Chen Ronghui

In the past few years, Chen Ronghui has made remarkable achievements. When discussing the leading group of young Chinese photographers, his name ought to be referenced. At PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai 2019, his works were displayed by UP Gallery (Hsinchu City) and Three Shadows +3 Gallery (Beijing & Xiamen). Shortly after, Chen won the Youth Award for Photographers at the 2019 Lian Zhou Foto with his project Freezing Land.

Freezing Land is about the youth living in northeast China’s countryside. What was once the wealthiest region of China due to its heavy industries, is now renowned for its declining population and recession. Chen aimed to examine the living conditions of these youths, and found in his creative research that he could relate to the feelings of uncertainty and loss that his subjects felt. The artist travelled to Yichun, Longjing, Furalchi, Fushun and Shuangya Mountain with an 8×10 large frame camera, weighing more than 15kg.

At present, Chen Ronghui is studying for an MFA in Photography at Yale university. After nearly nine years as a photojournalist, he stepped down as Visual Director of Sixth Tone to resume his student role. Now his life is busy and fulfilling. On his official social media account, he regularly updates his diary of studying abroad to share what he has learned and what he has observed. In this Artist Takeover, Chen Ronghui will inform us of the thought-processes behind his works, as well as the challenges posed by photojournalism. 

© Chen Ronghui, Christmas Factory, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

Chen Ronghui: I have been working in journalism since I graduated from college. The job allows me to reach all parts of the country and every corner of society. But the work as a journalist also has an invisible shackle. News photographers in particular live in the gap between news and photography. This kind of encounter is sometimes suffocating, and the project Christmas Factory gives me a chance to get to know photography itself.

I can still remember that morning… After three days of shooting, I was about to leave Yiwu. But for some reason, I just wanted to go back to the factory. I saw the sacred light, which was illuminated by the dust in the air. Xiao Wei, wearing a mask, started his day’s work. Red, red, red, this crazy world. Christmas comes year after year, but Xiao Wei can no longer be reached.

In retrospect, I photographed a younger generation of Chinese migrant workers working in factories. I wonder am I not one of them? This uncertainty and anxiety about the identity of outsiders gradually became one of my creative themes. This award-winning creation made me grateful about the past and courageous to find more possibilities in photography.

© Chen Ronghui, Modern Shanghai, 2018. Courtesy of the artist

In 2015, I left Hangzhou to work in Shanghai. I started consciously learning art history and art photography. I also tried to create with a large-format camera, and shot the Runaway World which focuses on the parks in the Yangtze River area. At that time, I also took many photos for the theme parks in Shanghai. During the course, I became more and more interested in the city where I live. Shanghai attracts young people like me and we come here to look for the future and the so-called success.

At the time, I used to carry a folding ladder which could rise to nearly 3 meters, with a hope that it would help me observe the world better by keeping a certain distance. In the afternoon when I took this photo, I came to this paradise with my 810 large-format camera, stood on my ladder, and watched as many people played in the water. There are so many human beings! The reality quickly made me sober, a summer wind blew through, and I stood on the ladder and began to shake. I quickly pressed the shutter, and I got sweaty. It turns out this was what lonely at the top means.

© Chen Ronghui, Freezing Land, 2016-2017. Courtesy of the artist

North land was in the middle of winter. At minus 30 degrees, I was walking on the soft snow. With each breath, I heard my own heartbeat. I was born in a small town in the south, where there was very little snow in the winter, so I hadn’t experienced the real cold. There is a cold chill in the north and a cold estrangement between people. The news about northeast decline and the northeast revival stage alternately.

So I wanted to explore what’s going on in the northeast right now. Every photographer has fantasized, like Robet Frank, Stephen Shore, or Alec Soth, about exploring their country and its people on the road. In Freezing Land, I wanted to find the things hidden in daily life and tell the story through the presentation of color. These abandoned gates were collected after the demolition of local shantytowns. The kind of collection itself is full of fun. We often say, open a door, outside is a new world. What can we do when there are countless doors in front of us?

© Chen Ronghui, Freezing Land, 2016-2017. Courtesy of the artist

When I arrived in the northeast city of Yichun, I was greeted by a blizzard. I was trapped in the only local chain hotel. The snow outside the windows covered the ground, layer by layer. I pulled out my phone and opened an app that gathered a lot of Northeast Internet celebrities. When I checked someone nearby, I learned that there were more than 10 active accounts within a distance of less than 1 km from me. Most of the bloggers were young people. I personally reached out to a few accounts and said that I wanted to take photos of them, and someone soon responded to me.

When the camera faced these young people, I realized the confusion they faced. The once-bustling city is not developing well. Whether to leave or stay in the city has become the main focus of my dialogue with them.

The little boy in the photo was only 14 years old at that time, and he made money by featuring on a dress-up show on the Internet. I went to a cafe where he often performed while shooting, and we re-selected the scene. He told me that he had a dream of acting, but unfortunately there was no chance in this life. He felt that my camera might help him become famous. I think I deceived him then, and I couldn’t help him realize his dream.

© Chen Ronghui, Freezing Land, 2016-2017. Courtesy of the artist

When this photo was taken, it was like a eureka moment. As I passed this place, I heard a lot of crows calling, then I saw a group of crows flying by. The first instinct was that such scenes were everywhere and did not seem worth shooting. After leaving, I felt regret. So I went back to this place.

Before filming, the crows sat quietly on the trees, as if waiting for something. And when I pressed the shutter, the crows suddenly flew towards me, blocking the sun. I quickly reversed the direction of the tripod and recomposed the image. This is a large shot from the hip. And the crow flying moment would never come again. When the photos were developed, they turned out very well. There seems to be a sense of Katsushika Hokusai and Jeff Wall. This experience, for the photographer, is really exciting. This may be the uncertainty and charm of photography.

© Chen Ronghui, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

This summer, I went to Yale university to study MFA in photography. When I got to Newhaven, a lot of people warned me about the safety issues there, especially when I carried my camera with me. So I ran home from school every day. When I got to the house, I would fall to the couch without turning on the light. Looking at the light out of the window constantly changing, I slow down and start to think of my childhood life in the countryside of Zhejiang. At that time, my parents were working outside, and I was raised by my grandparents. They were reluctant to turn on the light at night. I was so energetic that I liked to run around and spy out the secrets of the night: the fireflies, the white moonlight, and the stars.

In our daily life, the first thing we do when we open our doors is to turn on the light. But actually, our eyes have the ability to observe the night, but we give up the ability to do so as well as give up this pursuit of beauty. So, I asked my classmates to turn off the lights and feel the beauty of the night. The window is like a lens, the room becomes a black box. I used long exposure to capture the beauty of this dim light.

This project is still in the process of improvement, and I am excited to use photography to explore my relationship with the world, tell my story and recall my past.