Wei, who comes from rural Guizhou (1,500 kilometers away) is not entirely sure what Christmas is. He thinks it could be a foreigners’ form of Chinese New Year.
In China, context is everything. When a Westerner sees the World Press Photo award-winning image above [photo 15], they are likely to reach a negative conclusion—exploitation, alienation, capitalism gone awry. Yet to Chinese photographer Ronghui Chen, the picture is more complex:
“I don’t think my pictures are wholly negative—maybe this worker was unhappy before he came to this factory. Maybe he didn’t have food or a place to sleep. He is from a very poor rural area, after all. Nobody forced him to leave, he chose to come East in search of work. Here in this factory, he’s learned about pop music; he is able to purchase things; he has a place to sleep at night. It’s probably better than his hometown. In some years, he could become rich. It’s not easy but working in this factory is better than being jobless, than going hungry.”
In a country as complicated and misunderstood as China, there is always more to a picture than meets the eye. Nevertheless, Chen is fundamentally inspired by the feeling that photography is increasing openness; that pictures are a powerful and a universal means of communication. In China, there are misconceptions about the West, but the internet—apps such as Instagram, in particular—allows people to see other parts of the world, and opens their minds to ways of life.
I don’t think my pictures are wholly negative—maybe this worker was unhappy before he came to this factory. Maybe he didn’t have food or a place to sleep.
The West, meanwhile, has deep misunderstandings about China. While the West idolizes the traditions and history of China, the contemporary country largely remains a mystery. Chen hopes his photos (among others) can help bridge that gap between the past and the present in the foreign imagination.
Of course, none of this is easy. On Chen’s side, he has to be very sensitive about government censors. Although he is not wholly critical of China, he must remain careful in “keeping a balance between shooting what the government wants and shooting the truth.” For example, this series was published in China, but in a wholly different context—the series focused on how snowflakes are made.
In the future, Chen hopes that the government realizes the importance of photo-documentation. Life in China is changing so fast that he feels it is essential to record his surroundings. Not only are his photos meaningful for showing people now what China looks like, but perhaps even more importantly, for showing future generations. In not so many years, many of the things that Chen has photographed will be gone—the pictures will be all that remain. Perhaps then the government will become more appreciative of his efforts. After all, China’s ongoing present will, some day, become part of its rich history as well.
—Ronghui Chen, Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: You can find more of the work from the winners of the 2015 World Press Photo in our selection of 8 Great Series from World Press Photo Awards 2015 Winners.
Or you can see the work of ALL of this year’s winners in our World Press Photo Awards 2015 overview.