Symbolism

Back to the Barbican and the exhibition “Everything was changing photography of the 60s and 70s.

I don’t suppose for a moment that Li Zhensheng anticipated he would end up in Harbin. the capital of the northernmost province in China.The temperature in summer may rise to a sultry 25 oC or so, but in the winter -40 oC isn’t uncommon – it’s not on most tourist itineraries – a quote from the “China Travel Guide” “Harbin is now a popular destination for both domestic and international travelers, with exotic flavor. It has so much tourism resources to show the world. St. Orthodox Church, Ice & Snow World and Central Street are always on the top list of every traveler to Harbin.” Tempting isn’t it?

Zhensheng’s pictures at the exhibition were of two types, reportage (he was a news photographer for the local newspaper) and self portraits. And whilst self-portraits can be very symbolic it is his journalistic work that concerns me here. This link takes the viewer to his web-site (english version) but not to his home page. Scrolling to the right one encounters a photograph of an execution, also shown here (these executionees would almost certainly have had to pay for the bullet that ended their life) :

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

copyright Li Zhensheng

I was reminded of a similar set of photographs taken three decades earlier from a more hospitable (at least in climate terms) part of the country, that of the old capital Nanking (Nanjing). It has been a while since I read Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking”, regarding the Japanese invasion and how she includes, amongst the terrifying text, some pictures, documents, of the atrocities metered out by the invading forces. The photographs in her book come from various sources and have, of course, been contested by revisionists and some historians. It is perhaps true that some doctoring of the photographic evidence has taken place – but there is no denying the overall tenet of her story.

So what of Zhensheng’s work? I am interested, because I have been to China many times, to Harbin and Nanjing amongst other cities – I hosted a conference in the old capital a few years ago and spent some time in the museum dedicated to the events Chang relates in her book. I don’t think Zhensheng has doctored his images – I think the photographs on display at the Barbican tell of a story that happened, that China is still coming to terms with; Zhensheng is still alive – 68 I think – and has a good tale to tell about his exploits as a graduate of film school who subsequently worked as a photo journalist. His stitched panoramas (in itself symbolic of scale) of the huge political rallies of the 60’s symbolising both the terror of the PLA – not turning up to these weekly events would have been a crime in itself – and the scale of the enterprise that Mao had decided upon with the cultural revolution; making it a movement and momentum that would have been difficult to have been resisted, maybe impossible. On another photograph the sign the Buddhist monks were told to hold for their “liberators” saying that they were “full of dog farts”. Symbology everywhere.

I was particularly struck by one of the self-portraits, that of Zhensheng laying on his bed reading Mao’s little red book, symbolising the adherence to the code, but also because I remember reading it myself, and probably in bed.