by M. Scott Brauer
"We Chinese" grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country and their future. Media coverage of the country and its development often raises questions about the direction of the government in Beijing on the world stage. Few reports take into account the feelings of the Chinese people, instead making reference to the country as a monolithic actor without constituent parts. A country’s trajectory through history cannot be mapped without careful consideration of the people. This project aims, in a small way, to develop a portrait of the country by looking at the individual people that make it up.
I started the project as a way to respond to friends’, family’s, and strangers’ questions about the global direction of China and their stereotypes of the people. “Should we be scared of China?” or “Where is China headed?” or broad assertions about the collective character of billions of individuals that make up the country. The project aims to give faces and voices to a small section of the Chinese people caught in the center of historic shifts in the country’s socioeconomic circumstances. Recent years in China have been marked by mass migration toward urban centers, substantial increases in personal wealth, radical changes in the country’s educational and industrial sectors, and the start of China’s role as a global leader in political and economic matters. Ordinary people, the subject of We Chinese, are caught in the middle of this unprecedented change. While the big story is this change itself, an important and often-overlooked aspect of modern China is what this cultural transformation means to the people and their future.
In 2010, I traveled throughout major urban centers in eastern China stopping people on the street to ask the same two questions about their country and their future. The respondents filled out a one-page typewritten questionnaire that included these two questions and some basic information including name, age, and occupation. The questions were interpreted variously, and the responses range from prosaic to poetic, from rote to inspired, and from unemotional to patriotic. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the entire population, the people photographed here expressed a sincere love of country and optimism about the country’s future development and peaceful position in the world.
The name “We Chinese” comes from a phrase I encountered time and again when talking with Chinese people in China, both in Mandarin and English. Answers to questions about the person’s opinion about something or other would often begin with “We Chinese…” (“Wo men Zhong Guo ren”), instead of beginning with something like “I think….”
The project also comes from suspicions of my own methods in documentary work. My work imposes visual and written narratives on situations and cultures. By photographing anyone willing to be a part of the project, using the same set up for the portraits, and asking the same questions of all the subjects, I hoped a narrative about China and its people would naturally emerge.
The final project comprises 100 portraits and short interviews. The text and pictures are meant to be viewed simultaneously. More pictures can be seen at http://www.we-chinese.com/ The work has not previously been published, beyond on the website and blogs. Word of mouth has been tremendous, but I’m still looking for exhibition and publication opportunities for the project.
M. Scott Brauer (b. 1982) is a photojournalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. His work can be seen at: http://www.mscottbrauer.com/. Brauer graduated from the University of Washington in 2005 with dual degrees with honors in Philosophy and Russian Language, Literature, and Culture. After college he interned at Black Star and VII and worked at the newspapers the Northwest Herald and the Flint Journal. In 2007, Brauer moved to China where he photographed personal projects, editorial assignments, and corporate work. Clients and publications include: The New York Times, Fader magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Time Asia, That’s Shanghai, Epsilon, Vision, Colorlines, World, Lufthansa, Bosch, the Amity Foundation, and the Pfrang Association. His work has been awarded and exhibited internationally, including at Feztiv Art (Shanghai), the New York Photo Festival, the Format International Photo Festival, the Atlanta Photojournalism Contest, the Visual Culture Awards, and others. Brauer is also a co-founder and editor of dvafoto.com, a blog about photojournalism and visual culture.
Translations for We Chinese by Heidi Wickersham, http://www.threeriverslanguage.com/