Photographing Chinese History in the Making

Bruno Lessard, The Refracted Moment: Photographing Chinese History in the Making, Journal of Chinese Humanities, 2014,  DOI: 10.1163/23521341-01010009

image of Journal of Chinese Humanities

This article examines the way in which both Western and Chinese photographers have documented Chinese history in the making by focusing on the photographic documentation of two key events in the formation of Chinese society: the 1911 Revolution that laid the foundation for the birth of the republic and the “energy revolution” that was the Three Gorges Dam project (1994-2012). The major difference between the two revolutions is that the latter was documented by the Chinese themselves. No longer relying upon images made by Westerners exclusively, as was the case in 1911, the Chinese appropriated this monumental event in their history to archive it photographically. The article offers a conceptual framework for understanding revolutionary events in the context of historiography and photography history. The analysis of various photographs of the 1911 Revolution by Francis Stafford and of the Three Gorges Dam project and area by Edward Burtynsky, Bill Zorn, Zeng Nian, and Yan Changjiang shows that the event remains an evanescent and quasi-impossible entity to capture photographically, and that photographers can only archive its refracted presence in the faces, landscapes, and objects in front of the lens. What the pictures unveil is that the refracted moments of these two events are far more significant than the actual events themselves for the photographers under study.

Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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