Interview: Photographer Liu Heung Shing

Image by Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Long before embarking on a career in photojournalism that would include winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, before winning the 1989 Picture of the Year award for his coverage of China, before photographer Liu Heung Shing had ever picked up a camera - he was attending grade school in Fujian province. Years later, in 2008, Liu put his lifetime of experience photographing China to work editing China: Portrait of a Country. The huge book of photographs, taken by 88 Chinese photographers, gives a visual history of the country from 1949 to the present day, and has been hailed by many as one of the best books on the “New China” ever published. Liu will be taking part in the sold out Committing Journalism session at the Bookworm's International Literary Festival The Beijinger asked Liu about the book, and about his extraordinary career. You can browse our March issue (online version here) for interviews with many of the other authors appearing at the festival. You can browse the events here or on the Bookworm's official Literary Festival page.

All photos and photo captions below are taken from Liu Heung Shing's book, China: Portrait of a Country.

A Scene from Shajiabang.When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, his wife Jiang Qing, a former actress, assumed the role of cultural czar. She banned all but five Beijing operas, and had those reworked as "model operas" (yangban xi ). Two revolutioary modern ballets and one symphony were also chosen join this selected group of revolutionary performances pieces. All eight were later made into films, which allowed them to be widely distributed, and provided the entire Chinese population with its only officially sanctioned entertainment. Zhang Yaxin, 1971

tbj: What made you want to put together China: Portrait of a Country?

HS Liu: I first came in ‘76, when Mao died. I had just started my career. Then in ‘78 I came here, getting ready for the Sino-US normalization- I was the first Time photographer here. And then I joined AP. So in this span of 30 plus years, of course, China has changed- it is an extraordinary, epic story of changes since 78.

I was here for the first 5 years, until ‘84 I left when I was transferred back to Los Angeles. Over that period of time I saw a lot of books on China, including photography books done by international publishers as well as those done by the Chinese publishers. Somehow, its very weird, its one of those instinctual things- because I’ve been involved in China for so long- I find that when I look at these photography books, I don’t find a China I recognize, in a very kind of abstract way. Sometimes you look at a book and say ah, this is the England I know, this is the America I know- so I don't feel that when I look at a lot of books.

To analyze it in a very rough way, if you are an editor sitting in your office in New York or London looking at a book on China, I think the visual language of course is something these editors would be very familiar with- what is a good image, of course they know these things very well. But what’s lacking sometimes is that- I don't think an image can ever be completely separate from an understanding of history. You need to have other references of China rather than rely solely on images.

Marshal Ye Jianying holds court on the beach at a seaside resort in Hainan province. Ye played a key role in arresting the "Gang of Four", which effectively ended the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.De Xiuxian, 1973

tbj: Is that why you include a lot of text alongside the images?

No. Its about the pictures themselves. If you just look at the pictures and just cover all the text, you still see a progression of the 60 years in China that takes into account history, an understanding of daily life and what that meant for those people, what China was like in those first 30 years and why without those first 30 years you may not get the last 30 years, which hungered for change. An editor has to bring that reference. An editor brings the knowledge of the visual language into editing, but then he or she is rather limited by the sources. Back then you cannot access xinhua- not that xinhua would open up their archive- you’re not going to go to any particular source and say, ‘I am going to get all that is there.’ For me- even for me, with my familiarity of China and knowing the photographers- some of them personally- and all the institutions and agencies, it took me more than 4 years to complete.

So in that sense its finished- that’s my reason for doing this. Even when books came out- the photography books on china- when you look through these books, China, for me, is still rather far away. You don’t feel that you are close. And ironically you think it would be the Chinese photographers or Chinese publishers who would do the right job then. But in fact it’s also not true- they were brought up how to see…inadvertently they were conditioned to see pictures in a certain way, and to edit them in a certain way. On the other hand the truth is that they did not fail to recognize the events, but when they put it together it always comes out as propaganda. Its always kind of, they’re looking too cheerful, or they’re looking too dark, depending on what generation- so to take (out) that sweeping view of China- that turned out to be as difficult for the Chinese. So I kind of just said, well, I’ve kind of been going between these two worlds all my life- let me give it a try. This, basically, is the result of that.

Two Chinese teenagers who are members of the Young Pioneers perform in a skit to denonce the newly disgraced Madam Mao in Shanghai. Following the death of Chairman Mao in October 1976, the so-called "Gang of Four" headed by Madam Mao were arrested. She was brought to trail in 1981 and sentenced to death penalty with a two year reprieve. She died in 1991.Liu Heung Shing. 1976

tbj: When you edit pictures, do you look for a certain quality that you think that event had?

I always kind of instinctually work with a kind of twin criteria, or objective. One is that visually, it has to stand as a photograph. That in itself is not enough. This picture that is successful visually must also help this narrative. And this narrative of China- the new China- has to be closest to what I feel to be what really happened.

So when you look at (other specific events) or you look at the Cultural Revolution, you don't want to blow one thing out of proportion from other things. When you consider the famine of China in 1958 to ‘59 and the beginning of ‘60- China called it the three years of natural disaster. But in fact it was a famine caused by a complete collapse of agricultural production because of the Great Leap Forward. You can take your pick-some say 20 million, some say 25 million and some say 30 million people- vanished.

So I was here also (during the late ‘80s). So…you also have to put into proportion in terms of this much larger context of new China. Therefore in recognizing…in this book for example, it appeared, but it did not appear to overshadow.

tbj: So are there aspects of China’s history that you were struggling to find pictures for, and you feel are under-represented in the book?

Yes that is the famine. At that time in China, people don’t just go around photographing that sort of thing. But the Cultural Revolution, yes (they photographed). To get back to that period of 58-59, at least you describe The Great Leap Forward, the people refining the steel and so on and so forth, putting their pots and pans into the (smelter). At least then you can rely on certain background information to tell people the progression of daily lives in that period. And then when it completely collapsed in 62, 63, some people like Deng Xiaoping who came back to manage the economy and then Mao felt very threatened, and in ‘65-‘66 he wanted to throw out all these people again, and that’s why the Cultural Revolution was launched. And that went on for ten years. And again it didn’t work so Mao, when he was dying, he had to bring Deng Xiaoping back.

So all these things I needed to find images to define, to describe what it was like to go through that period. And this kind of photojournalism, documentary, whatever you call it, these images, A) Has to be a very good photograph. But B ) It also has to help this narrative.

So as a result, I looked for 4 and a half years, I looked through hundreds of photographers and yet, the images I selected are from 88 photographers- its just a coincidence, this number, you know people ask, do I believe in this ba ba and no, it just kind of came out 88 and you know, its China, it seemed (appropriate to use) Chinese photographers.

Deng Xiaoping, who has just been reinstated as Vice Premier, sits to the left of Mao, in Mao's study in Zhongnanhai. To the right of Mao is his chief body guard, Huang Dongxing, and behind the group stands Mao's personal staff. Du Xiuxian, 1974

tbj: Some of the photographs in the book are anonymous. Where did those come from?

Very very few. For example there is an image that is anonymous of a few people who died- they had been crushed. Simply, a photographer came to our bureau…handed me an envelope and he disappeared.

tbj: How has photojournalism changed since you got involved in it?

I think technology certainly has been an enabler, in a way it frees the photographer- you have the capacity to photograph more, if you don’t like it erase it. I went to cover the Afghanistan war and the fighting between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and the collapse of Soviet Union, and so on - I went through this whole transition period.

In Afghanistan we feel as a photographer, you go out there you have 3 cameras, 36, 36, 36 frames. In a way I feel, I have 36 bullets here, I have 36 bullets here, and I have 36 bullets here. And you never want to be caught in the situation where something is happening and you will be changing the film. So in a way that forces us to always look and think and so- I think that digital photography changed our behavior. Technology, as an enabler, it gives us something but it takes away something too.

Chinese workers plying their trade in the upper reaches of the Yangtse River, here pulling a boat upstream; a feat they do naked to protect the few clothes they possess. Qin Wen, 2005

tbj: How does modern technology take away from photography?

It took away because you don’t look as carefully. You may compose and so on, because all this superior technology, you know the light, the metering, the compensating, you can do all those things. So in some way, when you look at the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War, almost pictures are too clean. They’re too perfect. Because you can do all those things. If you can remember back (the famous photo of the) Normandy landing, that blurred picture would never happen today. Of course there is a story to that picture, it was shipped to New York, it was overcooked in the darkroom, it was overexposed so its very grainy- but that picture was blurred- (the photographer) was probably on Normandy beach without time to move, you don’t have auto (controls), you don’t have all of these things, so all of these things become a defining moment of Normandy landing.

Whereas today, if you do the same thing, you know, the picture will be perfect, composed, the light…so I don’t want to make a generalization but I think today people shoot but rely less on really watching, and waiting. Personally for me, it became a habit- I always came back to the bureau, I always had five frames left on each one. Basically I feel sometimes less is more.

tbj: Has technology had any other major impacts?

Before my generation, early on, you had to (send) the film, transatlantic. And then you had telegraph. And then you have radio photos. And then you have photo transmission through the telephone. When I started, to send pictures was 8 minutes analog, 16RPM. To transmit a color photograph you need cyan, magenta, yellow. So it was 24 minutes, if there were no hits on the phone line. Everything goes smooth, it still takes 24 minutes to send a color photograph in the 1980s. By the mid 1990s we have these big portable satellite phones, so it was reduced down to one minute. And now its seconds. So that in itself, you can do your math. 24 hours a day, times 60, times 60, is how many pictures you got.

Before, it was 24 hours multiplied by 60 minutes of each hour and then divided by 8. So in a way, technology just makes you send more. When you have a chance do the math, you come up with a mind boggling expansion of images. All coming into one agency. And then you have AP, AFP, Reuters, and so on. So we are inundated by images, not including Getty, and Corbis, and freelance, and so on. So all of these things become available. In those days, if a photographer wanted to be sent to India, it was not very doable. He had to be on assignment for Time, or for Newsweek- somebody had to send you there- but now, (there are) independent photographers, local photographers, in Turkey, in Iraq- everywhere in the world- with their phone, with their digital camera- they’re all very good, for a very low price- so we are in an explosive world of images. But when you look at it in terms of the platform we have- in terms of newspaper, in terms of magazine- the space that you can use pictures does not increase.

But there are more choices, and as a result, the choices are itself killing the business model. Today, Time magazine no longer sends a photographer to Beijing. They can rely on so many sources coming from china. And therefore, everybody can do pictures, and therefore, those who do pictures, they seem to have less resources.

tbj: So do you think the quality of photographs is going down rather than up?

I don't know if it’s going down but I just see a lot more pictures, and I don’t necessarily think they are better. Yes, now we have the web, we can use a few more images, but essentially the space for images is more or less the same. And yet you can choose so much more.
And sometimes - like I remember, the man in front of the tanks picture one other guy also had it, and…a very good photographer was editing, he simply missed that picture. And that was only in those days looking at negatives. So imagine, you are an editor today, you don’t even have negatives to look at, they are just pouring into your screen- can you go through all those images?

I think on one hand we need to accept that the world has changed. On the other hand, I was the last generation of photographer who was lucky enough to still get sent by the Associated Press to go to this country and that country and to be able to report on a country, and to watch the seasons change, and to live with the people. That kind of opportunity is just immense for a journalist.

H.S. Liu will be speaking at the Bookworm talk "Committing Journalism" on March 10 at 12:30 pm. The event is sold out.

Links and Sources
New York Times: In Ancient Alleys, Modern Comforts (top image)