In Conversation with Li Zhensheng

YL: On the Cultural Revolution…
From the formation of the Red-Colour News Soldier rebel group, to the peak of the Cultural Revolution, and finally to witnessing the movement rear its ugly head, what was your emotional journey like throughout those heady times?

LZS: I stood by the Cultural Revolution till it opened its bloodied jaws – my stance could be surmised in this phrase. The initial rationale for launching the movement was to safeguard China against the excesses of capitalism and to retain its original nature, and it was this promise of promoting Chinese culture and raising it to new levels that drew supporters to the movement. However, towards the later stages, this idealism started fading, chaos started weighing in and lots of atrocities were performed, such as the maligning of good people, accusing them of crimes they had never committed, as well as brutal denouncements and struggle sessions – humanity was essentially at stake. Culture and tradition was also destroyed with the attacks on religious sites such as the Russian Orthodox Church and Jile Temple and burning of religious scriptures. University libraries were trashed and books were used as weapons against the clashing factions.

A seed of doubt was planted in my mind then – was the revolution truly serving its original intentions? In Mandarin, the Cultural Revolution translates to 文化大革命, but it started becoming more like the movement was severing the lifeline of culture (割文化的命, a word play). Culture and tradition is about the continuation and passing on of a legacy. If you were to destroy this process of handing down culture, wouldn’t it be reminiscent to Qin Shi Huang burning books and burying scholars during the Qin dynasty?

Later on, the tragedies of the Revolution eventually engulfed me and my loved ones and I no longer had any sentiments of sympathy or support towards the movement. A thought rose in me, “Even if I were unable to halt these tidal waves of cruelty and trauma, I have a camera in my hand. I want to record all these events to leave a slice of history and truth for future generations to contemplate upon and pass judgment on.

YL: Even while being conscious that the Cultural Revolution was more of a grave mistake than a springboard for the nation, it seems that your motivation for unveiling these photographs isn’t geared towards allaying blame and passing judgment onto who was right or wrong. It was probably because this historical tragedy was incredibly complex and had too many grey areas – the line between victims and perpetrators was simply too blurred. How did you deal with these contradictions and internal turmoil when photographing?

LZS: In those years, it was really impossible to distinguish between friend or foe. Ethics and morals were really upside down there were countless instances of children turning on their parents, students hitting their teachers, colleagues developing a hatred for each other due to differences in political ideals. Every day was a battle over life and death, but strangely there was no clear reason to engage in such a battle. It was obviously a civil war where differences were being played upon and people were turned against each other. It was a mental struggle witnessing and photographing such heart wrenching events unfolding; suppressing the internal turmoil was impossible. I constantly had to lie to myself in order to find some semblance of inner peace in order to continue with life. Regardless of adversity and hardship, we have to persist in leading life as normally as possible – three meals a day, getting married and having children – these are the rites of life that must proceed in time of struggle and strife.

YL: Time flies; 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. As wit- ness, participant and chronicler of the movement, you have devoted close to three-quarters of your life trained on this subject matter. What fuels your energy and passion towards it? Have you ever thought of exploring a different subject matter?

LZS: In Chinese, we have a saying “人的一生有几个十年? (How many decades are there in an individual’s lifetime?)” I spent one decade experiencing the Cultural Revolution. That was truly unforgettable and life defining as I was both a participant and victim. It was like your soul and spirit being placed under a baptism of fire. When the Revolution first started we were so excited and speculated how many of this can we get to experience – maybe two to three? Mao once mentioned that it was ideal to conduct a revolution once every seven to eight years, but nobody had any idea on how long each one would last. We all thought it was a blessing to experience a cultural revolution because culture was to be renewed like surging spring water, like the turning of a wheel.

Who knew reality turned out to be a complete opposite, and that one single movement would last an agonising ten years. It remains unknown if Mao had not passed away in 1976, would the revolution have dragged on even longer? He clearly treated the movement as a lifetime accomplishment. At his funeral, even though the nation was in mourning and there were truly people in sorrow, most actually heaved a deep sigh of relief. I feel that one of Chinese people’s greatest shortcomings is their blind reverence towards the emperor. If there’s no emperor, life cannot continue. Never mind if it’s just a figurehead, the presence of an emperor symbolises stability.

Another great human-induced tragedy in human history that can be compared to the Cultural Revolution is Nazi fascism during WWII. When delivering a lecture at Harvard University in 1996, I encountered a middle-aged German couple and conveyed my admiration towards how Germans are able to confront their own history and reflect upon it and my regret at how China is still unable to do the same for Cultural Revolution. They replied, “Don’t over idealise us. We only came to recognise the importance of collective contemplation in revitalising the economy 22 years after the end of the war. That was the start of China’s Cultural Revolution.” They also pointed out that Nazism and the Cultural Revolution, despite being tragedies at heart, are difference in essence – one was military aggression directed externally, while the other was a civil conflict. I felt that was something to really contemplate more deeply; beyond things like the scale of destruction or statistics like death count.

YL: Any regrets?

LZS: My only regret is photographing less of ordinary civilian life in those times of mad- ness and absurdity. My guiding principle for shooting then was basically to collect images that bore the obvious tag of the Cultural Revolution, be it those with significant figures, words or iconography. Those moments that do not fall under that criteria received less attention. I realised later on that these records of seemingly mundane daily life, more than those depicting political meetings, the learning of Mao’s teachings or struggle sessions, played an important part in fleshing out a more holistic picture of life under the Revolution.

This regret was somewhat made up for during the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in on July 1, 1997. On that morning, I photographed the lives of ordinary Hong Kong citizens during this momentous historic event – elderly men enjoying a bird singing session, people reading newspapers in the park etc. Being able to retain a semblance of normalcy in times of great flux – that’s how civilisation has walked by since centuries ago.

YL: What kind of challenges and obstacles did you face as a young photojournalist documenting the Cultural Revolution?

LZS: As cameras were uncommon then, anyone who owned a camera could easily be suspected to be a spy. The Red Guards were especially paranoid of such people as they were afraid to leave behind evidence of their wrongdoings that could one day be used against them for revenge. To show that I was on their side and gain access to shoot, I had to don the red arm band. Still, all negative images cannot be used, they have to be hidden away, and if discovered, the consequences would be unthinkable.

YL: On photojournalism…
You have captured the sociopolitical impacts of the Cultural Revolution on China through the medium of photography. How has the Cultural Revolution in turn impacted news photography?

LZS: As news photography became relegated as a propaganda tool for politics, the trend of staging and manipulating photographs to portray positive aspects of the movement was very strong then. For instance, there was a photo I shot on re-education, with a dancer reading Mao’s works with an elderly peasant woman in Hei longjiang. Due to low depth of field of the lens, a poster of Mao in the background turned out blurred. It was not politically correct to show a blurry photo of Mao, so what I did was to retouch the original by cleaning up the background and replacing the blurry portrait with one of Mao in sharp focus. In the office at Heilongjiang Daily, the photographers even had a whole collection of “template negatives” – those of different angles of Mao’s portrait – so that we could superimpose them onto any “imperfect” photos. We also mastered consummate skills in image manipulation like swapping heads of subjects portrayed to make sure the images were politically correct. These were all ethically questionable acts, and remains somewhat unresolved and unaddressed till today.

YL: What is your definition of truth?

LZS: I think photos are the best evidence of reality, but as mentioned, even they can be manipulated to exclude contesting narratives. My photos of the Cultural Revolution, except for those which have been declared as manipulations, are all embodiments of what really transpired. Each of them come with a black border, which are edges of each frame of negative when you wind the film. This is proof that they are uncropped – what you see is really what you get.

YL: The memories stored in photographic archives, or any archives so to speak, are not static and cast in stone but subject to re-organisation and re-interpretation according to time and context. What kind of significance do you think this archive of Cultural Revolution photos have in light of China’s current developments?

LZS: History is like a mirror that you take a backwards glance on to contemplate on the journey thus far, as well as reflect upon the successes and failures. I don’t believe in the ostrich mentality; things that have happened exist whether or not you face up to it. A nation which can face up to its history is one that can truly become a world leader. That same goes for individuals. Only then can you progress and chart the future.

YL: On photographic style and compositions…
Aside from documenting the happenings during the Cultural Revolution, you have also amassed a staggering collection of self-portraits. What is the significance of these images and how did they come about?

LZS: When editing the Red Colour News Soldier book with Robert Pledge, he once commented that my documentations of Cultural Revolution events symbolised an act of looking beyond myself, whereas my series of self-portraits represented looking within myself. They are very much records of my self-consciousness and states of mind. As a news reporter, I had 12 frames of 120mm film and 36 frames of 35mm film per assignment. I always made sure I had a few frames remaining after covering a news event, just in case something happened along the way back to office, I won’t get caught off guard. It’s like how every seasoned soldier leaves one last bullet in his rifle. However, most of the time the journey back would be rather uneventful, so I would use the last frames to take a self-portrait. In a way that also satisfied my unfulfilled dream of becoming a filmmaker because I get to play all four roles of the director, scriptwriter, actor and camera man. I actually had no idea these would become so iconic in future.

YL: I noticed that you have a tendency to stitch up panoramas. What is the story behind this technique?

LZS: This was inspired from my days as a film student in Changchun Film Academy. I borrowed the four main principles of cinematic composition – pushing, pulling, panning and shifting – and applied them on still photography. Incidentally, I was also looking for a solution to resolve the problem of lens distortion and this method came up. Technical limitation is sometimes the best impetus for invention.

YL: Can you comment on the use of camera angles – high, low and tilted perspectives – in your photos?

LZS: I am a very traditional photographer, I like keeping the horizon lines straight and abiding by most of the “rules” in photography. I decided on the use of angles de- pending on the amount of information needed to be captured in the frame. In those rare instances where my camera perspective is tilted, there is actually a story behind them. For instance, the one of eight counter-revolutionaries being executed – I was actually positioned behind but was moving forward when the order was made to open fire. I instinctively pressed the shutter and the frame ended up being tilted. That was purely accidental.

YL: On future plans…You have been tireless in publishing books, presenting lectures, and participating in exhibitions related to the Cultural Revolution. What is there left to do?

LZS: My ultimate aim in life so long as I am mobile and healthy, is to return to China and present this exhibition to my own countrymen and discuss it in depth, so as to enlighten the younger generations on how their ancestors had lived through those difficult times. At the bottom of my heart, I am a patriot. There are many ways of expressing love – there is indulgent love and tough love. For instance, people all love their parents differently. I love my nation, that’s why I want to improve its lot. And I believe only through self-reflection can tomorrow be a better day.

In 2016, the Singapore International Photography Festival had the privilege of presenting Mr Li Zhensheng’s solo exhibition with the support of The Arts House. The exhibition featured 136 images out of the original selection of 900 images of his work. Out of the thousands of visitors who experienced the exhibition, we were told that numerous visitors shed tears upon taking in the powerful photographs. We would like to thank Mr Li Zhengsheng for the honour of sharing his life’s work with the festival and may he rest in peace.

This interview is featured in DECK Journal #0

DECK Journal of Photography #0 signifies the very beginning from ground zero. Similar to DECK’s humble beginning from ground up, the journal is a brand new adventure. This inaugural issue is planned in conjunction with the 5th Singapore International Photography Festival, a three-month-long biennale gathering for the public and professionals in the industry to enjoy photography differently. The journal is jam-packed with lens-based works, photography happenings in Singapore, and a series of insightful interviews and essays.