Art / Lifestyle

Faces of Made in China

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.

Liu Xiaodong, 35, posed in the photo studio set up at Zhenhua Port Machinery Company, near Shanghai.

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.

Lin Yuhai, 45, is a steel worker for the Zhenhua Port Machinery Company.

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.

Worker Li Guizhen poses with one of the decorative framed photograph produced in Artissmo Designs factory in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China, on February 14, 2012

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.

Lou Baomei, 52, posed in the Timcee electronics factory near Hangzhou

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.

Sun Tiyu, 38, works at the Zhenhua Port Machinery Company. Their finished cranes will most likely be used in Western ports to unload containers full of “Made in China” products.

 


 

 

Frisco Rosso

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Faces of Made in China

  1. Thank you for this article about my work. It’s balanced, intelligent, and deep. The line between photojournalism and art is indeed very thin. I did call myself a photojournalist in the BBC interview because that’s what my training is and that’s what has been my work for the last 15 years – but you are right, there’s definitely an “art” side to this project from the beginning. I do believe that I brought to the project the honest look for truth which is my daily bread as a photojournalist.

    If you have another look at the photos on my website (http://www.pictobank.com/portfolio/G0000cxImeKpDFTo) you will see that the captions with quotations of the workers are a very important part of it. This side may have been lost on the NY Times blog. My idea is to display each portrait with a quote from the worker. I do plan to do a photo exhibition at Galerie Photo 12 (it hasn’t already happened, contrary of what you write). When it does happen, I will make sure that each portrait comes with a quotation. By the way, we are still looking for sponsors for the exhibition.

    Regards and thanks,

    Lucas Schifres

    • Thank you for your response and feedback Mr Schifres, it was good to hear from you.

      I certainly agree that the deep-captioning of each photograph makes a significant difference and provides greater depth in terms of the life and mind of your photographed subjects. However, the website doesn’t provide captions for all individuals at this moment in time although, as you say, that is something you hope to counter through personal quotes when you exhibit.

      I understand and don’t for a second doubt you when you say you brought an honest look for truth to the project. The project has a great deal of merit and you have succeeded in capturing your subjects beautifully. My difficulty with the project is the method of presentation as I mentioned in the article.

      Over the last five years or so the styles and trends adopted by graphic designers working in corporate and industrial sectors has resulted in photographers receiving briefs to capture workers in a very similar style to your project. Now while I believe your intentions are sincere, the approach by corporates very rarely is, and means that those at the bottom of the industrial food chain essentially become the human shields for the endeavours of companies and two-dimensional ambassadors, whose humility generates untold (and unremunerated) value by attracting shareholders and or customers.

      As I say, I don’t believe that is your intention with this work and you have explained in numerous interviews why you chose to position your subjects against neutral backdrops, but because your presentation style has been used so vividly on aggressive marketing platforms by companies before I found myself having to work very to see your subjects as I believe you intended. This is of course my opinion and plenty would argue I’m talking nonsense, but I think it is a legitimate angle of interpretation (through experience) and one that you as a photojournalist can understand having spent so much time in China.

      My apologies for the misinformation regarding your potential exhibition at Galerie Photo 12. I hope it is not long before you are able to exhibit and I’ll certainly watch this space in the mean time. Good luck with the project.

      Regards

      Frisco Rosso

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s