|ONLINE - Reviews|
|Written by Li Zhensheng|
|03 Dec 2003|
Bringing the Revolution Home.
When Li Zhensheng, now 63, began working as a photographer at the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, his job was simple - to capture glowing images of the party, peasantry and workers of China's most northerly province.
Then came the Cultural Revolution. Purges of "class enemies" and "capitalist roaders", the overthrow of "counter-revolutionary" communist party leaders and internecine fighting between rival groups of Red Guards claimed millions of lives and brought the People's Republic to the brink of collapse.
There to record it all was Li Zhensheng. Acting outside his brief of presenting only the positive side of proletarian China, he captured the violence and chaos in an archive of incredible images that constitutes arguably the most important body of Chinese photojournalism ever created.
Li's inspiration to record history started at Changchun Film School in the early 1960s. "Wu Ying Xian, the famous Chinese photographer told me, "Photographers are not only witnesses. They are recorders as well." It made me realise that when we record history, we have to record it completely - the negative as well as the positive," explains Li.
As the Cultural Revolution gathered pace, negatives there were aplenty. Li recorded the desecration of a Buddhist Monastery, and the humiliation of monks, forced to stand holding a banner that reads "To hell with Buddhist Scriptures. They are full of dog farts."
Then there is the political persecution. In one incredible sequence, Li shows Heilongjiang's Provincial Governor, Li Fanwu, being denounced. Head bowed, and standing on a chair, his head is shaved by zealous Red Guards, their eyes full of ideological fury.
Ren Zhongyi, the provincial party secretary, is shown with his face daubed with ink and wearing a dunce's gap. In 1966, Ren was accused of being a "Black Gang Element" and "capitalist-roader". Surviving the traumas of over 2,000 criticism sessions, Ren became the Party Secretary of Guangdong Province in the 1980s - and can count the establishment of the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen amongst his reforming achievements.
Other photographs from the Cultural Revolution do exist, but what makes Li's unique is they are the only ones that portray the period with such journalistic and historical integrity and purpose. "When I took these images," explains Li, "photographers from other newspapers just stood there. They said - "what's the use of taking these photos - you will be criticised for wasting film" - and would only shoot the positive propaganda images." Li, in contrast, would shoot pictures for publication, then concentrate on capturing the negative images - the violence and psychodrama of Red Guard rallies and criticism sessions.
To get better access to political events, Li noticed that "...people wearing a Red Guard armband could take photographs freely..." So Li got his rebel armband
and "...whenever I wore it I could take all the photographs I wanted, and nobody ever bothered me."
As a Red Guard, Li soon became the target of rival groups - as did his growing archive of politically suspect negatives. "Before I realised it was risky to take these photos," he says, "I only put the negatives away so my colleagues wouldn't see them. In 1968, when our rebel group was about to be criticised, I realised I had to do something about the negative images. I transferred all the negative images from my office to my home. Had they been found, they would have been burnt. I witnessed many negatives being burnt."