by Carmen Tomfohrde
March 19, 2007
Chinese photographer Zhang Yan was raised in Beijing and lived in Minneapolis and other parts of the USA before eventually returning to Beijing, where he works as a commercial photographer. Carmen Tomfohrde spoke with him there.
Zhang Yan’s photographs include portraits of hip and friendly Beijing youths, cheerfully colored walls and courtyards in China and Mexico, the blue shadow of a squirrel prancing across a Minneapolis sidewalk, and the gripping, direct stares of the Miao, Dong, and Zhuang people, ethnic minority populations in remote parts of Guan Xi and Gui Zhou, China. All are greeted with equal tenderness and empathy, sedate with an infectious sense of calm security. Zhang’s approach seems to me patiently Chinese: courteous and respectful and with a confident awareness of their intrinsic merit that requires no surface acts of desperation.
Carmen Tomfohrde: Your pictures are very subtle. They ask the viewer to question his or her assumptions
about each place, and the development of a relationship of trust that one must share with people while traveling.
Zhang Yan: I want my work to look quiet or peaceful. My Beijing work is mostly of daily life: street scenes, parks, and markets where I often go. I choose cloudy weather because it creates a less contaminative sky; the images are deliberately without noisy areas […] in Beijing, a quiet moment. Most of my Southwest China work is in the remote mountains, of young Miao and Dong girls. They have an age-old life style and costumes like the ancients a thousand years ago. Their eyes look very quiet, with no lust.
For some time now the Chinese have been striding into the future, much to the fascination of the Western world. Housing a fifth of the world's population on land roughly equivalent in size to that of the USA, only 20% of which is arable, it is noteworthy that China is able to sustain its immense population while pushing forward with competitive purchasing power and scientific advancements.
Framed against this overwhelming façade, Zhang slows down to observe the nuances of place. His images seem to ignore the news of an exciting, dynamic, rapidly changing China and focus instead on bleak, silent details of Beijing or the warm stares of China's Southwest remote minority populations, seemingly self-sufficient and cut off from the tensions and spectacle. These children stand with dark eyes and a complete openness that I know very well, myself a Caucasian Hong Kong resident traveling into Mainland China to teach workshops, and a former temporary resident of a small city in China.
There is danger in flattening the discussion to that of a ubiquitous universal modernity trying to preserve minority cultures that welcome that modernity while simultaneously clutching their last remaining shreds of independence. Zhang's photographs are not a crypt of anthropology opened to the toxic air of contemporary inspection, or a mummification of those lasting out the twenty-first century in their remote location in Southwest China. Instead, they invite viewers to re-examine their own convictions as an old discussion of primitivism collides with new discussions of globalism and a rising China.
Visually arresting and seemingly contradictory details, such as a bright pair of pink plastic shoes on the feet of a rural villager otherwise dressed in traditional clothing, reveal quirky and unexpected collisions. The minority people stand calmly in beautifully embroidered handmade garments and work peaceful agrarian lives, but elements of modern China creep in on occasion. Cotton sweat pants, plastic rain boots, and cardboard cigarette boxes make appearances among the terraced fields and thatched houses. Traditional dress and self-sufficient agrarian practices blend smoothly with young men stylish in their Western suits and young girls sporting faux leopard-fur collars, and the combination seems effortless for them. These telling details personify a deeper layer in China’s unfolding drama of change and transformation.
CT: As a Caucasian visiting smaller cities in China (meaning, cities under 2 million in population, not even the remote villages you have visited), I am often stared at or approached for autographs, and lifting a camera can sometimes upset my relationship with people. How do your subjects respond to being photographed? How do you build their confidence?
ZY: I try not to, once I let the people know I like them and [that] they are beautiful.
It is not easy to lug a medium-format camera to the remote mountainous parts of Gui Zhou, and Zhang’s resulting photos are not patronizing. In Yunnan Province, tourists surge through in busloads to gawk at China's minorities. Here, a Chinese man brings his camera through isolated rural areas of his own country and lives among them to photograph and learn.
CT: What attracts you to a place? Do you go back to revisit places? Is there a process to your travels?
ZY: Southwest China’s age-old lifestyle attracts me. Mostly my interest comes just from reading books or someone talking with me about the place and images. Yes, I revisit places. First I go to a country market, see some people and costumes I like, [and] ask them where are they from. In two or three days I go there and try to take pictures with them.
CT: Is communication easy or hard, and in what ways?
ZY: Communication is not very hard but not easy.
CT: Your photographs carry an impression of intimacy - a frozen instant of trust, in non-verbal communication. Do you sustain any relationship with these people after you have gone?
ZY: I send some photos to them. To some students I give some notebooks or pens.
Zhang’s photographs differ from one place to the next. Images of Beijing throb with an excitement to perform, while other street scenes look sterile, silent, pale, and washed-out in contrast to the yellows and purples of Mexico where the swirling skirts of dancers seem saturated in the heat of the southern sun. In one photograph a lonely and windswept street in Minneapolis lies dormant under a dusting of clean white snow, feeling desolate and lonely for human interaction. It seems that in the warm and haunting stares of the Chinese minorities, Zhang found something he was looking for.
CT: Your style and approach seems to change with the subject matter - landscape compositions are bolder in Beijing, etc. How much of your work is a reaction to your impressions of a place, and how much is imposed on it? Do you come with an agenda or a plan of what you want to reveal, or do you react entirely to what you find?
ZY: Yes, I come with an agenda. My photographs are maybe 70-80% a reaction to my impressions of a place.
Zhang’s images do not attempt sympathy or persuasion. What is impressive about them is that they appear, from a distance, to not be doing much of anything at all. Like the subjects he chooses, Zhang’s images possess a striking and demure sense of serenity and engagement. They have a clean poetry, and a comfort with their own existence. I believe them. They have a calm internal sincerity that is infectious.
In Zhang’s photos, I find a nostalgia for something that hasn't been lost yet. If there is a statement being made it is implicit. Perhaps the real content is an awareness of the importance of nuance, tenderness, and understanding as one participates in this global village, and the importance of slowing down to listen.