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Chinese documentary photography on show
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The first large-scale photography exhibition which ran from May 1-10 in Wanping ancient city, Beijing, is on-line now. The theme of the exhibition was "Social Documentary Photography and China Today 1949-2009", bringing together a large number of outstanding and classic Chinese documentary photography works for the first time in history.

32 excellent photographers of all ages and 921 works in total were on show - each one with an individual theme. The themes covered a wide range: portraits of top Chinese leaders, eight model dramas in 1970s, migrant workers living in a modern city, and religious activities in a remote village. They fully reflected the social and cultural changes occurring in China during the past 60 years and the history of Chinese documentary photography.

According to one of the main organizers, Liu Shuyong, who is also a famous photography critic and professor of the School of Culture and Communication of Central University of Finance and Economics, the photos are of considerable academic value, and the target audience was photography insiders. They did not launch a major promotion campaign before the event as the exhibition aims to build a brand name among professionals for future promotion. Another reason was the limited budget. Some photographers who did not know about the exhibition expressed their interest in coming in the future. Liu and his team thought the event had been a great success.>

Chinese documentary photography: past, present and future

The concept of "documentary photography" was imported from the west. During the great recession of the 1930s, the US government hired professional photographers to take pictures of the life of the American poor, which served as an important reference for economic policies. This event showed the huge social impact of documentary photography.

Press photography grew in China after 1949. Contemporary photos were taken by reporters of official news agencies to reflect the shining facets of society. Not until late 1980s to early 1990s did documentary photography really come into its own. People from all walks of life with a strong conscience and sense of responsibility used their cameras to record the reality of Chinese society. Their works faithfully reflect the living conditions and the diverse social problems of people from lower social classes, revealing the pretence of former press photos. They are of great value to the social sciences and have a lot to contribute to the study of China.

Chinese documentary photography arrived at a new phase at the turn of the century. Society was progressing at a great speed and media were becoming more open. Younger photographers were maturing. Their works contain less anxiety; they are less oppressed and more ready to explore personal experience and cynicism. Their focus is shifting from disadvantaged groups to social observation and problems. Some of them make a great effort to study communities and achieve remarkable results. All these new changes are a sign of the development of Chinese documentary photography.

As digital cameras and the internet spread, anyone with a sense of curiosity and social responsibility can be a documentary photographer. More and better photographers will emerge in the near future.

International cooperation

With the rapid growth of China's power, Chinese documentary photography is earning greater status and respect in the world. According to Liu, previous attempts to work with western institutions in the past few years were unsuccessful. The main reason was that when selecting works, international partners insisted on selecting what they believed to represent the "real" China. Liu says Chinese photographers' opinions are treated with more respect nowadays. He looks forward to future international cooperation.

(China.org.cn by Ren Zhongxi, June 9, 2009)

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