I was born and raised in China, moving to the U.S. in 2000, at the age of 23. In 2008, I received a Rafael Vinoly Architecture Research Fellowship in New York and with this support, I began to make frequent trips back to my homeland. As part of my research, I began to take photographs, hoping to illustrate my larger focus on urban housing and development. Although most of my photographs at this time were taken for a specific purpose, I also had the chance to wander through many Chinese towns, cities and villages with camera in hand. When the fellowship concluded in 2010, I decided to continue my journey.


At the beginning, I was hoping photography could help me and others understand the phenomena of contemporary China. I had missed the past decade in the country's history and development so I was trying to grasp a sense of today’s “Chinese-ness”. But instead of getting a progressively clearer image of my subject, I found myself puzzled and frustrated by the misalignment between the images and my actual experience. 

It has become impossible to take a shot of China today without capturing contrast. But what did it really mean? The apparent contrast in a photograph where a lone house stands in the midst of rubble and beneath the shadows of skyscrapers fails to tell the story that the building owner actually collected millions of dollars in compensation for the demolition of his home. With the money, he moved to overseas and began a new life. Meanwhile, the people who really became homeless were migrant workers, workers who could only afford to rent a tiny room in a tall building and thus remain invisible.

In train stations, it was not uncommon for me to see policemen chasing after people who were selling black market rail tickets. But what no one could see was that most of the illegal vendors were migrant workers who had just lost their jobs in nearby factories.

Or later, when I photographed a shabby room with a bunk bed that appeared almost uninhabitable, I was standing in the final refuge for a migrant worker's children. A month after the picture was taken, the five-member family moved into a twenty square meters room that only had the space to fit one bunk bed. It was shared by them all.

Facing the complexity of today’s stories, photography appears inadequate. Maybe beyond documentary or visual evidence, photography should not give answers but simply endeavor to raise more questions.


So, my project. These photographs represent an open journey I took, an attempt to photograph all the things I encountered during my wanderings across China. For one thing, I wanted to try and capture a glimpse of others' life experiences before they are diluted in my memory. Rather than a journey of discovery, I found that I was simply trying to uncover layers of society—a society that makes me feel both familiar and alien. 

One day, I hope the images will allow me to turn the camera back on myself. Then, I might be able to see myself in these situations and began to reconstruct my own identity as a Chinese individual and begin to understand the country in which I am rooted—yet apart.

—Hai Zhang