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Case study: “Yumen”

Case study: "Yumen"
Yumen was China’s first oilfield. Located in the northwestern Gansu province, it started production in 1939. It reached peak output in the 1960s, and was praised as a shining example of Communist China’s industrial achievement. By the mid-1990s, however, oil had almost been depleted; production plummeted. At its peak, the city of Yumen had 130,000 residents. Businesses thrived. Workers and their families lived in nice apartment buildings, and could watch movies or play billiards at night. As the state-owned oil company started to pull out in the mid-1990s, the city declined rapidly. By 2000, over 90% of the businesses had closed. By 2007, 90,000 residents had moved out; those staying behind were largely unemployed.
In June 2007, artists Zhuang Hui and Dan’er opened a commercial photo studio in Yumen. Zhuang Hui was born in Yumen in 1963, but has been living in Beijing for many years as a renowned artist specializing in photography. Dan’er is his partner in life and work. In 2006, they went back to Yumen to visit Zhuang Hui’s relatives, and were shocked by the city’s collapse. After this trip, Zhuang Hui and Dan’er conducted serious research on the history of Yumen. They collected historical photographs and objects related to China’s oil industry, and obtained official documents on how the government was handling Yumen and other resource-driven cities in decline.
After gaining a good understanding of the larger picture, they decided to go back to Yumen to set up a commercial photo studio.
They rented a place in Yumen’s old shopping street, and applied for a business license from the local government. They had never run a commercial studio before, so they sought advice from local photographers to understand what Yumen customers liked. They ordered cheerful backdrops, bought colorful costumes and accessories, and hired a local makeup artist. After one year of preparation, “Yumen Family Photo Studio” opened its doors in July 2008.
Customers came in to take ID photos, family portraits, and glamor shots. Despite the massive exodus, most residents wanted to look happy. But Zhuang Hui later recalled one sad detail, “I was puzzled why some customers wanted to be photographed holding a newspaper or a cardboard bearing the date. Later I learned that, in order to continue receiving a pension, you have to prove that you as a person are still alive; you have to mail a photo to your original work unit, once a year, or once every six months.”
After one year in operation, “Yumen Family Photo Studio” was shut down. It incurred a loss of 100,000 yuan (about US$15,000). On the other hand, the artists were able to collect a large number of photographs of Yumen residents. In Zhuang Hui’s words, “Yumen is about to vanish. We recorded its last expression.”
Why did Zhuang Hui and Dan’er decide to operate a photo studio as a real business, taking ID photos or glamor shots for their customers, rather than choosing the more traditional approach of shooting documentary photographs as professional artists? Perhaps they did not want to present themselves as artists from the capital, particularly since Zhuang Hui was born in Yumen and some of his relatives were still living there. They wanted to find a way to interact with the residents, without resorting to the conventional power relationship between the artist and his subjects. By shooting photos for the residents, in the styles they wanted, Zhuang Hui and Dan’er suspended their own aesthetic judgement as trained professionals.
The residents took control of how they wanted to be seen and remembered. Perhaps we could say that the Yumen photographs are even closer to reality than documentary photographs. By keeping the studio open for an entire year, the artists were able to create a large archive. For sure, these pictures, all taken inside the commercial studio, do not fully capture how people lived, but they did capture the residents’ collective sentiment and desire.

From July 2008 to June 2009, artists Zhuang Hui and Dan’er operated a commercial photo studio in Yumen, a declining resource-driven city, to capture the city’s “last expression.”

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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