Jun 18, 2018
Chen is a young Chinese photographer who creates entrancing visual narratives that explore urbanization issues and its impact on the population. In his multi-awarded series "Freezing land", Chen visits the northeastern part of China in order to record the industry recession and environmental problems in the region, and how these affect the declining population. Alternating portraits and landscapes, Chen creates the right atmosphere to show the concerns of the people of the region and invites us to reflect about the future of an industrial society.
am - First of all thank you very much for your contribution to our project. Can you please introduce yourself for us?
CR - Ronghui Chen (b.1989) is a Shanghai-based Chinese photographer and storyteller who has long focused on China’s urbanization issues, particularly on how they relate to individuals’ experiences. He has published his first collection of photographs named "Chen Ronghui", which is part of the China’s Contemporary Photography Catalog. His work has given him different recognitions, including the World Press Photo Prize, Three Shadows Photography Award & ALPA special prize and the Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award. Besides his own professional practices, Chen also acts as the head of the visual department at "Sixth Tone", a Shanghai-based English-language digital publication.
am - How did you start in photography?
CR - I majored in Broadcasting while I was in university, and as there were no photography classes, I had to learn by myself. I went to the school library and found a book on photography history, "The Genius Of Photography". I really enjoyed it and started to search online for more information. But this is not an easy way to learn photography.
am - What is "Freezing land" about?
CR - "Freezing Land" comprises a series of landscapes and environmental portraits shot across China’s once most prosperous northeastern area, where today population is shrinking, industries are sinking and environmental problems are rising. It is a story about broken Chinese dreams along the country’s rust-belt; about how young people deal with their desperation and aspiration.
am - What inspired your to make this series?
CR - I grew up in southern China where there is warm weather, so I had been longing for a freezing environment. One day I came across a novel called "Tales of Hulan River", which is about the declining northeastern region of China. For years, I couldn’t shake the scenes described in the book from my head, scenes of ice and snow intertwining with peculiar characters. A chance came to me when I got an assignment asking me to go to northeast China. I had no hesitation and packed my large format camera and flew to the freezing land I’ve always dreamt of.
The northeast used to be the wealthiest area in China, bordering Russia and North Korea. With the help of the Soviet Union, it developed heavy industries and stayed prosperous for years. This land represented China’s communist roots and authoritarianism. But now, it has become the region with the highest level of recession in China, with shrinking cities and a declining population.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping started a campaign for the “Chinese Dream.” But what does this mean to the young people living in the northeast, the once prosperous land? What’s the story of today’s northeastern China? I set out to see for myself.
am - How would you describe your visual language?
CR - In my opinion, the visual language in photography is different from that in film or other art forms of fragmentary medium. It can be interpreted in different ways, and I try to use it to bring out people’s emotions and tell their stories. I have been defined as a documentary photographer, I understand that, but my stories also have a surrealist undertone.
am - Who are your favourite photographers / artists?
CR - My favourite photographer is August Sander. I like his style, especially the way he deals with portraits. More importantly, I admired that he was able to stay calm and observe in the dark ages of fascism. I think that this is a crucial factor with which a good artist can stand out in different eras.
am - What are your main interests as an artist?
CR - When I was a child, I lived in rural areas. My grandparents brought me up. They taught me how to observe the nature. I learned to grow food and tell the wind direction and temperature. So I am full of curiosity about the World. Photography is a very special way of looking at the World and allows me to record all the details. When I take pictures, I feel the same as when I was a child learning how to grow rice. There is a direct relationship with the World.
am - What’s your favourite movie?
CR - I really love Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s movies. I think that his movie "A Touch of Sin" is a good way to tell different stories. It is a movie about four independent stories set in modern China about random acts of violence.
The director Jia Zhangke pays attention to the stories of the most common people in China. As a photographer, I also look for things in the common life that can't be described with words and can only be displayed in photographs.
am - What is your favourite photo book?
CR - I am a fan of photo books. I have collected about 200 photo books. This number is still increasing. One of my favorite photo books is "Sleeping by the Mississippi" by Alec Soth. Every time I look through this book, I can feel the power of peace. This power is the same I feel when reading my favorite poems and listening to my favorite songs.
am - Thank you very much for your time and your contribution to analog magazine.
All images © Chen Ronghui