A few weeks after I first arrived in China in early 2000, I was detained on the street outside my apartment and marched off to the “alien affairs office” in the local police station.
My alleged crime, for which my interrogators said I was to be immediately deported, was taking photographs of China’s “dark side”. I had come to the grimy industrial city of Changchun, in frigid Manchuria, to teach English at a language school. But the police insisted I was secretly a journalist or perhaps even a spy sent to document China’s failings.
From their detailed descriptions of photos I had taken on previous days, I realised they had been keeping close tabs on all my movements since I arrived in the city. I was eventually released with a warning after my employer convinced the police I was a harmless kindergarten teacher with no more than an amateur interest in photography.
I wouldn’t become a journalist myself for another three years. But the experience provided me with my first taste of just how difficult it is for journalists or photographers to capture and explain the essence of China. And not just because it is so easy to offend the authorities, or your subjects, by brandishing a camera lens.
When the legendary photojournalist Robert Capa arrived in early 1938, among the subjects he wanted to cover was the Sino-Japanese war, which he viewed as the eastern front of a global fight against fascism. In the event, Capa endured constant surveillance from the nationalist government and never made it to the battleground. But he managed to capture Japanese air raids on Hankou, and his portrait of a boy soldier, under the headline, “A defender of China”, appeared on the front cover of Life magazine.
Capa’s first Chinese assignment happened before he helped to found the photographic agency Magnum in Paris in 1947. But, for the past 70 years, Magnum’s photographers have continued to chart the country’s transformation from war-torn, impoverished, communist pariah to industrial superpower. Now their work has been collected in a new volume, Magnum China.
Magnum’s photojournalists have documented the major events of this period, often in images that are seared into the world’s collective consciousness — the mass rallies from Mao’s demented 1966-76 cultural revolution captured by Bruno Barbey and Marc Riboud; Stuart Franklin’s anonymous “tank man” staring down a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
But some of the most powerful images in this collection are the quieter shots of ordinary people living their lives in ordinary as well as extraordinary times. The Japanese Magnum photographer Hiroshi Hamaya, who visited the country several times in the 1940s and 1950s, succeeded in his goal of showing the world how “normal” China was with his simple documentary-style pictures of tea shops and hair-threading rituals.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Photographers and journalists often arrive in China with an unspoken assignment to reinforce certain stereotypes. After nearly two decades, I have boiled the formula down to three main categories: big China — any story that illustrates the enormous scale of the country, for example: “China produces 85 per cent of the world’s ballpoint pens”; bad China — documenting the numerous human rights abuses perpetrated by the country’s authoritarian government; and weird China — usually the result of recently arrived reporters falling into the trap of focusing on the exotic side of China.
As these photographs show, the best reporting and pictures have transcended cliché to capture the essence of a vast and perpetually changing country. Some images seem timeless: one, of boys in a Beijing swim team, was taken by Jim Goldberg last year but looks like it could have been from any other era covered in the book.
By contrast, Martin Parr’s study of a group of kids attending an American theme park in Shanghai in 1997 perfectly captures the essence of that period in China, when pro-western openness, consumerism and economic optimism were all taking off.
Probably my all-time favourite photographs of China, happily included in this volume, are those taken by another Magnum co-founder, Henri Cartier-Bresson. He arrived in 1948, as Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government was crumbling and Mao’s communists were closing in on victory, and captured this defining moment better than anybody else by focusing on individual stories of loss and triumph. It was a document of a disappearing world and, in the faces of his subjects, we see anguish, despair and excitement as one epoch is washed away and a new one takes its place in the world’s most populous nation.
A part of me was also glad to learn that Cartier-Bresson’s assignment was interrupted for five weeks when he was detained by the advancing communist army. It made me feel that some things haven’t really changed in China.
Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Asia editor.
“Magnum China” is published on October 4 by Thames & Hudson (£48)
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