While documenting the Cultural Revolution, photojournalist Li Zhensheng took photos of atrocities being carried out at the time, which he hid under the floorboards of his home. As his work goes on display at the Barbican in London, Li tells us how he got started and why history makes images important…
How did you get into photography?
When I was in secondary school I wanted to be a film director. I enrolled at the Changchun film school, majoring in cinematography, but my dream was crushed in the early 60s as a result of the great famine after the Great Leap Forward movement. None of my classmates could become cinematographers so we all went into news photography. That was in 1963, when I was 22.
How has your film training influenced your approach to photography?
Some of my pictures use cinematography techniques. When shooting a film you can roll your camera to take a panoramic view but in photography you can’t. So I used the camera to shoot individual photos, but in sequence.
If you could start your career again, what would you do differently?
If I were starting my career now, I would probably choose to be a director, because you can do lots of things with it. But during the Cultural Revolution it was impossible to be a film director or cinematographer because what you produced was just political rubbish. My work is an unintended result of my using cinematographic skills to take photos. I don’t feel any regret about my work [as a photographer]. The films made during the Cultural Revolution were just products, not works of art.
You were a photojournalist for the Heilongjiang Daily newspaper during the Cultural Revolution. Tell us a bit about the work you did there.
The photos I took were of two types. One was positive – it elaborated and promoted the Cultural Revolution. They were seen as good in the eyes of the time. The other type was negative, showing the dark side of the Cultural Revolution. I should have handed these films over to be destroyed but I thought they were useful – they were the witness to history – so I hid them for future use. These photos were shown in Beijing in 1988 and then in the west in 2003, first in Paris, then in London and Barcelona. Up until now my work has been shown 50 cities and countries have and their audience is over two million.
What is your advice for young photojournalists?
I don’t know a lot about young photographers in the west, but in China I always have the same answer when people ask what advice I have for young Chinese photographers. People are quite envious I took these photos and but I tell them: when I was a student I had the same admiration for the older photographers who had taken photos of Mao Zedong. You use the camera to shoot photos for the future. The definition of an old photo is 20 years, so if you start taking photos and putting them aside, then after 20 years their value will be shown.
I’m not so keen on those photographers who go to remote areas, to minority villages in the regions, to take photos. Actually you can take photos anywhere. You can take photos around you in the current situation and they will be valuable later. This applies to photographers in the west too. We have to start from today! Do not seek immediate gain with your photography. You have to be able to bear the loneliness and isolation. Fortune will come later if your work is valuable. Like with mine – I took them 40 years ago but they only showed their value after 20 or 30 years.
Li Zhensheng's work features in Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, which runs from 13 September 2012 to 13 January 2013 at Barbican Art Gallery in London.
Image of Li Zhensheng © Jane Hobson.
Image two: Several hundred thousand Red Guards attend a "Learning and Applying Mao Zedong Thought" rally in Red Guard Square (formerly People’s Stadium). Harbin, Heilongjiang province, 13 September 1966 © Li Zhensheng. Courtesy Contact Press Images.
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