A man stands in front of the dirt mounds of a ubiquitous Beijing construction site. His dark suit fits him well. He squints, chin tilted upwards, a quiet smile of pride and optimism shaping his cheeks. A briefcase anchoring each hand intimates importance—perhaps he is a businessman; or, as suggested by his posture and the halo of polluted urban sky, he is the embodiment of the dutiful Chinese official.
In reality, he is a kitchen designer. A decade ago, there were no kitchen designers in Beijing. If you couldn’t find a job, there was likely one waiting in the fields. However, much like the perpetual rise of construction sites, the city’s culture and workforce is developing at a rapid pace. It is the face of this turn-of-the-century metropolis—one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities—that American photographer Derek Dudek sought to capture in his latest exhibit, “Bejingren (Beijing People),” which opened Sept. 12 at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies.
Rather than portray the city’s well-known elderly population, Dudek, who shot the photographs on his first trip to China in March 2004, saw the life and future of Beijing in the faces of young people in its bustling downtown. The artist photographed around 100 people between the ages of 20 and 45.
“I asked them only to turn and look into the distance, imagining something like their future, ahead of them,” Dudek said.
The subjects wear this pose well. There is pride on their faces, determination in their eyes, and confidence in their stance.
“It showed me a side of China that I wasn’t really aware of and how quickly it’s progressing,” said Jason Bigman ’10. “It’s not just this yuppie culture that I thought the young people were. They’re really making progress. The stoic poses were somewhat interesting because you know they have such incredible things in their futures. They don’t even know what’s ahead of them.”
Everything from the glowing urban background to the sloping angle (which Dudek chose to evoke the “power” he saw in the Beijingren) in each photograph is not unlike the Communist propaganda posters of half a century ago. However, the shots are more propaganda for the new individual rather than the obedient worker of old. A young unemployed man, for example, gazes pensively as cable car wires shoot across the background in indeterminate directions. Other cultural anomalies include a female film filmmaker and a girl described only as “student,” armed with shopping bags and a sharp fashion sense in place of a hammer and sickle.
The exhibit, introduced by resident Freeman curator Patrick Dowdy, is shot completely in digital and uses only natural light. This makes the photos’ backdrops all the more incredible as they glow pearl-gray, with what Dudek describes as the city’s “gorgeous pollution.”
The photographer and his translator, Sun Yingbin, spent weeks traversing Beijing.
“We were on the street from seven in the morning to seven at night,” Dudek said. “Everyone was so open, so kind. They were almost always willing to stop for a photograph, which is, you know, not something you would find somewhere like New York City.”
Masterfully composed, the portraits layer both color and line, juxtaposing the city’s electric colors (as in the thesis piece, “Transporter”) and the decaying earth tones of construction. These contradictions meet at the street corners where the subjects stand with a look of optimistic ambivalence as they carry the weight of their great city’s future in their coat pockets.