by Sheung Yiu

© Lin Xuecong from the series 'Margin'

China is going through rapid urbanization and with its mammoth economic power and labour force, nothing can stand in the way of this unstoppable force of development, not even mountains, literally. In the midst of these changes, many photographers feel an urge, almost a calling, to document the process, and more importantly, the untouched landscapes that are doomed to be demolished in the blink of an eye — Lin Xuecong is one of them. The millennial photographer and Shenzhen local have been photographing coastal cities for two years in his project 'Margin', in which he captured the last years of a rural village before the whole area turns into a giant resort complex.

What Lin set out to photograph however, is not the direct environmental consequences of development, but the lost of religion in this rural village in the development looming ahead. In his series, a cacophony of empty resort facilities, abandoned religious sites and ritualistic object interweaves into a quiet visual narrative, underneath it is the uncertainty of the future and a subtle grieving of the lost of faith.

How did the project began? Why does that specific region interests you?

Lin Xuecong (LX): I was shooting alongside the coast of Shandong, but feel very uninspired by the landscape, so I decided to take a break from it and help my cousin who is shooting a documentary in Huizhou, a city in central Guangdong, about the indigenous fisherman. I was surprised to see the immense changes happening in the fishing village. That is when I got back the incentives I needed for my own project because I realise most of the things I witness earlier are disappearing at unimaginable speed. The boulder that you see in one of myphoto are probably gone, replaced by yacht clubs and resorts. When I first arrived at the village, garbage mountains were everywhere. It is an overwhelming scene, but I did not have enough film with me at the time. The next time I went, they were all gone, the place turned tidy and clean. The government, of course, has a lot to do with it. They set out to ‘promote the beauty and hygiene of a resort’ in the village. That is all for tourism. 

© Lin Xuecong from the series 'Margin'

I sensed that you intentionally avoid some of the cliche and confrontational images of development in ‘boundary’ despite that you set out with the intention to document the fast urbanisation of rural cities. 

LX: Yes. because my intention is not to focus only on the destruction. I like to take a step back and use my photos to show how each individual is responding to the fast-changing reality, and how they deal with the uncertainty brought about by these restless developments. Being a Chaozhou person residing in Shenzhen, I have gotten used to being an outsider, observing my surroundings from a more distanced perspective.

How did you choose the places to be included in the project and ultimately decided on Dongshan?

LX: I mainly look for places where changes and developments are eminent. For this project I went to Dongshan in Zhejiang province, a popular holiday hideout in China. Most of the local residents live in houses built on the sides of mountains. The place is still very much untouched, retaining its landscape and culture. Every peak tourist season, in October, they will come from the opposite shore and do business in Dongshan, Most of them work in catering or hospitality. A month of work will earn them more than enough to get through the year, then like sea turtle, they will migrate back to their home, taking a holiday all winter. When I was there, I asked a young restauranteur around my age how much they earn for a season. He told me he earned more than RMB100,000 a month (around € 13,700).

© Lin Xuecong from the series 'Margin'

I have gone to villages in Ningbo and other provinces, but nothing inspires me more than Dongshan. Chinese along the coast worship Mazu, the sea goddess, to ensure the safe return and protection of seamen. Harmony between nature and human is a central value of their religion, and yet for the sake of economic prosperity, many of the younger generation has abandoned these teachings. They said “We need to make money.”, “We don’t go out to fish anymore, what is the point of worshipping Mazu”, but religion is crucial to the moral fabric of a civilised society. These men, who abandoned their religion, has also lost their moral compass. Many will do anything to get what they want. The culture and traditions of coastal cities are slowly eroding, giving ways to highways and luxurious mansions.

© Lin Xuecong from the series 'Margin'

Looking through your portfolio, I can see your interest has shifted from more traditionally poetic imagery to the reality that surrounds you.

LX: My earlier works often come from a personal point of view, but when I began working on 'Margin', my approach has since shifted towards the photo documentary tradition. There is really no big reason behind it. The impetus behind my latest series ‘A thousand, miles” is incidental – I was traveling back and forth Guizhou and Shenzhen to see my long-distance girlfriend at the time. During those bus rides to Guizhou, I would photograph any places with mountains and a body of water, since these are so central to the typical Chinese landscapes. But “山水", or "mountain and water” (a Chinese word meaning natural landscape) are fragile and vulnerable. In my hometown, Chaozhou, many mountains are demolished, rampant deforestation uprooted natural habitats. When I was young, I would go inside the point and catch fish, now I wouldn’t dare to go anywhere near it. People are digging meters-deep holes everywhere, if you are not careful, you can get drown in quicksand. I saw a lot of dead pigs floating in the river.

Besides there are too many Chinese photographers working on poetic photography anyway.

© Lin Xuecong from the on-going series 'A thousand, miles'

You have told me a curator once said your work is too obscure. Do you agree? What do you think about presenting your work at an exhibition?

LX: "Straightforward photography" often lacks substance, it loses its value instantly after the first sight, the initial visual stimuli. They mean very little to me. Photography requires active understanding, you have to stand in front of it and think about it, it is not there to surprise, or to excite. Sensational photography devolves into meaningless images, consumed and forgotten. It is true that people now have an attention span less than 5 seconds for an image, but photographers should not work to grab the attention for 5 seconds, they should fight for more than that, making images that deserve to be appreciated and thought about for 20 seconds or even longer. Photos without a message are not worth mentioning. it just adds more to the pile of garbage that are already there. I am not good at writing statement. I shy away from explicitly telling my audience what I shot. I don’t think statement is necessary. The best statement is the work itself. If you worked hard on the images, people can tell from your pictures.

Did you show your family with work? What did they say?

LX: My grandfather worked in a land surveying team during the Chinese civil wars. He used to tell me a lot about the places he has been. I guess he has passed on his love for the environment and Chinese landscapes to me. I showed him my work, he thinks it is quite good. He likes one particular photo of the sea. “This sea is beautiful,” he told me.

Since beginning the project in 2014, you have been commissioned to continue the project till now. During the two years that you worked on the project, have you re-edit your sequence? Have you taken our old images that you find unfit now and replace them with the new one you took?

LX: I did not edit anything during these two years. I am a nostalgic person. I refuse to take away old photographs, even if they are bad photos. They collectively make up my memory, and it wouldn’t be complete if I edit them away. I rarely delete photos. Photography is a mnemonic language. I only do addition, not subtraction. Deleting is simply too cruel.


Lin Xuecong
urbanautica China