Expanded Geographies

by Christopher Phillips

We live at a moment when our entire planet is being reshaped by human forces, with great new cities arising in previously remote and underpopulated areas. This rapid urban development is attracting millions of people from the countryside to the city in the hope of finding economic prosperity. It is also dramatically increasing the movement and migration of people within and across national borders. One result of this global dynamic is to bring people from many different cultures into direct contact for the first time. Another result is the creation of shared, worldwide awareness of the increased fragility of the natural environment in the face of industrial development and hyper-urbanization. 

The creative vision of photographers around the world is helping to focus a new awareness of the parallel experiences that today link widely separated countries, regions, and local communities. This sense of expanded geographies is the central theme of the Lianzhou Foto Festival 2015, as it explores the emerging connections between different parts of the globe.

Three of the participants in Lianzhou Foto 2015 uses their cameras to portray overseas Chinese communities around the world. In her series “Convergence,” Wei Leng Tay, an ethnic Chinese Singaporean, photographs mostly middle-class Chinese families in Singapore and Malaysia. Often set in quiet domestic spaces, her portraits subtly suggest the strains of the social world and the inner lives of her subjects. Zhuang Wubin, a third-generation Chinese born in Singapore, is a writer, photographer, and educator. Since 2006 he has been carrying out long-term projects in the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia. His 2010 book Ten Chinatowns of Southeast Asia brings together his photographs of Chinese communities in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Huang Dongli, who was born in China and studied at the China Academy of Art in Hongzhou and at Parsons School of Design in New York, is a close observer of Chinatowns in the U.S. Her photographs demonstrate how immigrant Chinese communities have survived, in part, by holding tight to their own language, traditions, and culture. She also shows, however, how quaint and outdated some of these traditions can appear to a young visitor from China like herself, someone who has grown up in a modernizing country that has consciously abandoned many of its oldest traditions. 

Zhang Hai provides a fascinating example of a Chinese photographer who has immersed himself in a culture very different from the one in which he was raised. Born in Kunming and educated in Chongqing, he has lived since 2000 in the U.S. His independent photography projects have led him to explore the social landscape in both China and the U.S., especially in the African-American communities of the American South. The photographs shown at Lianzhou Foto 2015 are the result of a recent “road trip” across the American continent. As he refines his own photographic language, Zhang Hai engages in a confident visual dialogue with the work of earlier photographers of America, such as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. 

Another group of photographers in Lianzhou Foto 2015 offers hypnotic and sometime unsettling images of the ongoing urbanization of the world. Pablo Lopez Luz specializes in aerial views of what he calls the “constructed landscape” surrounding his home town, Mexico City, and other large metropolitan areas in Mexico. His photographs show the relentless urban sprawl that is pushing its way into the countryside and completely covering once-bare land formations. While in this series Lopez Luz photographs mainly from a distance, Alejandro Cartegna, who lives in the city of Monterrey in northern Mexico, works at ground level to reveal the explosive growth of new residential housing developments on the periphery of Mexico’s large cities. In his five-part series “Suburbia Mexicana,” Cartegna examines the new residential zones that are springing up thoughout the country, often unregulated by government authorities. He presents a systematic look at the characteristic architectural styles of the new suburban zones, and offers sympathetic portraits of the varied families and individuals who live there.

Ivan Kashinsky, an active freelance photographer in Ecuador, uses his free moments to make pictures that tell the story of the impact of modernization on his home town, Quito. As he describes it, “I’m witnessing the collision of hundreds of years of ancestral customs with full-blown modernity, and the mix is fascinating.” Kashinsky regularly posts his casual but richly images of daily life in Quito—all made with his smartphone camera—on Instagram, where they have attracted much attention. A more ironic response to the standardized urban architecture found around the world today can be seen in the “Waterfront” series by the French photographer André Mérian. Taking as his subject the banal new buildings that increasingly line the historic waterfronts of the port cities of the Mediterranean, he documents the rapid disappearance of an irreplaceable part of the architectural heritage of France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Morocco.

In the remarkable series “Avenue Patrice Lumumba,” Guy Tillim, one of South Africa’s most distinguished photographers, presents a somber meditation on architecture and urban imagination in postcolonial Africa. Tillim directs our attention to the remains of the architectural monuments of mid-20th-century Africa. This was a period when elaborate modernist-style buildings were constructed in expectation that the continent would soon enter a new age of independence and economic prosperity. It was the era when Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic prime minister of the newly liberated Democratic Republic of the Congo, came briefly to symbolize the continent’s rising hopes, and streets were named after him throughout Africa. The high hopes of that moment did not last long, and Tillim’s photographs amount to a mournful collection of images of crumbling modernist ruins. Tillim feels that such architectural relics have nevertheless won a place in the African cultural imagination, as an “avenue of dreams” that may be realized in a different form in the 21st century.

One force that is dramatically reshaping our sense of the world’s geography is the growing importance of environmental issues that cut across national borders. Evidence of this development is provided in the work of another group of photographers in Lianzhou Foto 2015. “Drowning World,” a project begun in 2007 by the London-based South African photographer Gideon Mendel, reveals the impact of climate change on individual lives around the globe. Mendel photographs and makes videos in areas that now experience severe flooding on a regular basis since the onset of global warming. The inhabitants of these areas contend with rising floodwaters on a recurring basis, and the different ways in which they are able to cope with them reveals global inequities. Mendel says that such flooding “represents an overwhelming, destructive force that renders humanity helpless in its wake.” His incisive portraits show families and individuals desperately attempting to cope with floodwaters in such countries as Australia, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan, Great Britain, India, and Germany.

The tension between economic development and the safeguarding of the natural environment can be discovered in almost every region of the world today. Maria Teresa Ponce’s “Pipeline” series concentrates on the recently built oil pipeline that runs across her home country, Ecuador. Ponce’s panoramic photographs offer idyllic images of the natural splendor that surrounds the route cleared for the construction of the pipeline. She leaves it to the viewer to imagine the long-term environmental consequences of her country’s growing dependence on oil as a source of energy to power its economic development.

Since 2010, French photographer Antoine Bruy has sought out people who have chosen to abandon modern society and adopt a much simpler, nature-oriented way of living. Bruy’s photographs, made in remote settlements in five European countries, depict a group of unique personalities and the pre-modern dwellings they have constructed. Bruy finds inspiration in his subjects, who have left behind the ceaseless demands of a fast-paced consumer society: “No more clock ticking but the ballet of days and nights, seasons, and lunar cycles.”

A final group of artists in Lianzhou Photo 2015, whose works lie slightly outside the main theme, reminds us that continued experimentation is always necessary to keep the practice of photographic image-making fresh and enlivened new modes of seeing and thinking. Joseph Desler Costa adapts for his own purposes the language of contemporary advertising and design, and photographs mass-produed objects that he renders strange, troubling, and enigmatic. Although he consciously mimics the sleek look of Photoshopped commercial imagery, he creates all of his remarkable visual effects in the studio without the aid of digital manipulation. Barry Stone, a photographer living in Austin, Texas, uses traditional landscapes and still life themes only as a starting point. His real interest lies in manipulating the digital code that underlies his color images – a process sometimes called “data-bending” -- to create eerily beautiful visual effects. 

While the works of Costa and Stone seem at first glance to be blithely impersonal, the black-and-white photographs in Dru Donovan’s series “Carving the Lung” show us human figures that have an immediate and disturbing presence. It hardly matters whether the scenes are staged or not, because the awkward and strangely vulnerable human bodies in them prove so unforgettable. The human body also plays a central role in the works of New York-based Turkish artist Pinar Yolacan. Trained as a fashion designer, she creates astonishing costumes and studio sets for her models. In the series shown at Lianzhou Foto 2015, she employs female models whose bodies recall the Pre-Neolithic sculptures of fertility goddesses found in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Posing her models in front of brightly colored backdrops, and cropping the images to emphasize the powerful shape of the subject’s torso, Yolacan contrasts ancient concepts of the ideal female form with those of today.