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FotoFest: "Independent Documentary Photography 1985-2008"

Lu Nan is a camera-wielding humanist

There wasn't exactly a lot of art being made during China's Cultural Revolution, unless you count portraits of Chairman Mao or, maybe, "inspiring" Socialist Realist murals. A lot of the country's real art was destroyed during that period. Last week's review took a look at "Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda, 1934-1975," which featured the earliest work out of the many FotoFest exhibitions of Chinese photography. This week brings work made after the Cultural Revolution, FotoFest's "Independent Documentary Photography 1985-2008" at Winter Street ­Studios.

Independent documentary photography didn't really exist in the People's Republic of China until things loosened up after the Cultural Revolution. Before then, photography was done in the service of the state, to create propaganda to support the government agenda. In the 1980s, photographers began to create images independently to explore their own ideas and ­agendas.

"Independent Documentary Photography" presents the work of three photographers, Wu Jialin, Li Lang and Lu Nan, but by far the most powerful of these documentary photographers is Lu Nan. Lu works completely independently, disappearing for long periods of time in pursuit of his images. He is a humanist whose work focuses on social issues. In his artist statement, he says, "My job is caring about people." Three series of his photographs are on view at Winter Street.

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.

Details

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

In "The Four Seasons: The Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants 1996-2004," his images record scenes of bleak poverty cut with displays of human affection. People till barren fields with horses and plows and wield Stone Age-style hoes. You look at the stark, treeless landscape and think there's no way any-freaking-thing could grow here. There's an incredible sense of isolation; you know there's no way out of this poverty. But images of families mediate the feeling of desperation. In one touching image, a little boy anxiously clutches his grandmother, who is ill with a headache.

The images in the series "On the Road: The Catholic Church in China 1992-1996" are grimmer. The PRC banned religion in the early 1950s, forcing people to worship underground. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Army raided the homes of Catholics and confiscated Bibles and religious objects. In one of Lu's images, an elderly woman, a fifth-generation Catholic, clutches a large crucifix hidden by her husband during the Cultural Revolution. In another, Lu captures the spartan, dirt-floored room of a 70-year-old lay nun. It's a portrait of her with her adopted daughter, a frail, abandoned casualty of China's one-child policy. Anyone who has or adopts the second child of a family with one child can be fined. The nun was forced to hide the child from the authorities, who have tried to investigate.

Lu captures the haunting interior of a church that escaped destruction during the Cultural Revolution because it was being used as a school. The church was returned to the area's 200 Catholics in the 1980s, but there is no money to restore it. Its debris-filled interior remains a ruin. Catholicism definitely seems to be a makeshift affair in the PRC. One image shows people lining up on the street for confession. Confessants kneel on a stool beside the priest's chair with a line of people behind them. I don't think I would be confessing to much with my neighbor standing two steps behind me. There is apparently such a shortage of priests in China that some may hear as many as 1,000 confessions a day.

The photos of the Catholic community are well done, but they become stronger when you put them into context and look at Catholics as an exotic minority in a country that banned religion for 30 or so years, and in the larger context of a 5,000-year-old culture whose traditional religions included Buddhism, Taoism and seventh-century latecomer Islam.

While Lu's previous two series were fairly strong, when I walked into Winter Street's central gallery, his work blindsided me. I felt like I had been set up; Lu's photographs had slowly lured me into an emotional ambush. His series "The Forgotten — The State of the Chinese Psychiatric Wards, 1989-1990" is a tour de force. Its images launch Lu's work into the stratosphere. The subject matter is horrifying, but it is the combination of Lu's dogged scrutiny and incredible empathy that makes this work so stellar. You look at these images and you want to cry, and you know the photographer felt the same way. And no matter how horrible the image or abject the person, Lu doesn't exploit. You always relate to his subjects as ­individuals.

In any culture, mental illness presents difficult choices to families. But in China, it presents impossible ones. In the first images, you see the mentally ill being cared for by families too poor to afford treatment for their loved ones. A young woman poses with her blind grandmother and two mentally ill siblings. She is the only provider. She was once engaged to be married, but her brother's illness forced her to cancel the wedding. Her face seems indelibly marked by hopelessness.

But things get worse. People may refer to someone as being treated like an animal, but Lu's subjects really are. Lu found desperate families with violently mentally ill family members. One family sold land to pay for five years of unsuccessful mental illness treatments for a family member. Out of options and money, the family has chained their violent relative to a bench by his wrist for the past four years. Another photograph shows a man tied to a tree — at night, his family ties him to his bed.

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.

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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