Restaurant staff gather for a pep talk, Xiamen, July 2007.  © Polly Braden

There is a picture early on in China Between of the staff of a restaurant assembled in the establishment’s entranceway, behind a window. Four of the seven workers respond to photographer Polly Braden’s presence with amusement and the woman closest to Braden looks directly at her – and the viewer – with an enigmatic smile. Braden is barely discernible in the window’s reflection standing between two bicycles (one of them her own?), elbows close to her sides, camera to her face. Yet while she is nearly invisible, the place she occupies is at once the focus of the composition and of the subjects’ attention. It’s reminiscent of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, in which lines of attentions and gazes create both tension and delight.

Evening light, Xiamen, August 2007. © Polly Braden

China Between is full of such encounters between Braden and the strangers she comes across, pictures made mostly in the streets of Xiamen and Kunming in 2007 and 2009. As with the restaurant window image, Braden’s presence is felt in many of the pictures. She works consistently at a medium to long distance that prevents us from imagining ourselves in the place of the subjects, even as we are invited to scrutinise their facial expressions and gestures.

Braden has a keen eye and a strong sense of timing that result in provocative and unexpected engagements. She places people firmly in the context of their environment and attends to and appreciates small details. Some of her subjects are photographed unawares; others regard her in return or interact with her. The pictures are sharp, and people are stopped in mid-motion. As frozen tableaux, the pictures have a muted, muffled quality; for all of the activity and presence described, there is no sound. This silence enhances the sense of distance between the viewer and the subjects.

Bus station, Xiamen, August 2007.  © Polly Braden

Nonetheless, every moment is specific and unique and suggests an equivalence of lived moments. These are not revelatory, privileged peak moments; rather, they are the moments between such moments. Even so, they are no less decisive – Braden is sensitive to the alignment of form, feeling, and information, Cartier-Bresson’s convergence of eye, heart, and mind – that allows many of these images to eloquently draw out “livedness” of these mundane instances, with the photographer as interlocutor.

The woman is persuading potential customers into her employer’s restaurant.
Kunming, September 2009. © Polly Braden

Even an image that at first glance appears to be a visual joke – a worker in a framing shop wearing a pair of glasses over newspaper that sits on his face – reveals itself to be completely earnest; what at first glance appears to be a comical disjuncture is actually improvised safety eyewear for the man who wields a power saw. You realise it’s not a joke and then you see how weary the men are.

Window frame assembly workshop, Xiamen, August 2007. © Polly Braden

There’s a refreshing looseness to the pictures. They are careful but not overly-formal, the compositions efficient but not overstated. This looseness and Braden’s attention to the everyday as it reveals itself is a pleasure as well as a change of pace from programmatic, typological modes of documentary description that have been so prominent in documentary photography over the last decade.

But while this looseness is the individual images’ strength, it is also a weakness of the book; it is difficult to discern what kind of case Braden is making about China. The pictures, which powerfully describe how people are, are so deeply seated in the human moment that larger political, social, and cultural processes fall away. It’s an intensely subjective study: there’s a lot of observation but not a lot of interpretation or analysis. Symbols are deployed – bits of advertising, the appearance of uniforms, the way people’s bodies look when they work, play, carry children – but it’s hard to know what Braden thinks about these scenes. The tension between Braden and her subjects that enlivens many of these photos with energy is so much stronger than the tension between elements within the image itself. Even the image of an elderly woman navigating a wet street at night, passing a contemporary wedding shop speaks more to the feeling of that moment than of the generational distances it displays.

Night walk. Xiamen, September 2007. © Polly Braden

Is there an argument being made here, either explicitly or in sensibility, or are these images merely meant to be taken as a collection of notes on her explorations of public life? What is the statement that these pictures make as a group, as a book?  Braden is clearly seeing things and asking us to pay attention to what she notices. But the organisation of the book does not offer a clear logic, and the rhythm of the edit is faint. It’s not that the book does not deliver; it’s that it is unclear what is being promised.

The clues that the reader receives are confusing. Perhaps it’s the title China Between that made me anticipate a more sociologically self-conscious work. There is a back cover quote saying “the photographs are at once anthropological documents and a personal travelogue; a series of intimate portraits and, more generally, studies of a country undergoing a massive transition”; while this isn’t inaccurate, I didn’t feel that it gets at what the book is really about or what Braden had to offer, her particular way of seeing, of holding a scene loosely together at an arm’s length. (What is being offered is further confused by the use of paintings on the front and back cover.)

Street eyebrow plucking service, Zhongshan Road, Xiamen, July 2007. © Polly Braden

The pictures are indeed full of visual information that could be taken as ethnographic detail. But the book also speaks to anthropological legacies in that it describes Braden’s effort to negotiate a distanced and potentially unequal encounter between a western visitor and people who find themselves observed, often without any choice. Braden embeds this relationship in many of her pictures, as in the photograph ending the book of a woman literally held in place by her eyelids – she is having her eyebrows plucked in the street. The energy in these pictures comes in no small part from Braden’s willingness to seek out and present situations as a stranger looking in, often forcing other strangers to look back.

Leo Hsu

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China Between

  • Published by Dewi Lewis, April 2010
  • Texts by David Campany & Jennifer Higgie
  • 96 pages, 63 colour photographs
  • 297mm x  245mm
  • ISBN: 978-1-904587-88-0
  • £25