By Frisco Rosso
Photographer Lucas Schifres has recently showcased his latest body of work “Faces of Made in China” at Galerie photo12 in Paris. The work comprises a selection of portraits depicting workers from six Chinese factories and attempts to reveal the human element behind China’s vast manufacturing industry.
Using a portable studio consisting of white or black backgrounds with a lighting kit, Schifres has separated his subjects from their working environment in order to bring the viewer in as close as possible.
“I hope that the viewer can look directly into the eye of the worker and try to imagine his life, imagine what it’s like to be a Chinese worker,” Schifres said in a recent interview with BBC News.
Despite the engaging nature of his subjects and the pristine presentation, it’s difficult to surmise whether Schifres has been successful in extracting “truth” from controlled photography, and if the photographs have enough dimension to speak for themselves. While “Faces of Made in China” literally uncovers the faces of workers, and provides some human identity to the throng of people that make up the Chinese manufacturing machine, it falls short of telling personal stories.
“I asked the workers to stop their work for a minute and pose as they were, without washing their hands, wearing their uniform or carrying their tools, if any. I didn’t tell them to smile, I gave no instruction, I just let the silence settle in, and captured the truth of their faces,” said Schifres in an interview for The New York Times.
The concept of ‘truth’ is relative in the faces of those photographed while being monitored in their place of work by supervisors and employers. The photographs are technically sound and by no means pretentious, but this is an instance where simplistic treatment has been unable to capture the complexity of the theme and subjects.
Schifres’s intention is perhaps to challenge the viewer to see the human behind the vast array of products exported from China and look deeper into the individual. However, without further information and insight, perception goes only so far before imagination and romanticism take over.
There is something clinical about this body of images that’s almost propagandist, which is unlikely to have been the photographer’s intention. The images are shot in a style usually seen in the annual and sustainability reports of industrial corporates – the happy, smiling, “beautiful” workers that make an industry cleaner and easier to buy into. Notable examples can be seen in Anglo American’s “Get the Full Story” public relations and advertising campaign which was rolled out in 2010.
Perhaps Schifres’s intention is to portray factory workers from a stereotypically corporate slant, a judgment of the viewer and the working system – you may be photographed as a pretty cog in the wheel but you’re still a cog in the wheel. Alternatively Schifres could simply be trying to provide a fresh platform for a handful of individuals, the identities of whom have been blurred by outside perceptions of cheap, expendable labour.
This series of images may open debate and broaden perceptions of Chinese workers for those who may have previously regarded them as something other than human, but they do not necessarily generate empathy or extend comprehension, as the photographer has afforded his subjects little context, social background or place in time.
In the BBC News interview Schifres described himself as a photojournalist. One of the principle differences between photojournalism and art is that the former attempts to capture a story objectively and succinctly whereas the latter is concerned with artistic vision with little or no explanation.
“Faces of Made in China” isn’t photojournalism by any stretch although it could be classified as “reportage art”; stylised photography that inspires collectors more than those seeking truth.
With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.