Polly Braden: China Between
Dewi Lewis, 2010
An essay first published in Polly Braden’s book China Between
China Between is the culmination of over a decade photographing across China. In fact it was in the mid-1990s while she was living in the town of Yangzhou that Polly first took up photography. Making sense of the camera and making sense of China seemed to go hand in hand. Since then she has amassed a huge archive of images, some made on assignment for magazines but most made speculatively. Although there have been plenty of great shots along the way China Between is not the result of cherry picking. No, it has taken most of those years to find the right photographic approach and the majority of images here were made between 2007 and 2010. What she was trying to discover, without fully knowing it for a long while, was a form of observing, shooting and editing that might express the complicated relation between everyday life in China’s burgeoning cities and the great transformations that have been taking place there.
It almost goes without saying that current art and media representation of China is dominated by epic images. More often than not our attention has been stolen by all things grand: colossal shipyards, teeming workers, gargantuan architecture and crowds of new consumers. These are the motifs by which contemporary China is known, combined mentally with unrepresentable scenes of human rights violations. It is as if the sheer scale of things or their anxious invisibility were all. To be sure, the epic has a long and complex history in the depiction of China. It was dominant in propaganda of the Mao era with its massed ranks, inhuman heroes and impersonal service to the nation. While that chapter has passed, its visual template persists in the global imagination. The current preference for the epic is in many ways a retooling of that communist aesthetic for the capitalist era. Is it any surprise that the world’s reaction to China has remained consistent across half a century of change, in its nervous fascination and dumbstruck horror?
Clearly Polly Braden is not an epic photographer. Certainly she is interested in the ‘bigger picture’ of what China has been and what it is today, but that is not the starting point. What interests her? She is an acute noticer of minor details. Patterns of human gesture and surface. The briefest of communications between people. Responses to change that are as pragmatic and poetic as they are political. If a bigger picture emerges it is from a mosaic of such small observations.
Many of these photographs were taken in and around the cities of Xiamen, Shenzhen and Kunming. I guess this makes her a ‘street photographer’ of sorts and her pictures certainly add to the rich legacy of that genre. But this is a little misleading. The decision to work in the street was not immediate. Before this Polly had made countless photographic studies of factory life and work, portraits of dignitaries and artists, landscapes and cityscapes. But it is the street that came to provide the focus. Modern streets have a particular way of registering transition. They belong neither to ‘home’ nor to ‘work’. They are communal and yet official, very public but quite private too. The street is where little truths point to larger ones if you can attune yourself. The way human bodies tell of the conditions of work. The way faces carry or attempt to mask history. The way the very fabric of the street attests to the pace of things. The way signs, clothes and even moods are the result of minor and major forces.
If this is street photography it is not a matter of catching people off guard or exploiting the way the camera can pick out and force a picture, or make a ‘point’. Neither is it a matter of staging or setting things up with a scripted plan. Even so these pictures do have a sense of theatre about them. I was with Polly when many were taken and I saw a working process that was often indescribably subtle. She has a way of hiding a little, but of letting her subjects know she is hiding. There is usually an exchange of glances (she is not afraid of eye contact – she just doesn’t like it in her photos too much). Occasionally that exchange would be enough to end things and no image would be taken. But more often than not a kind of flirtation would unfold, without seduction or manipulation. People would pose a little, but not in a photographic way. They would become just self-conscious enough to accommodate the photographer and the camera, while carrying on with whatever they were doing. The sharp distinction we often want to make between documentary and staged photos makes it very difficult to grasp this realm in between but this is exactly where so much of modern life takes place. Between the anonymity of the crowd and accountability to others.
If all this sounds pompous have a look at the photo of the man in what looks like army dress, standing in the shallows of the sea. While we lived in the coastal city of Xiamen, Polly and I saw him most days and he saw us. He had no home but lived on and around the busy beach. It was an August afternoon and the temperature had just hit forty degrees. We were walking down to the water’s edge to cool off and he was doing the same. Shorelines always feel a little like stages so everyone was slightly on show. I hung back and watched. Although Polly speaks Mandarin the exchange was wordless. The two looked at each other in the heat, then he looked out to sea. Xiamen has a vast commercial port and you can see container ships coming and going in the background. He scooped some of that warm polluted water into his hand, pressed it to his head and held it there. Polly pressed the shutter although I was too distant to see exactly when. I remember wondering what the photo might look like; how much it would read as a brief moment of respite and how much as a broader symbol or metaphor. I think it is both. More than that I have come to realise that if many of Polly’s photos work this way it is because that’s how she thinks – from the particular to the general and back again but without letting one overwhelm the other. There can be no rules to this of course. No ‘visual strategy’. It builds up photo-by-photo.
China Between seems like the perfect title for this collection. For those who want one there is a nod to China in Transition, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s document of the country shortly before and after the revolutionary events of 1949. The present transition is of another order and there is little need to describe it in words here. But it is worth saying something about its relation to the image. It may well turn out that the photographic approach Polly took here was a short-lived possibility. The presence of a photographer deciding such in-between moments of daily life were worth picturing seems to have been met with generosity and fellow feeling by her subjects. Perhaps any period of sharp transition is experienced ‘as images’, in the sense that people don’t just experience it, they experience themselves experiencing it, almost as if it were a representation. At the same time however this has been the decade in which for good or bad contemporary China has come under the spell of the mass media image – the mobile phone camera, the billboard and the profound commercialisation of the self through advertising. The openness towards photography will sour, just as it has in Europe and America. Polly Braden’s images record not just moments of experience of everyday life but moments of the experience of photography. The chances are that in the near future the presence of a photographer will not be greeted so warmly, so trustingly. I suspect we may come to be a little grateful that one with such fine attention was there.