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FotoFest: "Independent Documentary Photography 1985-2008"

Lu Nan is a camera-wielding humanist

One of the bleakest images shows a crude hut built from large square stones. There are tiny windows in the structure, and a pale, slender hand reaches out from one of them. An elderly woman and a man sit in front of the structure. The man is the father of the 23-year-old university student walled inside the structure. The son came home from school and attacked his parents, killing his mother and injuring his father. He was the favorite grandchild of the elderly woman. She is the only one who brings him food and water.

The images seem to be from rural areas and may in part speak to a lack of understanding of mental illness, but what they primarily speak to is a lack of options. What do you do when your brother has gone mad and attacks your family? You can't afford care for him. You don't want to sentence him to the prison system. The solutions Lu records are matter-of-fact and medieval — solutions from a time when no other options existed.

As disturbing as those images are, the fate of the people involved seems preferable to that of the inmates in Lu's images from psychiatric hospitals. A pretty young woman who destroys things has no blankets, no bedding and no clothes. She sits naked on the empty springs of a wire bed frame. She sleeps on a urine-soaked sheet; her cell is only cleaned once a week. She died six months after the photograph was taken. In another photo, a gaunt woman who looks like she was just transferred from Dachau lies on the wood planks of a bed frame. With no one to bathe her or help her change positions, she developed an enormous bedsore and died ten days after the photo was taken.

The "Forgotten People" series explores the plight of the mentally ill and their families in China.
Courtesy of the artist and FotoFest.
The "Forgotten People" series explores the plight of the mentally ill and their families in China.

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Through April 20.
Winter Street Studios, 2101 Winter St., 713-223-5522.

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In slightly less grim images, Lu seeks out the humane within inhumane environments. Inmates try to comfort and care for each other. Two brothers embrace; an elderly couple clings to each other.

Lu's work exists in stark contrast to the images of China that currently dominate the media. The face China seeks to show to the world is that of a manufacturing giant, a country with a burgeoning economy and a building boom unprecedented in the history of the world, a land filled with new tycoons and a developing middle class. Lu was born in 1962 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution — I bet that makes him a pretty skeptical guy. He's not only an artist, he's a moral force to be reckoned with. His images are a nagging visual conscience for China and the rest of the world.

Next week — even more FotoFest...

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