Photography is a powerful medium that can transcend human ideology, crossing cultures, seeking understanding, and counteracting prejudice. I hope and yearn for this kind of photographic art.
The cliché of the mainstream, like that of middle-of-the-road, can be misleading. Both suggest a bland uniformity. Yet, aside from a few road hogs, no one drives up the middle of the highway; we drive on either side, in different directions at varying speeds. It is one of the ironies of statistics that when analysing a complex social system one may define the average or mean in a myriad of different psychological, social, political and behavioural variables, yet few if any individual members of that system will be precisely average in all of them. The truly typical is actually extremely rare.
The mainstream seems to suggest a broad, homogenous flow yet, to extend the metaphor back upstream, that flow is fed by many tributaries. One may flow cool and clear from the mountain snows, another bubble sulphurously from the ground, yet another seep brackish from a peak bog or run off flushed with nitrates from farmland. The mainstream is the mingling of different elements. It is politics and commerce that tends to treat a diverse demographic as though it were a singular mass or market.
The photographs of Xiangjie Peng highlight communities that, while they may seem outside of the mainstream in China, are in fact simply some of its constituents. This may not represent the image of China projected by political ideologues, but each community, each individual within that community and their relationships one with another, are woven into the fabric of the nation.
Xiangjie Peng’s photographic explorations are long-term and in-depth. Each is depicted honestly and without gloss. There are no rose-tinted spectacles here. While his images are non-judgemental, they are compassionate in the way they make visible that which the powers that be would rather have left unseen. And, in so doing, they lend their own kind of dignity: the dignity of having one’s existence recognised and respected.
How did you begin as a photographer?
I grew up in a small town in the outskirts of Xi’an. It was an important base for the development and production of Chinese aircraft, and I grew up and was educated in a semi-military collective socialist compound. It was a relatively closed environment, and the cultural life was boring. I worked for thirty-five years in an aircraft factory, mainly taking corporate and propaganda photos. Although by the 1980s China was beginning to become more open, a camera was still a luxury I couldn’t afford. So, for many years I used the factory camera to make propaganda during the week, while on weekends and holidays I focused on my personal photographic interests and concerns. Happily, I am now able to devote myself fulltime to my personal work.
How did ‘The Wandering Tent’ project begin?
It began in the winter of 1992. Itinerant circuses and song-and-dance troupes have a long history in China, but they had been banned during the Cultural Revolution. With the political shift towards economic development in the 1990s they were revived. I was fascinated by this wandering lifestyle and spent the next eleven years photographing many different circuses and troupes.
What is it that you found interesting about this way of life?
We live for only a few decades, and I spent one of them photographing these circuses and troupes because I felt there was something admirable here that should be properly recognised. It was as I travelled with them that I discovered the heady blend of possibility and opportunity, of achievement and adventure, but also of the dark and the sinister experienced by those of the wandering tent.
The circus is a microcosm of Chinese society – good and bad. Many circus acts are dangerous, and the performers must go through intense training. Even so, working with wild animals there is always the possibility of being injured, and the fire eater must be careful not to swallow the toxic kerosene he takes into his mouth in order to spray flames. On one occasion when I was with a circus troupe, local ruffians attacked at night, threatening to burn down the tent. The ensuing fight ended with the ruffians in hospital, three of the performers in jail, and the circus banned from the town. But the wandering tent is also a community, complete with families and growing children. It is a way of life and a way to live. And for the young men and women in the rural villages and towns with dreams of escape, it was a place full of temptation.
What is your approach to making documentary images?
I am interested in the so-called non-mainstream people, those that tend to get overlooked. In Chinese photography, the mainstream consists of politically correct subjects – those that match the government ideology. I am wary of such constraints and reject those sanctioned subjects.
When I am shooting, I go with the flow. You can’t predict events before they happen. It requires continuous observation driven by curiosity and guided by intuition. I am not the kind of photographer who can shoot different subjects at the same time. Focused concentration is very important to me. And, as the negatives accumulate, I begin to understand the subject a little more.
How did ‘The Dwarves Empire’ begin?
I read about it in a newspaper that described a theme park that was recruiting people with dwarfism to work there. The article was a reprint from The New York Times that was critical of the project on ethical grounds. However, the concept fascinated me and, soon after the opening of The Dwarf Empire fantasy park in August 2011, I visited it for the first time.
What was your approach?
My concept of photography had already undergone some changes in thinking by then. ‘The Wandering Tent’, which by then was fairly well completed, had focused on the hardships of life and the embarrassing situation of Chinese history and culture in the pursuit of economic change.
In ‘The Dwarf Empire’, I wanted to shoot portraits of people in their environment, abandoning an emphasis on the past, and instead drawing out the subjects’ inner spiritual temperament and dignity. In the process, they could pose in whatever way they preferred.
The article in The New York Times had been critical of the park as exploitative of people with dwarfism. How did you feel about the project?
In 2010, The Dwarf Empire was still a new phenomenon for the Chinese tourist industry, and another example of China’s (perhaps pathological) pursuit of economic growth. It is said to have cost two billion yuan [c$157 million US] to set up. But this was a project approved by the local government, so I would never be allowed to report it as a newspaper exposé. Instead, I took an art-documentary approach to make the park known. But I did not want to pass judgement, I wanted the audience to make up their own minds about whether this was a good or bad thing. I think this is in line with the principles and ethics of documentary photography.
In the times I spent photographing in the park, I was able to have in-depth conversations with many of the performers. For them there were some clear advantages to working there: it provided them with self-reliant employment not available to them at home and here everyone was the same, avoiding some of the social discrimination they had previously experienced. That said, for the tourists who visited the park, they were still regarded as a form of spectacle.
Even so, I remember when I made the photograph ‘The King and the Guard’ – which I shot between performances – I was shocked by how real he appeared to me to be. He seemed more than just someone wearing a costume. It was incredible. That blend of the majestic and funny, the realistic and surreal, was unforgettable.
What led you to explore the ‘Cosplay’ scene?
In 2014, I was visiting a Comic Con exhibition in Chendu when I met a young man and women wearing anime costumes. I photographed them and the girl, Zhu Zhu, asked me to send her the images via WeChat. Zhu Zhu was a Cosplay fanatic. She is very active in the Chinese Cosplay scene, and I learned a lot about it from her. I decided to pay more attention to this phenomenon and, from 2015, I have travelled to Chengdu many times to photograph at the Comic Con.
Is cosplay popular now in China?
In a sense, Cosplay is an extension of the virtual world of online animation and video games into the urban reality. It has become mainstream, capturing the imagination of many Chinese teenagers. They self-organise online and bring the characters and costumes into the real world in a kind of spontaneous carnivalesque release of energy. But also, of course, the urban economic and cultural managers have been quick to recognise the economic potential of this scene and develop a service industry around it.
What kind of characters do they choose to become?
Cosplay is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Many participants draw on animation and video games from Japan and South Korea as well as here in China, to create colourful spaces full of imagination and symbolic rebellion. Cosplay frees people to express different gender roles and sexualities, not all of which originate with established anime characters. For example, there is a style in which women dress in military uniforms. It is not derived directly from any specific anime source, but has become its own sub-genre of Cosplay.
And there is Uncle Doraemon, who is a security guard in daily life and a drag queen in Cosplay. He is famous among the anime community in Chengdu for his many skirts. I was fascinated by the temperament of his transgender costumes. Photographing him has inspired me to begin a project on the Chinese drag scene.
In your work you focus on subcultures, people who apparently live outside the mainstream. What is it draws you to these subjects?
I have been making photographs for thirty years and I have experienced the most significant and dramatic changes in my country. In China, the so-called ‘mainstream’ photography is regarded as a mode of image-making that emphasises the official ideology in a positive way. But as a person who wants to use photography to pay close attention to and observe his country in depth, I actually don’t think that the people I photograph live outside the mainstream. Perhaps their lifestyles are just different from the socialist values that are usually encouraged and promoted.
Of course, people may consider my photography marginal and non-mainstream because there is so much emphasis now on socialist reality. I am not encouraged and exhibited in China, but I will remain self-motivated and have the courage to stick to the way of artmaking that I believe in.
You have just been shooting at the Gay Halloween parties in Shanghai. What is it you want to capture in this new work?
I want to bring a realistic focus to the LGBTQ community of Shanghai. After two years of the Coronavirus pandemic, the nightlife is beginning to open up again. These are not images I can publicly exhibit in China, but it is important for me to make them because there is a large LGBTQ community in China – they are our brothers, sisters and children.
I have come to understand that in the LGBTQ community in China, especially the gay group in Shanghai, East and West are highly integrated. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing lockdown, many Westerners still choose to continue living and working here. In terms of gender identity and choice, people transcend ideology, ethnic identity, political correctness, and so on to seek a kind of universal love. These are the things I hope to express and convey though my photographs.
How are your photographs received by audiences in China?
When I started, my father, who was a Party member, would often criticise my photography as a hopeless pursuit. He saw me as the kind of child with a rebellious spirit that won’t look back until he hits the south wall [an old Chinese saying, meaning people don’t change their mind until they reach a dead end]. And, I think, for many in China my photography is something of an embarrassment. I don’t follow the conventions of beauty that many Chinese audiences prefer, and my art is not of the kind encouraged by the power system. It is a difficult journey, but we each have to make our own judgments. Photography is a very personal activity for me.
Of course, there are people in China who understand and like my works. There are some collectors and institutions that buy my photographs, and the publication China Photography has featured my work on several occasions. Outside of China, people’s responses have been full of kindness, love, welcome, and even praise. I think photography is a powerful medium that can transcend human ideology, crossing cultures, seeking understanding, and counteracting prejudice. I hope and yearn for this kind of photographic art.
Making photographs over the years, what have you learned?
Photography has changed my life trajectory and the way I know the world. Every time I set out, I don’t know what kind of things and people I will encounter. Every time I shoot it’s an adventure. Good photos just prove my dedication and hard work. Everyone’s experience of life is different. In a rapidly changing country like China, there are many things that I haven’t understood yet, while the torrent of the times pushed me forward. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I remain ardently curious.
Xiangjie Peng was born in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, in 1961. He worked as a factory photographer in the aeronautics industry, beginning his artistic career in 1991. He has work has featured in fourteen solo and twenty-three group shows in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania, including VISA Pour l’Image (Perpignan, France 2003), International San Francisco Photographic Art Exposition (San Francisco, USA 2004), Today Art Museum (Beijing, China 2008), and the International Festival of Photography (Lodz, Poland 2008).
He has published widely in magazines such as ‘Chinese Photography’, ‘Popular Photography’, ‘FOCUS’, ‘National Geographic’, ‘Photo’, ‘Stern’, ‘El Semanal’, and ‘Marie Claire’. During his career he has been academic and artistic consultant for the Gucang Contemporary Image Gallery (Gucang Contemporary Art Organisation), coordinator of the Hou Dengke Documentary Photography Award, member of the Dali International Photography Festival Academic Committee, consultant for the Asia Pioneer Photographer Program, and academic host of the Zhongnanshan Art Residence Program (Xi’an Yuanying Gallery). He lives and works in Xi’an, China.
photo © Michela Forte
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.