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Wenjie Yang

Low City

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“The Low City ” settles in the centre of Chongqing, one of the most important cities located by the middle of The Yangtze River. Only one street divided from the flourishing city centre, “The Low City” is composed of stairs and temporary street shelters like a shanty town.  It seems to be left behind by the prosperity of Chongqing but not entirely forgotten. Since 2007, the government of Chongqing invested USD 3,000 million for the development of the city, and very soon this area will be also vanished into a forest of high-rise.

Through making this project, I have traced the trail of my own life experiences. I grew up in a local alley in Shanghai where a small house contains seven families.  As a result of my upbringing, I now feel affable towards a living space in such narrow and cramped space, which once I complained.

At the beginning of this year, I started to photograph the life in The Low City and then I returned this June to record the movement again.  I understand that the plan of the resettlement over there was delayed and people living there are still longing to move to a high-rise and large apartment.  Such event was also happened in my childhood. However, I believe that one day in the future, they’ll miss the special familiarity and intimacy in their old block.



Born and raised up in Shanghai, China.  I have only worked as a freelance photographer for over one year.  Previously, I worked as an Executive Producer for advertising production and Associate Director or Script Supervisor in the production of movie crews for several years.

In the past year as a photographer, I received quite a few editorial assignments from various magazines, including “Travel + Leisure”, “Marie Claire”, “Elle Decoration”, “Chinese Photographers”.

This coming autumn, I’ll come to New York to attend the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism One-Year Certificate Program at International Center of Photography (ICP).


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Wenjie Yang


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

27 thoughts on “wenjie yang – low city”

  1. Congratulations Wenjie on a gorgeous, dream-like and at times ache-filled story….I love all the gorgeous contradictions in this essay, which resonate with the same contradictions that inhabit China at the moment…

    The first photograph reminds me of one of my favorite classical Chinese paintings, the painting of which has had a big influence on my own photographic practice:


    but I LOVE all the illusions to the history of great photography. In fact, in a sense, this essay could easily fit nicely with Provoke Magazine (and that era of brilliant Japanese photography)….and this beautiful allusion to one of Moriyama’s most famous pictures: your picture 15 of the girl running in the alleyway, which mimics MOriyama’s famed picture of the girl running over glass in an alleyway…and all these brilliant contradictions: the young woman with the LV bag washing in squalor, the magnificent picture in the barber shop with this beautiful high-key/high-contrast white light which disappears all except for the ‘ancestors’ (ghosts/memories) observing from the mirror (photo 14)…i also love all the ‘mistakes’ in the pictures, the washed out whites and the cavernous blacks…which in many senses is antithetical to much of contemporary chinese photography (with the intensity and proliferation of digital work, big clean, clear, crisp prints) which has often emphasized the ‘perfection’ of the image through digital tools and printing, but also your scale is dramatically different than much of what we see …..

    in a sense it evokes both the nostalgia for what shall be lost (what is disappearing in china) but also for the difficulty and contradictions that define the nation and especially the cities at the moment….

    powerful, physical, viseral photography wich alludes to both the tradition of photography (particularly Japanese Provoke era work) and the ongoing moments now…

    24hour city indeed ;))))

    thanks for sharing….lovely to have watched…


  2. Hm, I don’t really get this essay. I think #3 and #13 are good pictures.
    I think 1,2,4,5,9,12 and 14 could be all be improved with anything from a caption to explain what I am looking at to fixing the burnt out highlights or are ok enough to keep but not great.
    I think 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 are bad pictures and don’t contribute anything to this project so far as I can see, except perhaps at a stretch the traditional subject matter of the guy carrying the baskets (if that’s what they are).

    I really have no idea what Bob is talking about. I have no knowledge of any of that.

  3. The problem with allusion and symbolism is that few are going to understand what you are saying. Lot’s of grain in these B&W photos. This clearly means something to the photographer, but just doesn’t do anything for me.

  4. Bob

    Thankyou for so wonderfully articulating some of the things that make this series so amazing.

    #4, the barbershop photo is amazing. I’m also very taken with #9.

    The vision here is very un-conventional, at least to those used to a “western” aesthetic. Yes, Bob, I see echos of chinese painting, and of some Japanese photography from a few years ago. Eiko Hoso (sp?) and some other japanese images I recall published in the old photo annuals in the 70s I think
    It’s hard to put a finger on what makes it so, besides the high contrast and grain. I think part of it is the starkness, the dream-like quality, as Bob pointed out, and the seemingly casual “mistakes” like the out of focus foregrounds washed out by flash.

    I love the fact that the images are for the most part busy busy busy, full of texture, people, objects, chaotic. And yet, at the same time, there is some kind of order and coherence to the images. I’m usually touting “clean” images, compostionally speaking, but here we have the opposite, and how wonderfully they speak to us.

    Spectacular work.
    Wenjie, congratulations. I love these photographs. I hope New York does not corrupt your eye too much.

  5. strong imagery….
    behind bars…
    a boys club?
    great compositions…
    filling the frame,
    making my eyes go

  6. Some of these photos remind me of Sobol’s work in Japan, especially the heavy flash and grainy look. It somehow works in a few photos like 2. I like the guy looking right into the camera, hands folded bottom left with the button up coat and the various directions people are looking in the background. The bars definitely give the impression that these folks are locked in somehow…literally or figuratively.

    4 is nice, but the flash burned out the nice things happening in the mirror….same with the cat in 6..would love to see just a bit more of his/her face.

    10 is almost there…I like the hard shadows, but it’s a bit heavy on the left side

    I really love how the photographer is exploring with angles, shadows, and light. It seems like a good start to great work down the road.

    GordonL…why would New York corrupt the photographer’s eye?? If anything I think blending this work and the photographer’s overall way of seeing the world, with a bit of NPPA photojournalism, as DAH likes to call it, would result in something fantastic..what do ya think??

  7. I think this essay, whatever its merit, illustrates perfectly what John Vink wrote yesterday after Audrey reported Willy Ronis’s death.

    The problem, or the solution!, with these pictures, is that we can definitely put a lot of thoughts and things into it, if we wish to. With the regret that actually, some of it was really there (not a construction or an after-thought), to begin with, but now may need a lengthy and referential prose to be extirpated.

    Also: an observation more than criticism actually since it’s emerging photography, hard to differentiate much of the style from many other essays seen lately.

    In its simplicity and scope, I like the buildings picture in the beginning most of all, which releases all the complexities of crazy urban and social developemnt we can wish for!

  8. really like this. well done. i’m thinking large format (very large) would work wonderfully here.

    love the style. interesting compositions. interesting location. interesting set of images.

    well done.

  9. I’m confused here, don’t quite see where the photographs are heading and I’m missing a stronger link to what you’re saying about the familiarity and intimacy in their block, because that doesn’t shine through the essay like it should. On the contrary I’m feeling a strange and cold distance to the subjects. I think you are getting somewhere with #4 and #9 (my favourites), I want to see more people, I’m curious how they look like and how it looks like where they live. The streets doesn’t seem too relevant in this essay.

    Lots of messed-up thoughts from me, hope they give you something. Good luck with more!


  10. #6 and #10 didn’t work for me at all, whereas #13 is fantastic!
    a nice little essay. i would have liked to have seen at least one more ‘from afar’ image to give the shanty town some more perspective and depth for me.

  11. Nice…#10 is the only one i’d get rid of. It’s too gray and flat for me. Have you seen the book, “Phantom Shanghai” by Greg Girard? A beautiful book. Good luck in NYC!


  12. I love the grain and constrast used here, it gives the pictures a ‘grittyness’ that echos the nature of the content really well – would love to see these as prints.

    Not sure from your text if this project is ongoing, but if so it might be an idea to focus on an individual or family as well to develop the idea of transition you speak of.


  13. Good essay Wenjie, you obviously feel an affinity and are comfortable with your subject. Number 4 is my favorite. Enjoy New York!

    Best wishes,


    Hey Panos; are you buying the M9 or are you going to pay off California’s budget deficit?

    Good light,


  14. Mmmm… gritty, challenging… I’m not sure that I like many of these and then I find myself agreeing with Panos – all messed up, excellent… And then I don’t like them again.

    Well done Wenjie! You’re challenging me hard with these. I love the 3/4/5 sequence – and then… what is 6 doing there? Aaargh!

    Some captions might have eased the pain – maybe that’s not your intent!


  15. This essay is under a lot of influences… Bertrand Meunier is not far, Marc Riboud hanting…and all the exhibitions realized by Alain Julien (nephew of Marc Riboud) in all the photofestival he created their (from Pingyao to Guangzhou)

    I don’t see the critical point here, not at all… It’s a mix of style, just some copy without any specific documentary interest…it say nothing about China… It just show some places where you just have to stay for few minutes to bring a good shots… As many Chinese photographers I had met told me… In China today their is two jobs: Architect and photographer….as you just have to shot something then come the day after to shot again and it realized a serie…things are going so far to the west and so quick… So anyway good luck at the ICP (in the Barbarian land…)… Hope Wenje will not be also under ICP influences…or just take Gen Smith blood and then come back to China and take same risk to show the reality there…in that case it’s a really good start…

    good luck

  16. I am quite taken with this essay. There is something about the raw unfinished look of the photos that, to my eye, fits the subject. Wenjie has taken me inside the Low City and I can not only see it, but smell, touch, hear and feel its particular rhythms of life. The people feel real, as does everything around them. The juxtaposition of high-rises and shanties, as in #3, is very strong indeed.

    Good work, Wenjie. May your year at ICP be fruitful. I’m sure it will. You are a photographer whose development I will follow with interest. And congratulations on being published here on Burn!


  17. Wenjie, absolutely love it!

    One thing that cought my attention tough is #11. After all the grainy pictures, that one, I don’t know why, stands out to me like “too clean”… Maybe is just my eyes..

  18. Contrary to a couple other comments received, I think that you have done a pretty good job of conveying your sentiments of ‘how a community reacts according to architectural/infrastructure planning’. It is tough to show ‘transitions in progress’ in the present; in my present project I am struggling with this very same prospect, and almost wish I had the ability to span decades, rather than weeks/months, etc. to demonstrate photographically what i hold to be the essence of this ‘progress’ (i desire ‘told you so’ moments as much as anyone else haha).

    The photos I imagine you to trust with the message of ‘the depersonification of high rises’ arise in the beginning. Where people opt to congregate on a slope of land far away from the building that looms in the background; the third photo, where people are seemingly reduced to their air conditioned blocks of homes; the last photo, where unconventional architecture seems to have taken precedence over the trash in the middle and or the silhoette of a person in the foreground.

    The other photos, of streetside open-aired restaurants, people dancing in the open-air spaces, symbols such as wreaths and balloons (which are signs of a vibrant community), the barbershop scene (a classic photographic scene), billiards playing etc. all demonstrate a community that exists because of the present organization of the buildings/city. to this end, my favorite image is that of the blurry worker in a narrow alleyway. The aesthetics of the image lend great credence to the architecture of the area, which creates low-light, narrow alleyways that are very difficult to photograph in.

    What remains to be seen (and is, I gather, the source of your sense of trepidation), is what the effect will be of the dismantling of this order with that of highly organized high-rise buildings. One can surmise this ‘x factor’, the sense of the unknown from your images of the man sleeping (where he works?) on the ground, and the weegee-esque image of the woman in the alleyway and the idea that these moments are to be destroyed by the coming architectural storm. These already demonstrate the coming removal of ‘intimacy’, yet are stuck in the present, which i think lends credence to some of the comments on here who say that the essay seemed aloof and detached.

    Therefore, I think this essay is more of x vs. y : we have the now, and we have the future. I didn’t really see too much of the ‘transition’, or the sense of ‘limbo’, that results from the project delays, or the results of a community being ‘half completed’.

    I may be completely off on my interpretation of this project, I am unaware a lot of the photographic allusions that Bob Black mentioned, and I hope to educate myself as soon as possible.


  19. Good eye, compositions are strong… but is the b&w a bit too contrasty? There seems to be a bit too much blow-out… and it annoys my eyes. None-the-less… great, great essay. I looked over it a few times, the first was not enough. Intruiging.

  20. I don’t think this tells me anything about the place or the people, exotic but not informative. It looks like every street corner of urban China, the choice of b&w grain etc, makes this place look drab and dreary, miserable but not in any particularly unique profound way. Very one dimensional. The problem is that this place is nothing special as the circumference of all cities in China are in the same state of regeneration (and that about 50% of every city), in Beijing you can measure expansion of the city by the meter literally by where the road stops all of a sudden with a brick wall. I once got an eviction notice 5 days before my studio got bulldozed. The local Ktv-prostitiution tin-roof drive-through alley was replaced with Nortel marbled Asian headquarters within 6 months. Another 6 months later and they have just dug a hole in the ground for the new subway. So for me the premise for your project is not strong enough and too loose. I don’t think you can get away with this unless you tighten up your concept and define what you want to photograph and then asses the style with which you find works. But at the moment it seems you have stumbled upon a site in which you can practice a style and wrap a project around it, and I don’t think that does justice to the situation or people you photograph.
    Some well taken pictures though, but to easy. Sorry

  21. Wenjie you have a lot of “things” going on in this piece. Another photographer might think this is interesting, but as for telling a story it is difficult to understand. There are some very interesting images that begin to tell something about The Low City, but I want to know more. I do not see the divide between the flourishing city and those left behind for the most part.

    You are an observant student of technique. I am sure your time at ICP will be of great benefit. You are so fortunate that David has allowed your work to be presented here.

  22. don’t get it – some nice shots but none of them seem to set this town apart from any other grubby Asian city.

  23. The look of this essay is not to my taste, which is not to say that it is not good. I dislike the extreme sharpening and contrast in so many of the photos. When I see that I always suspect it’s to make up for problems in the original exposure. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that, but better to get it right in the camera. I’m open to blurry photos but don’t feel they work here. Try as I might, I can’t find anything redeeming about the blurry cat photo. The balloon doesn’t work for me either.

    On the positive side, which is significant, the composition is excellent in many of the photos, particularly #s 1, 4, and 10. I agree with those who think a year at the ICP will be of great value. Improve significantly on the technical side and your compositional skills can take you a long way.

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