set out to pasture to replace those that had died from contaminated grassland.

Photography does matter here. In an Interview in the Financial Times, he highlighted how photography could change laws especially on the environment, but also the dangers of  photographing.

“The reality in China is you never know if you’re going to get into trouble because there are no written rules,” Lu says. “The only way to find out if something is permissible is by doing it.”

Anyway it was my birthday yesterday. One of my presents was Ma Jian's new book China Dream.

This is from the introduction.

'China's tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people's live: they have always sought to enter people's brains and remould them from inside. In fact, it was the Chinese Communist Party who coined the term 'brainwashing' ('xinao'). The China Dream is another beautiful lie concocted  by the state to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them wth happy thoughts. Decades of indoctrination, propaganda, violence and untruths have left the Chinese people so numb and confused, they have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction. They have swallowed the lie that the Party leaders are responsible for the country's economic miracle, rather than the vast army of low-paid workers. The rabid consumerism encouraged in the last thirty year and which, along with inflated nationalism, lies at the heart of the China Dream is turning the Chinese into overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but have no right to remember the past or ask questions. 

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