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Shanghai: 1990-1993 #24 by Robert van der HILST

Size I: 70cm x 47cm - Edition of 20
Size II: 114cm x 78cm - Edition of 10

When I started working on my "Chinese interiors" photography project in June 2004, about a year after having finished my "Cuban Interiors" project, I believed that I could take the same approach in China as in Cuba.....photographing people inside their homes, meeting them, getting to know them, positioning them as, I, the photographer, saw them, inside their homes. And most importantly, speak with these people in their language and blend into their lives for a short period of time. It did not turn out like that at all in China. I do not speak the language and to a large extent I am ignorant of their culture. Soon after embarking on the project I realized that I would not be able to blend into these people’s lives as easily. Their reactions upon seeing a very tall man and his camera equipment at their doorstep made me realize that this was not going to work. I felt like an alien arriving at these people’s doorstep.

Here I was, a Dutch photographer, wishing to get inside the homes of these Chinese families, but unable to communicate with my subjects. I asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’ But my curiosity to find out more about the people and their behaviour towards me drove me to pursue my personal mission even more relentlessly. I started working with an interpreter who helped to explain who I was and what it was that I wished to do. Once this initial critical hurdle was overcome, I could communicate with my subjects, through the eyes, emotions and feelings. Soon after, I found myself blending into these people’s homes, just like in any country where I would speak the language, and capturing these moments of quiet communication with my subjects. I spent most of my time taking photographs in the rural areas of China. The daily lives were revealed through the bodies and faces of the people I met, sometimes instantly, sometimes through interaction over a period of time. It was a glimpse into each person’s private human realm. While working on this project in China, I was particularly struck by the enormous curiosity, hospitality and kindness of the families I photographed. Once inside their homes I could also feel the determination, the courage and the willpower these people possess. For them there seems to be just one way to go; forward. I recalled images of Vermeer, the 17th Century Dutch painter who has inspired my work in many places. I also saw how in their homes I could capture the spirit of these people, the quietness, the pride, the serenity, the austerity and togetherness of their lives. I now feel extremely confident regarding my subjects and find immense pleasure in visiting many villages and towns throughout China.

My gratitude naturally goes first to those Chinese families who so spontaneously and whole-heartedly opened their doors for me, invited me to sit down and to share a cup of green tea with them; I shall always remember their insatiable curiosity about me as a person, and of course their delightful and genuine hospitality.
I would also like to mention that after having exhibited my photography in The Pingyao International Photography Festival in 2004 and in 2005, I was able to make many Chinese friends, mostly photographers, from all over China. These photographers, once they came to know about my project, invited me to visit them, and accompanied me during my travels in their province, guiding me to small towns and villages to photograph the "Interiors". In particular, I am deeply grateful to the photographers like, Chen Haiwen from Shanghai, Wu Jalin from Kunming, Wang Hanbing from Xinjiang Province and Wang Zhongwen from Taiyuan, who have helped me tremendously in my project. I have travelled extensively with them to places such as Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei, Fujian, Zhejiang, Xinjiang, Shanxi and more and have completely enjoyed their insights and deep understanding of rural China. I also wish to thank Rabobank for their support in this project. When in March 2006 I showed my first photographs of "Chinese interiors" to the China management team of Rabobank, I was met with great enthusiasm and warm encouragement. A special thank you to Ms. Elizabeth Priester, who introduced me to Rabobank and to Jean Loh, who, when I was in doubt about this project, encouraged me to go on and to never look back.

Shanghai, September 2006


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