Transcend the Documentary – Chinese Documentary Photography in Contemporary Context


Zang Ce

The exhibition The Family ofMan, curated by Edward Steichen in 1955, was an unprecedented chorus ofhumanistic photography. However, this illusory world constructed by grandnarrative was unable to disguise the distinctness in it, let alone justifyitself. In the eye of “new documentary” photographers, the humanistic approachis already some kind of hypocrisy. The world in the first place is the oneperceived and experienced by all individuals, and therefore it is different inthe eye of different people. It is truly hard to imagine the world if not froman individual’s perspective. The past ideas on documentary, limited bypositivism, tended to only emphasize its replication function, believing the worldin the pictures is the duplicate of the real world. However, the world in thelenses does not equal to the one scanned by our retinas. The meaning ofphotography is to help us observe and ponder on the familiar world once againwith pictures.

Photographers of the newgeneration are substituting personal perspectives and opinions for theseemingly “objective” replication, and thus transcend the sentimentalhumanitarianism. Photographic artists from the Chinese mainland have alsocrashed the so-called “faithfulness” in traditional documentary with subjectiveperspectives, turning the focus from the objects observed to the experience andintrospection during “observing”. The personal perspective and standingtherefore stand out. The focus of their observation also turns from so-called“significant topics” to the exploitation and deep analysis of routine things — revealingthose behind the obvious things — thus entering the textual deep culturalcoding. This is a successful transformation from visual sense to spirit, i.e.from simply recording events to raising questions.

Robert Adams emphasizedthree facts in landscape photography: geography, autobiography and metaphor.The image symbols corresponding to “geography” and “autobiography” are roughlyequivalent to iconic symbols and indicative (index) symbols, which are theelements of traditional documentary photography, while the extension of“metaphor” can transform images into conventional symbols, so that imagesbecome texts and enter the system of contemporary art. Documentary photographyin today’s China has already entered a new stage: it is able to explorepractical questions by observing and meanwhile reflect on deep cultural issueswith images. But “documentary” will never stop thus far. It will continue toexplore the visual memory beneath the history and go on expanding the boundaryof photography.

This exhibition, named"Transcend the Documentary: 2019 Lanzhou International Biennale ofImage", open at Yan'erwan Contemporary Art Museum in Lanzhou, Gansuprovince on October 26, 2019. There are 27 artists' works in the"Transcend the Documentary" academic exhibition. The exhibition andthe related academic seminars aim to thoroughly analyze and exhibit thoseactive documentary photographers in the Chinese mainland, who take there-examination of reality as their motivation, and let the connotation ofphotographs transcend their literature attributes. It is also held in honor ofthe 180th anniversary of photography’s birth.


From “objective” recordingto subjective expression, street photography is no longer about photographersseeking “decisive moments” or a sketchpad for modernism; instead it has becomea gather spot for presenting personalized subjective visual experience and discoveringrealistic “problems“. In street photography as such, the everyday streets whichare considered as ordinary and familiar begin to show various characteristicsof “heterotopias” under the reflection and re-examination in the dimension ofimages, and have offered us realistic space for deep thinking.

Participating Artists:Mo Yi , Han Lei, Sun Yanchu,  Yan Yibo, Feng Li, Wang Yishu


Facesare the superficial characteristics of the time. They are not only closelyrelated to individuals’ life path, but also intertwined with identities andcultural groups. Identity is an important topic in contemporary art. In acontext where globalization and localism confront each other, artists arequestioning and challenging the unitary identity discipline. Nevertheless, weneed to think over the issue of identity in a reverse perspective: who on earthis limiting the free development of cultural identity as well as thediversification of personal identity? Does it derive from the prejudice ofwest-centrism or the backwardness of local culture?

AnEastern version of the question is: who is containing you?

ParticipatingArtists:LuYuanmin, Li Lang, Song Chao, Su Sheng, LuoMingyi, Wang Yuanling, Luo Yang


In the development oflandscape photography, there was an important transformation where artists ranfrom Ansel Adams’ transcendentalist tradition to embrace cultural landscape andsocial landscape. This is an age of simulacrum, and the new generation of photographerspay more attention to artificial landscape, rather than natural landscape. Man,thing and place are the basic topics in photography. Landscape photographybrings the viewers to that place depicted in the picture and triggers them tothink. Landscape photography that pays constant attention to ascertain place,on the other hand, seeks to present the local spirit of that area.

Participating Artists:Zheng Zhiyuan, YanChangjiang, Li Wei, Xiao Xuan'an  


“On the Way” is the eternaltopic for photographers. A journey is either long or short, but every trip isable to create a photographer…“On the Way” is a totally open topic:it could be the personal observation from a unique perspective, or the visualexpression of one’s psychological journey, or even the reflection and detailedinquiry on “nostalgia”…

Participating Artists:Mu Ge, Luo Dan, ZhangXiao, Su Jiehao, Zhu Lanqing  


Traditional documentaryphotographers are used to making up a virtual subject that transcendsthemselves to set up an “objective” standing: The photographers seeminexistent, and the medium is transparent, and in the end we are looking not ata photo, but life itself… However this is nothing but an illusion created withthe help of visual techniques. Every individual is an independent world. The worldin the eye of different people is different. The so-called “objective” is onlythe greatest common divisor of human visual experience. The external world thatpeople see is nothing but the 3D model built by our consciousness. The worlddoes not have its appearance; we create one for it with our visual sense. Theworld in the photography, on the other hand, can be “seen” only by photographicmedia. What really matters to photography, the art of viewing, is to findproblems from the perspective of personal life experience and present it withvisual expression. Naturally, the problem after “the shift of problems” willnot be confined to the problem itself; instead it will elevate to “the problemon problems” in the spiritual level.

Participating Artists:Birdhead, Ao Guoxing,Gao Yan, Xing Danwen, Jin Jiangbo