Photography by Chen RongHui, Interview by Matthieu Lunard
Ronghui Chen is a 30 years old Chinese National. born in Lishui, a small village in Zhejiang province. Currently a MFA program student in Yale School of Art, his work focuses on China’s urbanization, in long term projects, to explore the relationship between China’s urbanization and individual’s experiences. His trilogy “Petrochemical China, Modern Shanghai & Runaway world and Freezing Land” document urbanization in China, the petrochemical industry and theme parks in the context of Chinese consumerism as well as the shrinking cities in northeastern China and their lonely young people
ML: Where did you shoot your story? Is that your birth place, the place you live or did you travel there purposely?
RH: I grew up in southern China with warm weather, therefore I long for the freezing environment in the north. I’m obsessed with 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, a scene of ice and snow intertwining with peculiar characters. Finally, I got the chance to travel to the northeast for a media assignment. I packed my large format camera and flew to the freezing land I’ve always dreamt of.
The global perception of China is regularly defined by major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, where bustling streets signal an ever-growing metropolis, and where solitude seems physically impossible. But in truth, these major cities make up a tiny fraction of the country’s expansive geography. China is comprised of so many other terrains, climates and infrastructures, and the people who live in these lesser-known regions receive little to no media attention. Furthermore, they are rarely deemed interesting enough for substantial photographic documentation of any kind.
The northeast was the wealthiest area in China, bordering Russia and North Korea. With the help of 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 most recessionary land in China, with shrinking cities and declining population.
I went to all three provinces （Heilongjiang, ji lin, Liaoning）in northeast China, mainly concentrated in five cities, Yichun, Shuangyashan, Fulaerji, Longjing, and Fushun.
The location I photographed was in the Northeast, so location means more to me. I am not doing anthropological photography, or investigative reporting. Of course, not only the Han nationality but also the Korean nationality are included in my photos. I use photography to tell the stories here. The stories happening here are not just about the sociological concepts of nation and religion. I am more concerned about the general experience and problems. The choices that those young people will face, and the sense of loneliness in the process of urbanization. These emotions are beyond race and religion.
ML: Why did you choose the title freezing land ? is it linked to the climate of the region where you shot or a metaphor for static people (meaning that they will live all their life, frozen in time and place)?
RH: I want to take the title in the most concise but metaphorical way. First of all, there is an internal relationship with the landscape here. The northeast land in winter has always been frozen. But at the same time, what I want to express is not a past tense, but a present tense. The landscape and people here will always face such a dilemma. Like you said, they will live all their life, frozen in time and place.
ML: It looks like you shot your series in winter? Is it because of the light? What is so special about winter for you?
RH: When shooting this project, I chose winter specifically. Winter has shaped the landscape of this place in the northeast unlike other places. Then such a landscape has a great impact on the local people. If I come to shoot in the summer, I can't see visually whether this is northeast or south. Of course, the light in winter also fascinated me. The bright light helped me portray more details.
Because the temperature difference between indoor and outdoor is very different, many people in the Northeast choose to wear short sleeves inside and down jackets outside. So I sometimes let them take off their jackets to shoot, because the color of the jacket is relatively simple.
ML: Even when there are people on the photos the poses and attitudes of the characters convey a feeling of loneliness, did you do that on purpose? What did you want to express through the people on the photos?
GH: When I choose a subject, it is actually a projection of myself. I felt a strong resonance. Although I don’t know them, I can feel the same kind of uncertainty facing the future. We often say that good portrait photographers are not actually shooting others, but shooting themselves from different angles. I agree with this idea.
ML: How did you get to have the people pose for you? Are they friends? Relatives?
RH: It is difficult to encounter subjects on the street in an environment of minus 30 degrees centigrade. Therefore, I used the social video app Kuaishou, looking for young people who were willing to share their stories.
ML: Some photos are very intimate, like for instance young girls bedroom, leaving the viewer an impression of intimacy but also loneliness, was it some impression you wanted to convey in your images?
RH: When creating these photos, I did feel this way. As a photographer, I have been taking pictures on the road. I also miss my bed at home. I often think about what bed means to a person. Especially an empty bed will give a metaphor of loneliness when losing traces of life.
ML: Some of them are shot in what seems to be a catholic school or church, with images of the cross or Jesus and Mary, what attracts you in the Christianity? Are you a Christian yourself? Is it something important in your life?
RH: I am not Christian, but in the Northeast, there are many people who believe in Christianity. I am more concerned about how those young people think about their relationship with religion. I hope to use photography to explore the spiritual world of young people. When a group is more confused, then religion will naturally become their choice.
ML: Young people seem to be in a state of boredom what occupations are there for the youth? Do they ever think to get away? What are their dreams?
RH: Some young people do not have jobs, and some young people do some part-time jobs. They are in a state of boredom. Everyone has their own dreams, and so are they. Many people have also gone out to work, but basically did not get a good opportunity. So many people have to return home. Of course, they will have a strong sense of loss.
ML: When you show empty public spaces, did you choose a moment when no one was there or is that location very isolated in general?
RH: Most of the spaces are empty. Location is the most important thing to me in this project. I visit some special places many times and wait for the right time to take photos.