Photographing Life and Humanity on Chinese Trains
Chinese trains have been in the glaring spotlight lately, for all the wrong reasons. As have cultural behaviour on trains by tourists from China been a frequent topic of debate in our ‘civil’ world. So it’s with coincidental poignancy that we flip through a recently acquired photobook, Chinese On The Train featuring a decade’s worth of photography by Wang Fuchun, of Chinese people commuting on trains between big cities and small towns.
Let’s begin with a quote from Wang: “The goal is not to create artistic works, but to experience life, to think about life, to prove life and to exhibit life.”
In the above photograph, the caption reads “The carriage is like a multi-faceted prism that mirrors with clarity the larger society, life, the family–everyone of us. It also resembles a stage where all kinds of comedies, tragedies, and farces are displayed. In other places, people are usually reserved and disciplined, but on the train, they are so much at ease and self-indulgent.”
Wang’s images and text reveal affinity with China’s long tradition of Humanistic Photography. His rigour is best described in this opening reflection “Whenever boarding a train, I feel as if I am wandering on the streets of Harbin, the Hutongs in Beijing or the alleys in Shanghai. I enjoy it so much, I almost forget to return home.”
On choice of palette, Wang prefers black and white film for abstraction over colour and digital. Wang started with Chinese films Shanghai, Gongyuan and Lucky, then Ilford, before settling on Kodak TMX, for it’s stability, even beyond expiry.
In a closing interview with Shi Pengfui, Wang describes further, the humanistic tradition of Chinese documentary photography: “Documentary photography should be a realistic and vivid and profound record of life, society and history. Its historic and documentary value far exceeds its aesthetic value.” To Wang, a good body of work is one which combines perfectly, content and form – when one lacks or the other, content should take precedence over form.
On selecting a subject matter, Wang advises working humbly with topics of familiarity, subjects that are near, not far. “Nowadays photographers would swarm in for the same subject with little regard for avoiding repetition.” He adds.
A good pairing of Wang Fuchun’s Chinese People On The Train is the wonderful documentary film Last Train Home (2009) by directed by Lixin Fan.