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Disturbing Photojournalism from China

Monday, May 8, 2006 Posted: 07:25 AM JST

The blog EastSouthWestNorth follows events in China. It gives great insight into a country of which we know far too little. Especially considering the power base that it is building now. In its May 1 issue, the blog introduces work by Chinese photojournalist Maohair. The work is truly incredible in the way that it shows Chinese society. A tough and unfair society where there is little respect for human life, it appears from these photographs.

This is how the blog introduces the images:

“A selection of the works of the Chinese photojournalist Maohair (毛孩儿). The man has an MSN Spaces weblog called 小猴悟空. The top post there is a slide show for some of his work. On the blog, the self-description of Maohair is:

On the business card, the title ‘photojournalist’ is printed. But I am actually just a peasant who likes to play around with a camera.”

It then shows a photograph purportedly of Maohair and continues:

“In the following, a subset of photographs have been chosen from the NetEast post. These were selected in part because of their shock value, and therefore you are forewarned that some of the photographs may make you feel uncomfortable.

The first striking thing is about the photographer himself. Bearing in mind that Maohair is only twenty-three years old, one has to wonder how he manages to put himself in the right place at the right time so often. You should also bear in mind that photographing probably should not have been allowed in some of the situations, either because it was interfering with rescue activities, or because it touched upon taboo subjects (e.g. mining accidents), or because it intruded into privacy. So when you look at these photographs, you should also think about the circumstances under which they were taken. Most of them were probably hit-and-run opportunistic, although it was clear that the photographer must have created the opportunities by wile and determination.

The second striking thing is that these photographs from a young photographer communicate a portrait of Chinese society that even words cannot. It is extraordinary that this body of work should come from a photojournalist based in Shenyang. By comparison, for example, there are undoubtedly all sorts of photojournalists in Hong Kong or New York City but it is hard to imagine that any of them would have a body of work like Maohair that seems to capture the spirit and mood of his society in such stunning fashion. Could it be that there are simply many more unusual things happening in a rapidly changing society in China than elsewhere at this moment?”

Read on and see the photographs at Zonaeuropa.com

Be warned, some of these images are extremely graphic. Even though I have photographed my fair share of horror, I was shocked several times. But it shows a China, that we never, or rarely, hear about.

Everybody knows that accidents happen everywhere, that the world is cruel and unfair and that there are ambulance chasers. What surprised me about China was the level of violence on a personal level. I am used to reading and hearing about the horrifying human right violations by the Chinese government, and for some reason didn't expect people pouring boiling oil on each other. Especially because there is such a paternalistic and overbearing government in China. Naive me, I guess.

Some items that especially got my attention:

-- "Ms. Zhang turned down the sexual demands of her live-in boyfriend, who poured five kilograms of boiling oil on her."
(We have jilted lovers that kill in Japan, too, but I haven't heard of the use of boiling oil in Japan, an Asian neighbor of China which shares a lot of culture with that country. I have heard of using chemicals to scar the other. Such measures are very extreme. How common is this in China, I wonder.)

-- "An 18-year-old man had to sleep in open airs because he hadn't found a job yet. He was assaulted by seven drabbily dressed young people and then buried alive with bricks and concrete slabs on top. Although he was taken to the hospital, he did not survive."
(Homeless men and women are killed everywhere, but it surprised me that these killers went to so much trouble. If you take this much trouble to kill a homeless man, it shows a lot of hate and cropped up frustration. Again, how common is this, and is there something in the Chinese value system that encourages this?)

-- "The restaurant owner just had an encounter with municipal administrators who were trying to get rid of sidewalk restaurants."
(From this caption and another one, I got the impression that is very common that people are beat up by municipal administrators. I was wondering if it really is that common in China.)

-- "Two illegal ticker vendors found a retarded child  who was abandoned by his parents. Spectators told them to discard the baby. They said that it would be too cruel. The vendor in yellow said: "I have to scalp train tickets all day here because my parents are divorced and neither one wants me."
(In a country with a strict one-child policy, children are regularly abandoned? Especially retarded ones? Spectators encouraged them to discard the baby? As a journalist this make me curious. I want to know more.)

-- "A factory owner was killed when his cousin doused him with gasoline and set him on fire."
(Once again, a very extreme way of expressing your anger. Such cases may happen everywhere, but the commonplace feeling of these images and captions, makes me wonder if it is perhaps more common in China.)

-- "In the construction business, unpaid wages are a frequent thing."
(Again, this makes me curious. Is this really so frequent? How is this possible in a country where the government tries to control everything so strictly? How do the companies get away with it? Do these migrant workers have ways to protect themselves?)

These images raised a lot of questions in me about the social situation in China, a country about which I clearly know too little.

Keywords: internet_news

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