Journey of Returning Home
My thoughts on Cai Huan-songs documentary photography of his native land
By Jin Ning
Using the identity of the photographer to expound photographic theory, Mr. Cai is a rare master. He is able to study and research photography theory, study individual cases and review works, and he is still able to persist in photography practice; from the Sharon landscape to social documentary, he puts out great works frequently. I always feel that he is a multi-dimensional person; he is full of energy, and even though I am 10 years younger, I really feel that he is more energetic than me. Perhaps I these words will aptly describe him: if not in the study, he must be on the road to a shoot.
I had a few chances to go out photographing with Mr. Cai, and I have deeply experienced his resourcefulness and ingenuity at the site. His skill of capturing the moment is superb; he has a unique visual perspective, and can always capture those details and instants that other people do not pay attention to. I have always thought that to a photographer, all of the coincidence actually comes from accumulation. The eyes are controlled by the brain; thinking comes first, followed by consciousness.
Suddenly one day I saw a group of landscape photographs taken in Inner Mongolia, and I was amazed. His collection, named Water ink Shang Sha Wan, has unique beauty and lyrical meaning in it, and is full of scholarly spirit. Later on, one of the pictures was published on the cover page of the academic journal Literary Studies, and it added appeal for the magazine. Regarding his ability to make pictures of sand hills with water ink tones, I can only say that the venerable Cai is an expert!
Not long ago, he came wearily back from the south. I thought that he had gone home for the New year, but he came back with a set of documentary works, called Coming of age festival in Yue Pu Village, Chao Shan. I knew this was a theme that he had been tracking continuously, but this time the works were more abundant and detailed, and the images were more solid. I looked at every single one of them closely and repeatedly, and the first thought that came to my mind was, he worked so hard, day after day, watching waves of people and listening to the noise from morning to evening twilight; I imagined him holding the camera, moving keenly and agilely without pause, and I can only say that it must not be easy to be the venerable Cai!
Cai had a companion on this trip, the renowned Japanese master photographer Mr. Hiroji Kubota. This gentleman is one of many Magnum masters, and is also one of the foreign photographers who continuously shoots in-depth photos of Chinese society. He is a regular guest of the Chinese photography field. On this trip to Chaoshan, first of all he was invited by Cai to his hometown, and second, they photographed under the same theme, which can be interpreted as a pair of masters competing and testing each others swordsmanship. Theoretically, with their photographic experience, things like technique are not a problem, and their distinctive artistic styles are already formed; as for comparison, in my opinion, this lies in their different visual perspectives facing the same theme or object, and can be the topic of a special article. Considering their different cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, the differences and similarities shown in specific works reflect each photographers unique visual discovery and center of psychological attention.
The two sets of these two photographers works this time are the more typical works of image anthropology. In my experience, it is really difficult to shoot this kind of work. In addition, this is worthy of study: the inherent psychological support for Mr. Cais shooting is going back home, while in Mr. Hiroji Kubotas shooting, its essence of creative behavior is visiting. From the point of anthropological research and its image expression, this has gone beyond the so-called home/away game-type competition; it is more a reflection of two different observation, grasp, and research paths. They are leading to the same property of values, but it also has a different connotation of expression. My article aimed primarily at the former shooting practice, and this is only because, in my opinion, the status quo of Chinese photography, should emphasize more on image excavation of regional cultural modality, so in one sense, Mr.Cais shooting method is worth advocating, and it has also provided a targeted research text for the Chinese photography world.
In recent years, so-called anthropological documentary photography has become a very popular line of business; however, few people are deeply into it, and more just join for fun. Plus, by tying the knot with the tourism industry, the photography collections were formed one after another, and they bloomed everywhere. Anywhere that has anthropological specimens, a large number of photographers would gather. Sometimes, in a folklore scene, swaying lenses and photography vests filled the eyes, and the scene was extraordinarily lively. This has objectively resulted in two deadlocks: one is the photographic act itself severely interfering with the comfort of the civil life and the state; the other one is that the leading participants of the activity began to move closer to photography, and the original ecological functions and significance, therefore, have been greatly weakened and changed.
I suddenly remembered two jokes, and they were both from the anthropology professor of Chinese University of Hong Kong, Qiao Jian. (This gentleman is a junior classmate of Taiwan anthropology professor Li Yi-yuan, who were then studying at Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of Taiwan University. These two men and the Japanese anthropology professor Nakane Chie came frequently to the mainland to do research during the 1990s, and they are close friends with professor Fei Xiao-tong.) Professor Qiao studied the American Navaho Indian tribe, and he said people there had a joke poking fun at anthropologists: A Navaho family usually includes a mother (it is a matriarchal society), father, children, and an anthropologist. Obviously the latter appeared rather often. Here is another joke: Early American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber wrote many reports on American Indians. One day, he went to visit an Indian family. He asked a question, then the Indian immediately went into the backroom, and did not come out until much later. Kroeber was exceedingly puzzled, and asked him if he went inside to ask his old mother. The man said that he only went in to glance through a book that was written by an anthropologist named Kroeber, lest he answer about his own customs wrongly.
Anthropology and colonial action at least in the early years are joined together as companies, and that is another story. Photography, however, is also a type of aggression behavior, and the camera is simply an invader. Thus, the imagination of foreign lands and interest in differences together gradually became a behavior dominant among many photographers.
Mr. Cai used the continuous photographic expedition method to watch and document the traditional folk ceremonies of Guangdongs Chaoshan region, but he was on a completely different level from the phenomena previously cited. For him, it was returning home, so he could sneak in very deeply; like they used to say in the movies, Dont fire the gun, enter the village quietly, and observed and photographed in a natural state. Frankly, this kind of experience is hard to replicate, and it is very valuable. I believe that a mature photographer must have a wide range of concerns and photographic interests, but I also think that, if there is a theme of advantage to explore, then it would be a rare blessing. I think that Mr. Cai has paid plenty of attention to this, and shown a high level of cultural awareness.
Let us take anthropological research, for example. Malinowski believed that Fei Xiaotongs research has created a precedent for anthropological research in native lands. What this Western scholar referred to was Feis research on his hometown, Kai Xian Gong Village of Wu Jiang Miao Gang Township in Xiangsu Province (Fei names it Xiang Village in his book), before he went to LSE (London School of Economics). There are other examples, such as, Mr. Feis classmate, professor Lin Yao-huas research on Tian Huang Village of Fujian, etc.
I have no intention of exaggerating the value of the current achievements of anthropological photography; I only want to emphasize the importance of Qu Fa Hu Shang, (from Chinese Yi Jing, it means imitating excellent and exquisite knowledge and technique.), and todays photography can actually provide a basis for further sorting out and enhancing the study of color in the future. It is not difficult to imagine, with a similar face and the same accent of dialect, the venerable photographer Cai photographed these works under the condition of not interfering with the object and peoples lives. What literary value this should be!
The next problem may be more complex, and also more ontologically essential. To photographers, at least, at a lively and complicated ceremonial scene, how should the picture be selected? For photography, regardless of pre (shooting), or post (editing images for the exhibition and publication), this is exceedingly important. This is No.1, but not just a technical problem, and more importantly, it is ultimately a problem of awareness and understanding.
The temple and celebrations possess a strong symbolic significance. Anthropologists often regard the local social ritual as a hidden text is live social text is modern day peoples social memory of the traditional local culture or the social life style (from The Insight of Wandering, by Wang Ming-ming). I found that Mr. Cai is very familiar with the meaning of this text and its secret. (In fact, the deeper meaning is that, as a fellow villager, he should approve the text, and comprehend the secret more. This approval and comprehension, based on being raised within the same culture, would even surpass the ceremony itself, yet are hidden in his blood stream). From the coming of age ceremony (the giant pig match) to singing and dancing; from jumping over the fire pillar to the god of travel, every step has an appropriate description. With careful observation, it reached the refining presentation. Lively images and the details of the scenes were all documented through perfect photographic means. Almost every picture is full of information and has prominent visual emphasis. There is some funny dramatic humor that appears occasionally in the scenes, and that is hard to come by. I think this is a unique discovery of the photographer, and it is also an externalization of his personality nature; to encounter the unexpected inside the ordinary is indeed very rare. I must say, only Mr. Cai can melt into the environment here, and use the vision of anthropological practice to see, which is the superiority to which attention should be paid.
From the works shown this time, there are two points worthy of appreciation. First of all, the photographer paid close attention to the variables of the ceremonial scene from beginning to the end. In my understanding, Chaoshan is located in the open frontier of the southern coast of China; the local people have kept their traditional customs and rules, and yet have also been at the cutting edge of the general mood of society, therefore every aspect of detail contains new symbols. The photographers concern about the visual records of changes, and their comparative and complementary work, has strengthened the literary qualities of the works. From another perspective, this has also set a target for further continuous tracking and inspection. In the continuous tracking and revisiting, we observe the evolution of social life, and this should be the meaning in the topic of anthropology or anthropology-related observation studies. Secondly, during the shooting, the photographer paid great attention to the coordination and interaction between the environment and people. When taking pictures of people, he properly handled the depth of field relations, and did not neglect environmental information and the reappearance of atmosphere. In the past, at many similar photographic activities, the photographers always routinely emphasized a characters modeling portrayal, and the background was inappropriately empty. In my opinion, such processing ignored precisely the functional significance of the photographic theme. (Anthropology emphasizes that function is a rather scientific theoretical topic, and concerning its related photographic practice, the functionality is always intentionally or unintentionally ignored; this is worth thinking about.) If the information is insufficient, the character is artistically pulled out of the environment by the action of photography, which in fact is dissociation of the theme; it is also weakening or even eliminating the value of the specimens of the image.
Mr. Cai said that he intended to further his work in Chaoshan cultural development in order to provide more complete, detailed, rich and vivid visual observation records. I think, to him, in the sense of space or psychology, no doubt it will be a journal of returning home. Its significance is not just a release of feelings, but the love of a wander for his hometown. More importantly, through his follow-up practice, he can put his thinking for photography into specific creative activities. One can imagine that this will provide a valuable text for local studies, and in the meantime, it will bring a useful topic to Chinese photography.
I look forward to his efforts, and also wish him a great harvest in the fields of both theory and photography.