Chen Ronghui is a Chinese photographer currently based in Shanghai and New Haven. His work focuses on different dimensions of China’s urbanization and industrialization. He has published two photobooks, Freezing Land, and Land of Ambitions, and exhibited both in China and internationally. He has won a number of awards including the World Press Photo; BarTur Photo Award; Three Shadows Photography Award & AlPA special prize and Hou Dengke Documentary Photography.
The following is a short interview between Hongzheng Han, the curator of Standing Out, the Outstandings, and the participating artist Ronghui Chen.
H: Walking with… (2021) was made during your last semester at Yale and the third trimester of your wife’s pregnancy. What inspired you to create this piece, and why is it so important at a time of chaos and uncertainty?
C: When I came to the United States, I have always been interested in individuals or forgotten things that are hidden in the chaotic environment of China and the United States. Before doing this work, I once did a project about Meyer lemons, which tells the story of how the Meyer Lemon was brought from China to the United States by the plant hunter Frank Meyer. I also did a selfie project called "Postcards from America", which tells the story of time and space between me and the first Chinese student Yung Wing who studied at Yale, (and also the first Chinese student to come to the United States).
When my wife became pregnant, I realized that my child was about to be born in this country. At the same time, I saw so much harm against Asians. As a father, I feel I need to do something. And I am an artist, I want to make a work of art for my child who is about to be born in the United States. I want him to know how much we love him. Even though the outside world is so bad, there are still some poetic and secret moments that we should cherish.
So, in this work, while walking on the street, I read the poem "The Prophet" by the great poet Kahlil Gibran from the East. Like Gibran’s identity, he not only belongs to Lebanon, but also to China, to the East, and to the whole world.
H: For this video work, you used a 360 VR camera. What is the purpose of using such equipment?
C: As a foreigner, I maintain a kind of curiosity and keep observing the country,it is the visual habit of being a photographer. On the other hand, with the epidemic, there have been more and more cases of hating Asians and committing crimes. When I was on the street, I was afraid that I would be in danger. To walk freely on the street has become a luxury of mine. I wanted to convey this omnidirectional sense of fear, so I chose a 360VR camera to present my observations.
H: Before you embarked on your artistic journey to the West, you were a journalist back in China. Can you apply your journalistic skills as a fine art photographer? And, what was the biggest cultural shock after you moved here?
C: Back in China, I was not only a photojournalist working for Chinese media, and I also produced projects for American magazines such as the New York Times and Time Magazine. This made me realize that photojournalism is after all a kind of prejudice published on public platforms. I feel that I love photography more than the news. I think art photography can express a certain reality better than photojournalism. So I chose to give up my career as a photojournalist and become an artist.
After coming to the United States, I lived and studied in a capitalist country for the first time. Interestingly, my first class at Yale School of Art was about Marxism taught to us by the dean. I think only in capitalist countries, thinking about Marxism is a more interesting thing. It also gave me a new understanding of capitalism. For example, why are there so many homeless people in such a highly developed country? Why does the race issue become the fuse of this country and so on? These are issues that we never thought about in China.
H: How are you dealing with this surge of Sinophobia due to the COVID-19 epidemic? Does this situation inspire you creatively?
C: I think the epidemic itself may be more worthy of our thinking. China-phobia is a manifestation of some cowardly nationalists, so I don't really care to some extent. But the epidemic is too worthy of us humans to reflect on. It is worth thinking about what is true freedom and democracy. In fact, the cultural differences between the East and the West that have emerged in the face of the epidemic are what impresses me the most. In extreme cases, many of our essences will be revealed. This makes me not only wary of the East but also more suspicious of the West.
H: Standing Out, the Outstandings is an exhibition designed to amplify the long-oppressed Asian voice in America. As one of the ten artists in this show, are there any encouraging words you would like to say to our community?
C: “When I woke up I reminded myself that freedom is never free. You have to fight for it. Work for it and make sure you are able to handle it.” – Toni Morrison, God Help the Child