During the most turbulent years in China’s recent history, photojournalist Li Zhensheng documented the “human tragedies and personal foibles” of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath for the Heilongjiang Daily in Harbin, China. Now many of these images and interviews with him are published in “Red-Color News Soldier, published by Phaidon.” Robert Pledge, director of Contact Press Images, which worked to bring this collection together, writes in his introduction that “We will be forever grateful to Li for having risked so much to doggedly preserve the images in this book at a time when most of his colleagues agreed to allow their negatives to be destroyed.” Four photographs and excerpts from Pledge’s introduction begin a series of documentary photo essays and stories that Nieman Reports is featuring on China’s past and present.
In “Morning Sun,” a documentary film about the Cultural Revolution, Carma Hinton and her production and directing colleagues looked for ways to tell the complex stories on film about what happened in China without having available to them a lot of archival footage from that time. (“Morning Sun” does use many of Li Zhensheng’s photographs.) They decided to, in Hinton’s words, “weave together diverse personal stories with period footage, relying heavily on cultural productions of that time to chart the psychological and emotional topography of high-Maoist China.” Two feature films—which “echo the mental landscape of the young generation that participated in the Cultural Revolution”—serve “as historical metaphor and provide a narrative structure” for this film.
Chinese photographer Zhou Hai, who works independently out of Beijing, has focused his camera on laborers who work in factories and mines. In a touring exhibition he calls “The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry,” Zhou Hai wants those who look at these images to be able to understand more about the enormous sense of loss and frustration that many such workers in China feel. Once respected, they’ve been marginalized in the country’s rapidly changing economy. As he writes: “When labor is a source of pride, material return is less of a concern for the laborers. When this pride wears out in the course of time and as money sneaks in to be a standard measure, the glory is lost and survival instincts take over.”
Zhang Zhen, who teaches cinema studies at New York University, writes about the film work of Ning Ying, whom she calls “China’s premiere woman director.” Ning Ying does both fictional and documentary films. In her feature-length documentary “Railroad of Hope,” Ning Ying conveys “a searing portrait of internal mass migration in China,” as she filmed and interviewed agricultural workers who were leaving Sichuang Province for a three-day train ride in search of work. Photographs from this journey accompany Zhang Zhen’s words.