CCU art students and faculty in China.
The act of taking a photograph in its most basic form (point the camera, press the button) isn’t something to be afraid of. But when you want your photographs to do justice to the subject, you are faced with a serious challenge. Especially when the subject is China.
The purpose of the Maymester course was to photograph the Eastern social landscape of Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai. I felt it was my duty to capture China’s essence, as if that were a plausible thing for one student with one camera to do in a three-week time span. The truth is I’d need a lifetime, and even then I’m not sure.
China is enormous. It’s confusing. It’s overwhelming. You can’t read the language, let alone speak it. You get lost in the millions of people. You find yourself gnawing down seahorses on sticks and scorpions that were alive 30 seconds before you ate them. And those are the foods you can identify. You unknowingly eat duck brain and jellyfish, and parts of other things you’d rather not investigate. If you are female, you’re either thirsty or regretting that you are thirsty, because to urinate you’re forced to use one of China’s infamous “squatters,” some of which look to be older than the USA. Urinating on your shoes is unavoidable, so you never wear the flip-flops you packed. But in the whirlwind of running around trying to photograph it all, you become aware of the significance of what you’re feeling and seeing. There was one day in particular that I was able to hone in on what I was photographing, and why.
Day 9 of 15. I remember standing on a pile of rubble and thinking to myself, this is the best day of my entire life, and then looking at my watch, seeing that it was only 2 o’clock and laughing because there was so much time left in the day. That morning, my fellow CCU students and I (13 altogether) had hopped on a bus with a group of students from four surrounding universities: Nanjing Normal University, Communication University of China, Nanjing Institute of Visual Art and the Nanjing College of Information Technology. They are the most genuine people I have ever met. Together we traveled to Jiangxinzhou, a town in the middle of the Yangtze River, to photograph the island.
“Old China” is being destroyed to make way for “New China,” which means Jiangxinzhou is currently under demolition. It used to be that people from Nanjing would make trips to Jiangxinzhou in order to “return to nature,” to enjoy the land and farm life the island had to offer. They would have a country meal, pick strawberries and various other fruits to take back home with them.
Today, every building, home and business on the island that is to be torn down is stamped with a Chinese character meaning: to be destroyed. Some homes are stamped with the phrase, “Leave early and you will be rewarded.” Our job was to document the state of the island before it is taken away from the Chinese people forever.
I didn’t quite understand what that meant until I stepped off the bus and was confronted with the reality of it all. Most of the place was rubble. Our cameras led us into, on top of, and under what used to be people’s homes. There were mountains of demolished buildings surrounded by the green of farmland, with the towering buildings of “New China” off in the distance. People were still living among the debris and despair, trying to lead normal lives. I found people fishing and farming, people lying on couches in half-demolished houses. I found teddy bears and dishes, broken toilets and articles of clothing strewn about homes reduced to piles of brick, cement and shattered glass. It was unreal. Too real. We worked together with our Chinese friends, each of us trying in our own way to make sense of our surroundings. Despite the communication barrier, several Chinese students came up to me while we were out shooting to see what I was photographing.
They held up their cameras. We shared.
There were times when I would stop what I was doing just to take in the moment. It was simultaneously invigorating and depressing. There was a debate about whether or not we were vultures, preying on the misfortunes of others. I didn’t feel that way. Despite the fact that I was climbing all over the ruins of people’s homes, sometimes venturing into houses that were still occupied, I was documenting something important. I was preserving a record of this day in Jiangxinzhou. My work would serve as a permanent record that could educate those unable to experience it firsthand.
Of course one lone photographer can’t capture the essence of China. However, a group of people working toward a clearly defined goal—as in five universities involved in the Island Project working to preserve its history—can accomplish something truly significant. Although we often doubt ourselves individually, as a unit I am proud of what we have accomplished. We were brave in our attempt at capturing China, and in return have made lifelong friends and are now a smidge closer to a better understanding of a different culture. While I’m not a hundred percent sure I accomplished all that I wanted, the fact is I did it, I lived it, and I would go back to do it all over again.