Photographer lets urban images do the talking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am

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Shen Xiaoming, a 37-year-old Shenzhen-based freelance photographer also known as Bai Xiaoci, has been recording the urbanisation process across the mainland for four years through his camera lens, focusing on people's lives, homes and streets. In one of his latest projects, he zoomed in on government buildings. His photos have sparked online accusations of government corruption and waste.

What's your background?

I was born in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, and studied at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology. After graduation in 1997, I worked at a state-owned enterprise in Shenzhen, but lost my job when the company underwent restructuring. During the internet boom in 2000, I learned to use three software programs - Dreamweaver, Fireworks and Flash - that helped me land a job as webpage designer. I began posting articles online and was invited by an editor at The Southern Metropolis News to write commentaries. From 2003, I worked as an editor at a local newspaper. And now I run a small business developing iPad applications.

How did you get into photography?

In 2003 when the prices of digital cameras plunged, I spent about 3,600 yuan on a four-megapixel Olympus C4000 camera. Like any other beginner, I joined groups of amateurs to take scenic pictures outdoors. From 2005, I began to document villages in Shenzhen as a witness and recorder of urbanisation. Two years later, I shifted my focus to people's homes.

Why do you like to focus on people and city life?

I myself am experiencing urbanisation because I came from a small town in Zhejiang to the cities of Beijing and Shenzhen. Some say urbanisation is an unprecedented transformation and that 80 per cent of the population will live in cities. Figures released on December 19 showed the urban population had for the first time overtaken that in rural areas. It's a big deal, so I want to record it by focusing at a micro level, such as homes that reflect this big trend. So far, I have snapped photos of more than 300 homes. I like to collect images of different types of homes because some of them carry deeper meanings related to current affairs or historic events. I have also taken photos of earthquake survivors, Sanmen Gorge migrants and workers laid off from state-owned enterprises.

How did you get into taking photos of government buildings?

It's another angle of reflecting urbanisation. I originally chose this subject to enter the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in 2009. Government buildings are not simply about architecture, but also carry economic and political implications. Since land became a marketable commodity, the construction of government buildings has been the most direct way of pushing up prices of neighbouring land. In a bureaucratic officialdom, it is also one of the best ways for officials to demonstrate their capabilities - by revamping a new district and inviting renowned architects to build roads, squares and lawns. Both of these are behind the fact that government buildings are everywhere, whether or not the authorities can afford it. I take more than 10 photos of a facade and piece them together into a large horizontal image, creating some sort of architectural plan. This can be called 'archive photography'. It's the best way to reflect a China in transformation, I think. I stick to the original function of photography, which is to record reality.

What are these buildings like?

These are typical totalitarian buildings featuring elements used in the Tiananmen rostrum and square, including the Jinshui bridge, cloud pillars and street lights. Some of them, for example a building in Zhong county in Chongqing, are copycats of the Tiananmen rostrum. Many are huge, such as government buildings in Nantong, Jiangsu, and Shenzhen. They are normally symmetrical with huge squares and steps, and tall marble pillars. Even a county-level government building is no different.

What was the response on the web?

I was a bit hesitant to post the photos online because of society's hatred of officials and their ostentatious displays of wealth. Most web users said the buildings reflected a widening income gap, unchecked official power and waste. It was not my intention to trigger such controversy. I simply wanted to record what it was like. It doesn't matter how others interpret them.

What's your plan with these photos?

I haven't given it a thought yet. Right now I just keep taking them. I have taken photos of more than 40 government buildings, including county-level, city district and city government buildings. I get around on buses or take photos while on business trips. I don't know how much I've spent, maybe thousands of yuan. I don't have a plan for how many photos I should take or how long I should work on this project. That's the beauty of a freelancer - no time limit or pressure. It's not a way to make a living, but I quite enjoy the freedom.