The other new China

Updated: 2013-01-27 10:26

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Photographer Rian Dundon's new coffee-table book about Changsha takes a peek behind the scenes of the country's secondary city. Kelly Chung Dawson reports in New York.

The other new China

Rian Dundon, photographer of the coffee-table book Changsha.

Eleven of the world's 50 biggest cities are in China, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than three.

Photographer Rian Dundon followed his girlfriend to China to take a teaching position in 2005, landing first in Jishou, a mining city with a population of under 300,000, and later Changsha, a provincial capital of more than 7 million people, of Hunan province.

He spoke no Mandarin and arrived with few preconceptions about what life in China might be like.

He frequented pool halls, skateboarded and made friends quickly, picking up Hunan-accented Mandarin in the process. He began taking photos of what he would later dub "the other New China".

Those images are now available in the coffee-table book Changsha, published by Emphas.is, a crowd-funded platform for photojournalism.

The China presented in Dundon's pictures, made between 2005 and 2011, is neither the shiny metropolises nor the bucolic villages ubiquitous in Western narratives.

"It is something else altogether - people in marginal but isolated places, aware of a world beyond their experience but reworking and inventing local versions of it according to their own imaginations and desires, constrained by material difficulties but in no way intimidated by their status as citizens of a purported backwater," writes Gail Hershatter, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the book's foreword.

"For me there's no distinction between work and my social life," Dundon says. "They are the same thing, that's how I work everywhere. I'm not really a photojournalist or a documentary photographer in the classical sense. What I do is more private or personal documentary-style photography. It's all connected for me."

Hershatter, author of The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past (2011), advised Dundon on the project while the young man was enrolled in UC Santa Cruz's master of fine arts program in social documentation.

She compares Dundon's work to the early writing of Peter Hessler, whose book Rivertown details his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sichuan province in the 1990s.

"In a similar way, Rian's mode was to be moving through different situations but staying put long enough to actually get to know the people he was documenting," she says.

Most of the images are of Changsha, but Dundon followed his subjects to other cities and provinces, photographing them with their families, doing business or on the road.

The book features short essays, expanded from the journal Dundon kept during his time in China. In one piece, he writes about a restaurant owner who lost his business.

"Zhi Ge is slapping himself across the face, punching the side of his head with a closed fist," Dundon writes.

"In the back of the van are the saddest of salvaged artifacts from the restaurant: notebooks and napkins, a few half-finished bottles of baijiu (white liquor) and Pepsi and a greasy glass table top for the new office he doesn't have a location for yet. Items rescued because Zhi is already onto the next game, already focused on the next opportunity for business.

"He is modern, he is malleable. If the restaurant didn't work out, and funeral consulting isn't proving lucrative enough, he can do something else. There is always something else."

Although his images are often dark and desolate, Dundon didn't intend for them to convey hopelessness.

"I hope that while there is darkness, there's some sense of hope and levity. I tried to balance that. I'm not a documentarian and I don't claim to represent these people, I only purport to represent myself and my own story."

The images can also be viewed as a reflection on the life of a city that in 1938 burned nearly to the ground in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), Hershatter says.

"Often, when people adapt a gritty style of photography, they're showing abject images of human suffering, and that isn't what Rian is doing," she says. "Changsha is an environment that lost 2,000 years of existence in a 20th-century fire, and now on top of that we see layers and layers of destruction and construction that are part of the reform."

"It's a grim, ripped-up landscape. Rian's photos don't beautify it, but they don't make it look miserable, either. For him, it's just the city in which these people live. One of the biggest messages you get from these images is that China isn't uniform."

Dundon's hope is that the book will suggest a more complicated narrative.

"We should be moving away from simplistic interpretations of China," he says. "Photography tells stories you can't put into words, it's particularly good for stories that are undefined. I want to complicate the conversation, because life is messy and complication is a good thing."

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