China Fashion Downward

I’d like to share with you my photo project China Fashion Downward, which I started in 2012.

This is part of a book project called China Fashion Downward, a small window to look into modern China. I believe that by observing only part of the body of each Chinese citizen – for example, the lower halves, we are already able to see a big picture of modern China. The bold colors, the bizarre styles and the odd body languages reveal so much of the owners of the bodies and the clothing covering them. They also reveal some truths about this country, which has been struggling with transition to find a bright future.

When my friend Tom Balzer first saw this body of works, he cried:”Ah, China finally has the freedom to choose a whore’s styles!” This is a succinct statement about China.

The essay is partly a statement about progress – we Chinese are finally free to express ourselves through clothing. Think about China 30 years ago, when everyone dressed in grey, black, or dark blue, and we can see the huge progress China has made over the past three decades – at least individuality is not a negative term any more. (By the way, when I first heard that individuality was something to be valued, in Colorado 10 years ago, I was almost shocked, as I had always been told that individuality was evil.) But it is also a statement about China’s lack of sophistication despite the fast growing GDP. The bold colors, bizarre styles and odd, even rude body languages indicate China is not yet a mature modern civilization.

It is also a statement about the lack of freedom of speech. Speaking out and speaking up can be dangerous in China. But expressing individuality through clothing brings no harm. When I see these bold colors, bizarre styles or funny body languages, I hear loud expressions of opinions. I may not agree with these expressions or opinions, but I am glad at least people can express themselves in their own ways.
Some of you may be surprised by what you see: low resolution photos taken with an ipad, not a “real” professional camera and lenses. I choose my iPad to do this project for three reasons: the square composition is perfect for the body parts without faces; an iPad is a great tool for street photography in China, where people are camera shy; and I want to prove that you don’t need a conventional camera to be a real photographer. China Fashion Downward is not about lighting, composition, high resolution, nor is it about making images to prettily decorate walls. My final presentations are: a collage of all these photos to cover the all the walls, even the ceiling of the gallery; a small book, and a video with Sound of China, a sound project I’ve been doing since 2011. The contact sheet you see here is a very small part of the project. I am still working on the book edit and the video edit.

Some of you may feel I have regressed as a photographer because you don’t see conventional National Geographic-style good light and striking angles, two eye-candy elements, which I valued and still do.
But I hope you will see in this special project that my understanding of photography has moved to a different level. I finally understand that photography is not just about beautiful lighting, elegant compositions and different angles. I have realized that being a professional photographer is not about how many photos you make each day or how much professional gear you carry. I have realized that photography is about communication and expression. I have realized that a photo with golden light and unique composition is not the final end purpose of a photograph, it is but the means for expressing an idea. For me, it is no longer enough that a photograph be compelling in a formal sense. There must be an idea beneath the surface, no matter how beautiful that surface.

China Fashion Downward is my observation of modern China, as a native Chinese returning home after almost eight years’ absence. I want to show people what I see – my country going through a very interesting, exciting and dangerous transition. When I first moved back to China in 2011, I was lost and confused. It was easy for me find my way in DC., New York or Denver, but I often found myself lost in Guangzhou, where I had lived for years . I could hardly recognize my own country and my fellow countrymen: people are afraid to be friendly to strangers, as any stranger could be a scoundrel; people are always in a hurry, eager to get rich or famous. The new rich are never hesitant to show off their wealth, and the poor, who are made invisible, hate their showing off, and the rich-poor gap has never been so large. Students are still being brainwashed; journalists are censored and self-censored.

We are losing more freedom of speech as we are losing more equality, justice, or democracy. This is not new. It is just getting worse. What is interesting to me is that people find other ways to express themselves – their clothing style, so bold, so colorful and full of varieties – often quite odd looking!
I have come to realize that peoples’ choices of clothing are not only a way to express themselves, they also provide many other clues about modern China – its social class differences (clothing indicates your status – sometimes you are what you wear), its history (from a toddler pooping in public to a 90-year-old woman with tiny bound feet), and even levels of education (vulgar or sophisticated). Personalities are revealed by body language and bizarre styles, from a longing for art (Van Gogh’s Starry Night made into a skirt) to a dream to fly (pants and shoes with wings). These clothing choices reveal the absurdities of a fascinating society at a turning point. But despite the absurdities, there is hope – look at the pants and shoes with wings!

I do not include faces in this project because it focuses attention immediately on the body, not on a face. Most viewers automatically look first and most closely at the face. By cropping the face out, attention is forced to the body part and its clothing, a logical aesthetic choice that allows me to guide the viewers’ eyes to what I want them to notice. Also the radical strangeness of the approach allows me to try interesting things with shapes and colors.

When I took the job as a writer and editor for a magazine in China, I was hesitant as this day job would mean I couldn’t work as a full time photographer. But now I think I made the right decision to take this job, which has allowed me to read and think as much as I want. I think this job is a turning point in my photographic career. It is at this point that I begin to understand what photography really means. Now I don’t take as many photos as I did, but each time I pick up my camera, be it my Nikon D700, or Sprocket, or my holga, or my ipad, or my view camera, I know why I photograph. I still care about eye candies, but I care more about content. (Professor Stan Alost would smile if he remembers our conversation several years ago about eye candies at VISCOM in Athens, Ohio. I said, “I love eye candies.” He replied, “then you shouldn’t work for a newspaper!”)

And I finally feel comfortable or unthreatened by the large number of people holding cameras, including iPhones, iPads, professional DSLRs, Leicas, point-and-shoots, etc, as I have discovered the real difference between a professional photographer and a part-time photographer:

For the former, the more he/she photographs, the less equipment he/she carries for a photo shoot; for the latter, the more he/she photographs, the more gear he/she carries on each photo trip;

For the former, photography is but a medium, a tool for telling stories with photos; for the latter, photography is the final goal – lighting and composition, they do photography for photography’s sake.

So for the first time, I believe that I am a real photographer because I know why I photograph.

But NOT for the first time, I am thankful to the people who have given me so much love, inspiration and support as friends and mentors along the way –, Paul Moloney, Kevin Moloney, Rich Clarkson, Terry Eiler, Lyntha Eiler, Xin Liu, Tom Ondrey, Tom Balzer, Julie Elman, Judy Reed, Stan Alost, Nicole Cheng, Alan Chin, Maryanne Golon, Susan Biddle, Robert Miller, Mark Gail, Michel Du Cille, Melina Mara, Bill Guglliota, Bill Allen, Bill Allard…It is a LONG list, I don’t have enough space for it. So forgive me if your name is not listed. But you know I am grateful and you know that your kindness and inspiration is part of the reason I move on.

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