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Li Xiaobin and His Documentary Photos
    2008-12-11 17:11:00     CRIENGLISH.com

Last month, photographer Li Xiaobin exhibited his documentary photos showing the social changes in China over the past thirty years at a show in Beijing. Some of his photos were once not accepted by the audience but now are important historic materials.

Our reporter Chen Zhe has more.


Li Xiaobin began taking professional photos when he was 23. In his eyes, photographers must record history. In 1979, he and his friends organized a photography association, the first such non-governmental association since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. 

"At that time,  the country became open and culture didn't necessarily serve politics any more. We collected various photos, most of which reflected social changes, and held the first exhibition in Zhongshan Park in Beijing. It had great repercussions. 80,000 people came to the exhibition. The tickets were three cents each, and we surprisingly recouped our investment. "

During the 1980s, Li Xiaobin shot a series on fashion trends in China. According to him, few Chinese knew what fashion was at the time. The best available menswear was the Sun Yat-sen suit, with a closed collar and center-front buttons. Women also wore dull clothes with no sense of style. With the start of reform and opening up, people in the country were exposed to various fashions and Western culture. They wore clothes in vibrant colors, had their hair permed and began dating in public. The country took on a new look and Li Xiaobin shot every exciting moment of the changes. Li still remembers the time when he took the photos.

"I could feel something important happening in society. The sweeping changes were so fresh and full of vitality. I felt that good days were coming, and I was anxious to breathe fresh air. We wanted to reform our art."


Shangfang Zhe, Li Xiaobin's most famous work [source: cnphotos.net]

In the early 1980s, art in China entered a period of rejuvenation. Most artists pursued form and aestheticism as they gained exposure to Western culture. However, Li Xiaobin stuck to his historic style of photography, and his persistence brought about disputes. He was marginalized and key photography magazines wouldn't print his works. He felt lonely.

" My colleagues and even good friends criticized my works and said they were of no value. Some even said that I knew nothing about art. I insisted on doing what I did and thought it was meaningful. That needed great courage. In the 1990s, realism and historicism became the mainstream of photographing. "

In 1985, his work was used in Chinese Photography, the most popular magazine of its kind in China. His photos have since become a documentary of sorts on China. Newspapers and Web sites frequently use his works to give readers a sense of times past.

Shangfang Zhe, his best work, was taken in 1977, a year after the Cultural Revolution. In the photo, an old man wearing ragged, cotton-padded clothes, three Chairman Mao badges is seeking help from the higher authorities.

"It's a mirror of history. The photo was disputed back then and few people dared to display it. Fortunately, in its debut in an exhibition in 1986, the photo was praised by senior officials. "

The photo then toured in big cities in China and beyond, and won many domestic competitions. In 2004, Li Xiaobin published his works in a book named 'Reform in China.' Now, 53-year-old Li Xiaobin says he feels the responsibility to continue recording China's future development with his camera.

For Beyond Beijing, I'm Chen Zhe.

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