If they had it their way, nobody would have known what happened. Or at least, not what really happened. That’s how authoritarian regimes function. Secrecy, coercion and pure violence. China is known for its covert propaganda operations and their authority's stranglehold on individual liberty. Photojournalist Li Zhensheng didn't believe in doing things that way.
It’s not as if Zhensheng has done something particularly anti-government, not by usual standards anyway. In China though, his actions as a photographer, a documenter of reality, are enough for him to be considered a dissident - a kind of outlaw artist. The truth, in Chinese politics, is about as abstract a concept as the infinitesimal nature of space.
To capture the acts of a monster, sometimes you must become one. Zhensheng clandestinely navigated his way through social and political loopholes to gain access and acceptance in his crusade to reveal the true face of Chinese autocracy. In the preceding weeks leading up to China’s 1966 Cultural Revolution, public life had began to change as demonstrations broke out on the streets. He had to change too.
Roaming Red Guards made his job almost impossible, so, in the true nature of gonzo documentary making, the Chinese photographer decided that, with the help of the newspaper he worked for, he’d become one of those guards - symbolised by the red band that hugs their arm. Creating his own makeshift faux-revolutionary cell, he managed to work his way in.
In keeping with government regulations, the newspaper that he worked for - The Heilongjiang Daily - kept up appearances on behalf of the ruling party. No images that could be perceived as ‘negative’ were to be published. During this time, under the disguise of a revolutionary soldier, Zhensheng was able to capture the sides of the story that nobody else could.
Covering the spectrum of the Communist Party’s behaviour, from token gestures of humiliation like hanging tags around moderate offenders neck - with derogatory remarks about family reputation and occupation - all the way to public executions of the counter-revolutionaries under the judgement of a kangaroo court.
Stashing his photographs under a floorboard in his house, the photojournalist was slowly creating a mosaic of sociopolitical insights into a country that, for most of the world, remained firmly behind-the-curtain. That was until 1969, at the height of the revolution, when he and his wife were sent away to a camp of hard labour for two years for counter-revolutionary activities. Upon his return to the newspaper in 1972 - he became the head of photography.
Thanks to the dry and mild nature of the climate in his province of Harbin, the photographic negatives remained in good condition, preserving a crucial part of a lesser-known history and allowing the true extent of the revolution to be understood. During this period, when Mao Zedong looked to consolidate his power by eliminating enemies - the West’s interpretation of the movement was highly limited by issues of access.
Only later, with the dust settled, was Zhensheng safe enough to make his work public. As a professor of photography at a Beijing university in 1980 and at a time where the press enjoyed slightly more freedom, could the original photographs be exhibited.
Many other photographs were taken during this time, but those that weren’t destroyed by the controlling party were done so by the photographer. Luckily bravery was never something that Zhensheng had in short supply and in his willingness to risk persecution are we able to understand a complex and largely misunderstood period of Chinese history.
The artist passed away on the 23rd of June this year - his legacy, both of raw artistic talent and the bravery to show it, will live on for a long time.
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