Changsha

Images from the provincial capital.


Rian Dundon, an American photographer who lived in China for 6 years, is trying to fund a new book of photography called Changsha. He is currently fundraising through Emphas.is, which is like Kickstarter for photojournalism. There’s a month left to support the project. We talked over e-mail about his upcoming book.

Why Changsha?

Hunan is where I first landed when I moved to China. It was completely by chance. My girlfriend had a job there and I tagged along.

But this book isn’t just about the city of Changsha per se. As a write in the introduction, “From Changsha I followed people to other cities and provinces. I visited Yunnan and Guangdong, worked for a period in Beijing, and traveled extensively between Changsha and other prefectures in Hunan: Zhuzhou, Changde, Xiangtan, Jishou. Not every photograph in this book was made in Changsha City, but each can be traced to the connections I built there.”

Is this your first book?

This is my first published book. I have other work from China, shot mostly in Beijing and Shanghai while I was working in the Chinese film industry a few years ago. My next book will be of that material.

Can you tell us the story behind one of the photographs?

This picture was shot from backstage at the Night Cat gay bar near downtown Changsha. It was made in 2007, shortly before the bar closed down. Invisible from the street, the Night Cat was located in an old auditorium on the second floor of a used electronics market.

At one time the theater must have been an impressive venue—its wide stage and wrought iron balcony betrayed a former glory—but its makeshift decorations and empty seats betrayed another reality: lack of funds. Outside, a giant poster of Halle Berry dressed as Catwoman directed patrons past a row of stolen cell-phone dealers and up to the bar where teenage La-La girls and dance-boys would be waiting with menus.

There were always more employees than customers at the Night Cat, a common sight in a China where labor is cheap and competition fierce. I used to hang out backstage at the bar, photographing the workers between sets. Most were migrants from smaller cities, or the countryside where being openly gay is not really an option. In the relative liberalism of Changsha they were able to live somewhat of an open lifestyle. After the bar closed most of the Night Cat’s employees dispersed to other cities, in search of similar positions at other bars and nightclubs.

What did you shoot on and why did you choose to go with black-and-white for the images?

I learned photography in the darkroom. Black-and-white is default; for color I need a reason.

It’s all 35mm black-and-white film, hand processed in my apartment bathroom sink.

Dundon says he came to China on a whim, didn’t speak the language, but ended up catching the bug. He quickly fell in with the local crowd and caught glimpses of their life with his camera. He says in his introduction:

At first, when I didn´t speak the language, I would hang out in pool halls and practice counting balls in Chinese. I couldn’t talk but I knew how to play and I knew how to swap cigs with the hustlers and lookers-on. Later my Mandarin came and I could go to dinner with people or hit the karaoke clubs.

And on the pictures he’s chosen to include:

More than anything, the stories I´m presenting in this book are about the ways that ordinary people do what they have to do to get by. Dealing with forces beyond our control, in the end we all make the same kinds of decisions about our day-to-day survival. The people I know in Hunan are bit players in the unfolding epic of China´s development. But where the processes of modernity encroach on ones ability to provide and abide, the basic demands of life and family become a negotiation guided by pragmatism, never politics.

There’s still time to support the project. Below are some more images from Changsha.