The global perception of China is regularly defined by major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, where bustling streets signal an ever-growing metropolis, and where solitude seems physically impossible. But in truth, these major cities make up a tiny fraction of the country’s expansive geography. China is comprised of so many other terrains, climates and infrastructures, and the people who live in these lesser-known regions receive little to no media attention. Furthermore, they are rarely deemed interesting enough for substantial photographic documentation of any kind. But as we know, every place has a story to tell – it just takes the right storyteller to bring that narrative to life.
Photographer Ronghui Chen’s Freezing Land sheds light on China’s evaded contexts, specifically in the country’s northeast. “I grew up in southern China, where it is very warm, so I was always curious to experience the cold in the north,” explains Chen. “I’m obsessed with Tales of Hulan River, a novel by Xiao Hong set in the declining northeastern region. With the help of the Soviet Union, the northeast used to be the wealthiest area in China, but it has now become the country’s most recessionary land. In fact, there were 15 million immigrants to northeastern China in the Mao era.” But as resources dwindled and other regions caught up with their progress, the northeast’s multiple dying industries resulted in a sudden shortage of opportunities, forcing people out of their homes to pursue work in other parts of the country. “When I finally got the chance to travel to the northeast and take a closer look, I quickly packed my large format camera and flew to the freezing land that I had always been curious about.”
Chen was eager to document what life is like for the region’s younger generation, especially those who never had the chance to experience their older family members’ prosperity for themselves. The photographer’s resulting images are grounded in the dismal, grey backdrop of the derelict landscape, peppered with occasional vibrant colors brought to life through his young subjects and their decorative surroundings. Chen focuses on how the youth in the region formulate a sense of identity and professional trajectory in an area so parched of opportunity. “The young people I met were experiencing a sense of uncertainty,” explains Chen. “They were facing a choice to leave for challenges in bigger cities, or stay behind and embrace their fate. Their voices are sparsely documented by Chinese media or other mediums, so very few people knew about their stories.”
One of the most striking images in the series depicts a young boy sitting forlornly in a brightly colored room, holding a wig in his lap while staring at the ground. “The boy in this photo is 14 years old,” Chen explains. “He’s a live-streamer, or what some people call a broadcast jockey. Live-streaming is his direct source of revenue. If a fan likes him, they are sent digital rewards purchased with in-app currencies, which are bought with real money. He has lots of fans online to interact with, and he even makes money from them. But, he doesn’t have a lot of friends in real life. His life seems colorful, yet full of loneliness.”
In such extreme weather conditions, casually meeting subjects on the street was out of the question, and Chen wanted the human experience to be incorporated into the project just as much as their crumbling industrial surroundings. “It is difficult to encounter subjects on the street in an environment of minus 30 degrees centigrade,” he says. “Therefore, I used the social video app Kuaishou, looking for young people who were willing to share their stories.” Connecting with his subjects through modern technology adds an additional layer of dystopian ambiance to the project, highlighting the modern methods that young people are using to avoid isolation in the region.
Despite the temperature, Chen insisted on using an 8x10 large format camera to maintain his desired quality and impression on film. “Besides the quality, shooting with a large format camera gives me the opportunity to really think about what I am photographing. I can stop and think about what the essence of the story is, and what it means to me.” Chen hopes this work will shed light on the lived experience of these underrepresented voices. “Few people knew about their stories – colorful, yet full of loneliness,” he says. “During this process, the emotion expressed by these young people – a mixed sense of hesitation, loneliness, and hope – has brought me resonance.”