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Thursday, 17 January 2008

Li Zhensheng

Leading on from Parke, Sobol and Moriyama and photography that ties in with emotion, place and history is the work of Li Zhensheng. His work, published a few years back as Red-Color News Soldier returns us to China and photojournalism that is of a very specific time and place - 1960s China and the Cultural Revolution (you don't want to be there). It's incredible to think of what he photographed and how he photographed, and his patience in getting the images shown to the world, with the help of Bob Pledge at Contact Press, must have been neverending (that goes for Bob too I feel).

The story of Li is pretty well-known, but it's always worth repeating, especially in the year of the Beijing Olympics. His pictures are also revealing of present-day China, inasmuch as the Cultural Revolution seems to be sort of on-limits for discussion in China - as something that was definitely the responsibility of Chairman Mao and not the Chinese Communist Party or People's Liberation Army - in contrast to the Great Leap Forward for example, where famine and death on a truly immense scale occurred. With China it's much more interesting sometimes to think of what's not reported and why it's not being reported - the same goes for anywhere really.

The pictures also have a contemporary resonance, and Li's images capture a depth of Chinese history that projects way beyond the death of Mao and into the early developments of the Deng Xiao Ping years. Nowhere is this more true than in his images of Rhen Zhongyi undergoing one of several thousand public humiliations (in the dunce's hat in the top picture) - a CCP official who would later become the architect of economic development in Guangzhou - a real capitalist roader in other words.

I interviewed Li a few years ago for a story for the Far Eastern Economic Review/Aperture. Here's the Feer version.

Bringing the Revolution Home

When Li Zhensheng, now 63, began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, his job was simple - to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China’s most northerly province.

Then came the Cultural Revolution. Purges of “class enemies” and “capitalist roaders”, the overthrow of “counter-revolutionary” communist party leaders and internecine fighting between rival groups of Red Guards claimed millions of lives and brought the People’s Republic to the brink of collapse.

There to record it all was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of incredible images that constitutes arguably the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.

Continue reading here

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