Over several years Cai Dongdong (Tianshu, Gansu, China, 1978) has collected nearly 600,000 images. An extensive collection of vernacular photography from which comes the careful and subtle editing that the photographer has carried out alone, for six years, to shape a beautiful visual poem, History of Life, which he completed by adding several of his own works. Published by the publisher Imageless, his 415 images “carry with them the memories of the people of China”, and the author warns that “memory is the only way to build a life”.
The book begins with an image of the entrance to a dark and enigmatic cave. The exit from the cave will put an end to the publication followed by the image of a female silhouette that is projected like a shadow on a misty horizon. In the middle, a whole series of photographs make up a story that takes us into the customs and experiences of anonymous protagonists who are presented without data or captions. This disposition inevitably brings up the comparison established between the photographic medium and Plato’s myth of the cave raised by Susan Sontag in one of the essays that make up her famous treatise. About photography. Chained within our own cavern, the shadows that we see reflected on the wall make up what we consider to be the real world, while they could be just an appearance. Hence, this compilation of images is nothing more than the personal vision of the author of the book on the history of his country. “The construction of memory and history is never complete nor is it fair, since they are only perceptions that do not stop reflecting certain options,” Dongdong writes. A personal interpretation that acquires a more universal meaning through the historical contextualization that the author makes use of.
PHOTO GALLERY: Stories from China
Divided into three parts, the book covers the passing of the 20th century in China; from the fall of the feudal imperial regime and the establishment of the Republic until the 1990s, through the years of the civil war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao and the economic reopening; probably the most tumultuous years in the country’s history Asian. Although at first the author wanted to shape the publication through pure visual logic, as he progressed through the slow and laborious editing process he realized that “the images could not be separated from their history”. Thus, Dongdong shows us a story parallel to the official story, written through the photographic footprint left behind by ordinary people. An intimate story, full of dreams and unfulfilled promises, of idyllic landscapes and innocent games and gestures, where repression and indoctrination, hunger, scarcity, fear, acceptance and pain resonate secretly. “The political climate, in fact, can change people mentally and spiritually”, assured the photographer to The New York Times, during the presentation of several of his ‘photo-sculptures’ – also made with archival images – at Paris Photo 2018. Dongdong was enlisted in the People’s Liberation Army for a few years. It was there that he acquired his initial training within the photographic medium as a portraitist before going on to establish his study in Beijing. “In some respects nothing has changed since distant times,” says the author, whose works have been censored twice.
Thus the birth and growth of three generations influenced by their ideology and circumstances of a country form the main theme of this book that reminds us that it is not only the great people who make history, but also the common man.
We are all stories
“When we die we become stories; and every time someone tells one of these stories, it is as if we are still present for them. At the end of the day we are all stories ”. This is how the latest work by Kurt Tong (Hong Kong, 1977), Dear Franklin, for which the author has deserved the Elysée Prize. The project traces the sad love story of Franklin Lung, a Hong Kong man who lost his beloved Dongyu in 1948, in one of the greatest maritime catastrophes to ever occur in China: the sinking of the SS Kyangya at the mouth of the Huangpu River. Desperate, Lung sealed his engagement by marrying the ghost of his bride during a Taoist ceremony in which a living person is eternally linked to a dead person within the spirit world.
It all started three years ago, when through a friend Tong received a wooden trunk found in the house of a neighbor who had just died. Marked with a Taoist seal, the ark contained letters, old photographs, and books and magazines written in the 1920s. No one knew who owned that batch of memorabilia. The photographer began a research task that helped him to weave the story that he composes Dear Franklin. Conceived as a photobook, the project will be completed in 2022.
As in all ghost stories, what is not seen takes on as much presence as what is seen, the real becomes as ambiguous as the imagined
That every story in principle based on real events can be made up of parts as real as fictitious, and that in the process of its narration the present as the absent has as much power, is something that Tong was able to verify in his previous work, Combining for Ice and Jade (Jiazazhi Press). The photobook intertwines personal and public stories, his personal archive and found objects, all praised through the author’s imagination, to tell the story of his nanny, one of the last zishunü, or ‘woman who combs her hair’, who remained in China (a community of women who won the right to be single a century ago). Similarly, in his new project Tong evokes the life of the self-made man that was Franklin. Born into poverty after the fall of the Qing dynasty and after studying at the best university in Shanghai, he managed to become part of the elite of his country. He maintains business contacts abroad and fell madly in love with the daughter of a high official of the Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang, whom he lost during his flight from the persecution of the communist army.
The narrative incorporates elements of a different nature such as a small book made up of quotes from the Bible about grief and pain, where dried flowers are preserved, and in its historical journey it alludes to the misfortune of expatriation and the consequences of war and conflict. immigration in the individual. The elusive protagonist of the story will end his days ruined in Hong Kong, back after years spent as an emigrant in San Francisco. In 1962 he decided to end his life and jumped into Victoria Bay during Typhoon Wanda. His body never appeared. The poetic and melancholic tone permeates the entire work that will capture the reader with surprising details. As in all ghost stories, what is not seen takes on as much presence as what is seen, the real becomes as ambiguous as the imagined.
500 pages. 73 euros.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.