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China. Shandong. Jinan. 荷兰摄影师穿越时空的中国印象 

English translation of the article in China by Dadi.

A Dutch photographer’s Chinese impression across time and space

图文:大地

by Dadi

 English version adapted from the published article on Helanonline.com: To the original Chinese article

 “I was walking along the narrow street of the old town. It was very quiet there, except for a few pedestrians coming and going, and some old men playing chess on the street corner. The doors, which stood still on both sides of the streets, took me from the noisy and crowded market to the memory of 15 years ago, when I visited those streets in Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou, …those stories behind the doors, that feel, all came back to me.”

In his house in Amersfoort, Willem Wernsen talked about his travel in China last month in a tone like George Orwell, as if the scene can be repeated everywhere in the world, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, Jinan, or Amersfoort, or even at any time, 1999 or 2014. When I asked the Dutch photographer what difference he found in his second trip to China after 15 years, he summarized with one line the assumed compliments like “great leap”, “strong impression”.

He took his time brainwashing me into believing with numerous stories that “life is the same, and nothing changed”, as if the 15 years of life changes vanished in a puff of smoke.

In his house piled his newly published photo-book entitled Behind the Great Wall. The photo-book is a collection of the photos he took in 1999 with his Mamiya 6x6 medium-format film camera. This volume of a month-long record of real China is the third documentary photo-book following Timeless and Beautiful People. As same as the style of the former two books, there are no colored or natural landscape photos in it—only black and white portraits and documentary ones. In every single photo, people are the only focus. They appeared consciously or unconsciously in the space of their own or others, and captured by Willem with his camera at THE moment.

 In his November trip to Jinan, China, for the 2014 Netherlands-China Photography Exhibition (NCPE), Willem took his new photo-book to its “hometown”. “The young lady, also a photographer born in 1980s, received me and saw these photos. She said these scenes were true records of the time in her childhood, and now rarely seen.” Fifteen years ago, Willem traveled by train for 32 hours from Guangzhou to Shanghai, and another 24 hours from Shanghai to Beijing. In his journey, he took photos of people, such as lovers sitting in the train, passengers waiting on the platform, peddlers in the market, children in the way, monks in the temples, workers on the demolition sites, a mother and her child in the hut, and old men resting on the street corner.

 “They saw a 1.8-meter-tall man with a cowboy hat and a weird camera. They were curious about me.” Out of the curiosity perhaps, people forgot about their defense against this foreign photographer. Willem talked to people with both hands and feet. He asked questions about everything. And people were willing to talk to the foreign man about their lives. They invited to their homes, showed him their family albums, and their crafts for making a living.

 Photo:  收藏算盘的艺术家 摄影 Wernsen, 2014. The abacuses collector and artist, photo by Willem Wernsen, 2014

 Photo: 劈柴的老人 摄影 Wernsen, 2014. The old wood-chopping woman, photo by Willem Wernsen, 2014

“You’ll never know what stories behind those doors.” Willem described with both hands and feet, “this time in Jinan, I passed an alley, where I found a door almost closed. I knocked at the door, and a lady welcomed me in the house. She was a calligrapher and art collector. She showed me her collection of abacuses. …I passed a pond, where some senior people were swimming—in the winter. They found me taking photos of them, and they talked to me warmheartedly.

 We had a very happy conversation. Once out of a yard, I heard rattles inside. When I got in, I found an old woman chopping fire wood. Her son told me that she was 98. Though she can’t hear clearly, she can still take care of herself and do housework.” With his glasses glittering in the dim light, Willem talked with so much passion that he used both English and Dutch, with the help of his life partner Lieve.

 Photo: 1999 年威廉在中国 供图 Wernsen. Willem in

 China, 1999

 Photo: 2014 年威廉在中国 摄影:刘嵘 Willem in China, photo by Rong Liu

 “I can see people are now living a better life. Few people ware old traditional clothes. Everyone has a mobile phone. But the emotion among family members, the bond among neighbors, the ways of life, they never change.” Behind the difference between cultures, Willem saw common humanity and eternal life.

The stories in the photo-book Behind the Great Wall, like the stories in his former photo-books, record the joys and sorrows of common people. There was no distinction among races, places, or countries. “In my eyes, everyone is the same. Behind different cultures, people’s emotion and lives are very similar.”

 Photo: 2014 年威廉在中国 摄影:刘嵘.Willem in China, 2014, photo by Rong Liu

 Willem is fond of documentary photography since he was very young. He often saved his money to buy albums of documentary photos. His passion and pursuit towards photography finally changed his way of making a living, and focused his attention in creative works.

 His photos focus on the lives of common people. In his word, that’s his Mark: “Every artist needs to bare his or her own Mark. You don’t have to listen to others, which makes you mediocre. You know what you’re doing.” Willem has found his Mark long time ago. “I’m not tourist paparazzi. I love seeing beautiful landscape. But I care more about the unknown stories of countless common people, the real and everlasting emotion.

 ” He likes to talk to people of different jobs, different ages, and different cultural backgrounds. He listened to them, took photos of them, and wrote stories about them. “I respect them, understand what they say, and feel how they feel.”

 In the 35 years of his photography career, Willem sees and interprets the world with his camera and his own perspective. The people in his lens were chosen as the representatives of his inner soul. In Beyond the Great Wall, there is a photo of a monk which he took in the Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai. “My interest in Buddhism, Taoism and other form of Eastern philosophy dates back to a time my life underwent a number of significant twists.

 Before that time documentaries on China already touched me and it intrigued me how meditation could deliver inner peace…This old monk has given me a tremendous gift and the photo represents inner peace to me” (Behind the Great Wall, p. 84). Starting to fell in love with China because of Ingrid Bergman’s “The Inn of Six Happiness”, and dreaming of traveling in the country one day, Willem found his China here.

 Photo: 僧人 摄影:Wernsen?1999. The Monk, photo by Willem Wernsen, 1999

 The empathy in photography connects Willem to the pains in others’ lives. By choosing black and white, he leaves out the noise of colors, and expresses directly his mood and attitude. In the photos of “Chinese Factory”, he shows his dissatisfaction directly: “Hereof (the journey) I have spent ten days in an economic zone, about one hundred kilometers from Shenzhen.

I visited a factory where strollers were made, …as designed by a Dutch company. The owner of the factory was from Taiwan. The pay and amount for which the strollers were sold at the end of the line were absolutely disproportionate with the work done by the employees” (Beyond the Great Wall, p. 162).

 Willem photographed the real living and working situation of the workers. The simple food, narrow dormitories, dirty drains, serious guards…these crude scenes contrasted with the guileless smiles on the faces of the workers and the longing in their eyes, and all were distilled in the touching moments captured by the photographer.

 Photo’s: 中国工厂 摄影 Wernsen?1999. Chinese factory, photo by Willem Wernsen, 1999

 The empathy in photography connects Willem to the pains in others’ lives. By choosing black and white, he leaves out the noise of colors, and expresses directly his mood and attitude. In the photos of “Chinese Factory”, he shows his dissatisfaction directly: “Hereof (the journey) I have spent ten days in an economic zone, about one hundred kilometers from Shenzhen.

I visited a factory where strollers were made, …as designed by a Dutch company. The owner of the factory was from Taiwan. The pay and amount for which the strollers were sold at the end of the line were absolutely disproportionate with the work done by the employees” (Beyond the Great Wall, p. 162).

 Willem photographed the real living and working situation of the workers. The simple food, narrow dormitories, dirty drains, serious guards…these crude scenes contrasted with the guileless smiles on the faces of the workers and the longing in their eyes, and all were distilled in the touching moments captured by the photographer.

 5 Photo’s . 中国工厂 摄影 Willem Wernsen?1999. Chinese factory, photo by

 Willem Wernsen, 1999

Wang Ruiqing, a Chinese painter, commented on Willem’s photos: “He saw China from the perspective of a Westerner, and took photos of China with his heart.” When many Western photographers shot the “others” in China, Willem shot “me” and “us” there.

无题 摄影  Wernsen Untitled, photo by Willem Wernsen

Willem said: “I look with my eyes, I see with my soul?Ik kijk met mijn ogen, ik zie met mijn ziel?.” Perhaps only “seeing with soul” can give photos charm that surpasses time and space, and boundaries between countries and hearts, so that when facing the moment passed, we are touched deeply by the stories.

 无题 摄影: Wernsen Untitled, photo by Willem Wernsen

Photo:  老人 摄影 Wernsen: The old man, photo by Willem Wernsen

 Photo:  追逐的孩子 摄影: Wernsen. Chasing child, photo by Willem Wernsen

 Photo: 街边工人 摄影 Wernsen, 1999

Workers in the street, photo by Willem Wernsen, 1999

(全文完) 

Gup Magazine. Behind the Great Wall.