This is not the concept for a modern dance troupe, or a drama like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. If it was fiction, the concept, casting, costumes, and choreography would win top prizes. Yet, apparently, this is real.

Here’s the story:

700 psychiatric patients live chained together in pairs, and are forced to tend more than one million chickens at the largest chicken farm in Taiwan. Portraits of the players in this real yet surreal drama were photographed with kindness, respect and compassion by Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang.

The photographer, who was born in Taiwan in 1961, arranged the portraits with consistency and vision that make the series work so incredibly well: Generally a pair of “inmates”, chained together, stand and face the camera against a dark background. We see them from head to toe, the camera always being the same distance from the subjects. Yet the people in the portraits move around in the frame, chafing perhaps against the physical limits of the chain, trying to get away from (or showing affection to) the person they are chained to, dodging in and out of the frame. Some stand very tall, erect and proud. Others are slumped in resignation. Still others stare mask-like into the camera. Some are like fidgety children who refuse to stand still for even a moment. Some pairs have become compatible couples. Others are opposites straining to get away. Almost all seem like they are living in a sad nightmare.

Each photo is a little masterpiece. Combined as they are in this book, the series of 48 (mostly) dual portraits becomes utterly amazing. The design of the book is brilliant. Each photograph is printed superbly in duotone inks as part of one long accordion-pleated sheet that is so appropriate to the subject matter of people literally chained together. When fully opened, the single page of the book could easily stand on its own as an elegant gallery installation extending 20 feet long by 8 inches high.

Beyond the repetition and sameness, we start to recognize the elegance of gesture, how the bodies are held, a toe curled up in tension here or there. The way the make-shift clothes, soiled and dirty, hang limply on the bodies. Attitudes vary from awkward, ill at ease, sad, defiant. And then you try to imagine the realities of these lives.

The story is “explained” only at the end of the series, in a long, compelling, pseudo-fictional letter from an inmate to his mother, who had apparently abandoned her child at the factory some 30 years prior.

I will reserve the pleasure of reading the letter for your personal intimate connection with this book. But here is more of the back-story, provided by the publisher:

In 1970 Li Kun-Tai, an abbot in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, decided to become a Buddhist monk. He built a thatched hut in front of his house, adopted a schizophrenic as his disciple, and began to raise pigs and chickens with his new helper, whom he kept on a line of string, much like a leash. Within 20 years Li Kun-Tai, by now renamed (by himself) Hieh Kai Feng, had 600 deranged helpers, most chained together, almost exclusively consigned to him by their families, distraught by the shame of having to look after lunatics, or socially unacceptable misfits. Ten years later, in 1999, Long Fa Tang — the Temple of the Dragon — was recognized as the largest chicken farm in Taiwan, with a million chickens laying eggs and defecating in almost equal proportions. They are tended by helpers from the 700 mental patients in the ‘care' of the Temple, wading through slurry, eggs and chicken corpses. Hieh Kai Feng had by now sought to sophisticate the impracticalities of string, and with such a large number of inmates found that a light chain was the most efficient form of control. So he chained them together, one by one, through noon and night. He is delighted with the results, and proud of them. He firmly believes he is not only taking care of his patients but also helping alleviate the tremendous burden placed on their families.

This book was published in 2002, and won deserved praise from around the world. It is one of my personal all-time favorite photobooks, so I was pleased to learn that Trolley Books plans to release a special limited first edition version (in a metal box) in 2007.

— Jim Casper


The Chain
Photographs by Chien-Chi Chang
Text by Cheryl Lai
112 pages, 48 duotone illustrations
5 x 8 inches
Trolley, London, 2002
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