A talk between Hechongyue and Gaominglu about the A BILLION TO ONE: DICTATED PARENTHOOD AND THE FEUDAL MIND

Today, contemporary "site-specific" photography has entered a stage of post modernism and gradually formed a new photography system, which is devoted to gaining an understanding of contemporary society and our living environment through on-the-spot shooting and to revealing the existing social problems by going beyond the site specific photography. It distinguishes fake "site specific" from true-to-life recording and has escalated the "site specific" photography to a new level of development. This is probably the point of thinking brought by the "site specific" photography, and the real meaning behind it is to observe the world from varying perspectives.

A Dialogue on Beyond "Site Specific" Photography
Time: 4:10 pm, August 11, 2007
Venue: Gao Minglu Studio
Persons: Gao Minglu, He Chongyue
Recorder: Xu Liang
Gao: Are you a professional photographer, He?
He Chongyue: Yes, I was engaged in traditional photography. Recently I’ve shifted to modern photography and concentrated on on-the-spot shooting.

Gao: But as far as sociality is mentioned, it is also associated with documentary and staged photography. Of course, my question is about the approach and effect of site specific photography. No matter how objective you are, the post site specific photography always requires the photographer’s own angle of shooting, and the angle of shooting reflects your attitude towards society. When I observed He Chongyue’s photos of the family-planning advertising walls, I realized that they are mostly close-ups of the walls, leaving little spaces for the surrounding backgrounds. His later works, though, include more about the surroundings, which vary from picture to picture. Still, there is still no person. Why?

He: Because all those photos were taken near the expressways in Chongqing, Sichuan, and Guizhou, where there were very few people.

Gao: Then, how did you come up with the subject of family planning, Chongyue?

He: I have been in the field of photography for a long time, probably 20 years. My first series of works were about the traces left behind by the Red Army. I hung a mirror inside to reflect the reality. Early during that period, I noticed that in many places of the western regions family-planning slogans can be found here and there by roads and highways, and it seemed that behind each of the slogan was an actual problem. The slogans advocating a protection and care for girls, for example, was because in those places it was very common to see a female infant deserted on roadside, due to the one-child policy. Some female infants were given to others, some were thrown away, and some were even drowned. Such a phenomenon abounded. A newspaper recently revealed that China has 37 million more males than females, and the state government now attaches great importance to this issue. In this question, I have my personal perspective. As I turned 30 years old, my parents gradually entered a stage of aging. Since then, my father was hospitalized almost every year, and recently my mother’s condition is getting worse. I am not the isolate case in China. Supporting the aged is now an acute social issue. It is really not easy for one to take care of two elders at the same time. How to use camera to represent this issue? It would be very easy to end up as a documentary as you said just now. Finally, I shot it in my way. I think I had no choice but a positive publicity like this, and I intended to show this in a humorous way and reflect a contrast. In the last year, I’ve shot many additional photos in this subject. In a couple of days, I may visit a village and shot a video: Since the moment I enter the village, family-planning advertising walls can be found everywhere, all bold characters, unified hues, and unified wording, just like those official propagandas. In fact, I have personally conducted investigations and research. According to demography, a nation should achieve a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman, which is academically known as population replacement level, required to maintain the population stability. I noticed that at present one-child policy has found its way into the heart of the Chinese people, who would feel guilty if they have a second child. Along with the descending will of bearing children and with a deduction of those who choose a single lifestyle, DINK (double income, no kids) families, and sterile couples, China’s actual fertility rate has now dropped to about 1.3. This is a dangerous. In the remote mountain areas, fields are farmed by aged people, their children leaving home and working in large cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou. In some places, fields gradually turned barren, and this has become a commonplace phenomenon. That’s why I intended to display this based on my personal experiences.

Gao: Then, how did you handle the composition of site specific and the actual scene? And, how did you reflect this in lens?

He: From my first series to the pending third series, most of my focuses go to things on wall, which in my view are all political traces left behind by history. From 1933 to 1957, and from the “Great Dinning Hall” in 1957 to “People’s Commune” and the Culture Revolution, till the “Three Represents” and “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces,” all these, closely associated with the national policies of different historic stages, have been widely advertised on walls. I think those are important historic marks. The family-planning policy, in my subjective judgment for example, will probably ceased by the central government in ten years. The one-child policy was formally approved by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 1980 and was designated as a national policy in 1982. But in my view, this limited people’s freedom and propelled China’s aging problem. Therefore, I believe this policy will be canceled in the near future, and in that case, these traces will soon disappear. What I care is their documentary value.

Gao: You are a professional photography. What kind of equipment do you use now?

He: Vintage camera, which is an optimal choice for documenting history. I hold a subjective affection for it. Without any digital component, it ensures true and faithful records. I highly value the documentary property.

Gao: These traces, including those mottles on the wall, look very genuine (looking at the album…).

He: There are more things inside. You know, traditionally Chinese people think son is a must, because they would depend on him when getting old. A Chinese saying goes, “Of the three kinds of unfilial conducts, the worst is having no male descendant.” However, the government educates people that “A daughter can also hold up a sky and will support you in your remaining years.” As a matter of fact, in China’s vast rural areas, females can be bullied even in their home villages, then how are they capable of taking care of their parents? In recent years, many foreign couples have adopted Chinese kids. During a recent visit to the Forbidden City, I met a dozen foreign couples who took along their children, all adopted Chinese, and all girls. Those girls were most likely to have been abandoned by their farming parents. Urban residents would not throw away their own children, but in rural areas, they have no choice, if they really want a second try for a son. This is pathetic, really! This is not a good phenomenon. Recently, media reports on the already unbalanced sex proportion, especially the male-to female gap of 37 million, have drawn attention of Chinese top leaders. The figure 37 million was officially revealed by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, while some overseas scholars in family planning have also written articles on this subject. I know a Chinese-American, who also researches on this. He was very glad to see my photos and even asked for one to be designed as the cover of his book. He showed me an article on China’s family planning, and according to him, China’s male-to-female gap actually goes beyond 37 million. Some even doubt about China’s official population figure of 1.3 billion. So, I think family-planning departments should guarantee their power and authority. Things inside are complicated. In a word, China today is still faced with serious problems.

Gao: When the local residents of the Three Gorges area began the historic relocation, I was there, and witnessed the touching, grand occasion. But, surprisingly, when I returned to China in 1999, I found no photographs on those scenes. Photographers focused more on individual objects, but few worked on site specific.

He: Westerners seem to care much subjective documentaries like this, but so far there is not a concept for such things.

Gao: I would think these conceptional things is better to be known as Post Site Specific.

Gao: That day when I saw your photographs, the concept “Post Site Specific” popped in my mind. Why “Post Site Specific”? This is related to what we talked about just now. Post Site Specific has several traits: Number one is the property of surmounting, or a character distinguished from that commercial, effortless site specific photography. Compared to those so-called site specific photographs, which are mostly random or snapshots and feature casualness and interest, Post Site Specific is actually an improvement of the snapshot-like Site Specific, realized on the basis of on-site investigation and research. In my view, the purpose of site specific is to better reveal reality, and subjectiveness is often involved. But the method must be fact-recording, otherwise social investigation would be meaningless. Secondly, considering the angle and subjectiveness of criticism, Post Site Specific is mainly devoted to representing the visible facts on the basis of reality, and such representation requires approaches, just like the inversion of time and space as Chen Jiagang mentioned just now. Only through such an inversion can the city symptoms be truly displayed. A good example is Qu Yan, who captured office views on specific sites in a flow of time to reflect the fact that in spite of the changes of officials the position of corruption remains unchanged. Such a multi-angle space displayed in picture offers viewers a feeling of genuine experience. In addition, He Chongyue’s approach is to use isolated monument-like photos to document wall paintings advertising the policy of family planning and reinforce the publicity language of the paintings. This contributes to a absurd paradoxical relationship between monument and anti-humanity. Meanwhile, in a meticulous way, he also shows in the pictures the historical backgrounds of those wall paintings. Therefore, the combination of each of your approaches of “Post Site Specific” determines that this concept is not a kind of simple snapshot but a genre related to criticism in reality. Your discussion just now was great. I like it very much.

Gao: I think this issue deserves attention, and we need to figure out appropriate methods. Therefore, at present, as we pay attention to this issue, we should focus on the acute, and effective, cases.

The “Beyond Site Specific” photographers have preserved their sense of responsibility and unremitting pursuit in art, adding a power of affection and a power of eruption to the site specific art. While embodying the spirit of realism, the artists show us more profound implications of the lifestyles that we may overlook in ordinary times.