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M. Scott Brauer

We Chinese

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“We Chinese” grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country and their future.  Media coverage of the country and its development often raises questions about the direction of the government in Beijing on the world stage.  Few reports take into account the feelings of the Chinese people, instead making reference to the country as a monolithic actor without constituent parts.  A country’s trajectory through history cannot be mapped without careful consideration of the people.  This project aims, in a small way, to develop a portrait of the country by looking at the individual people that make it up.

I started the project as a way to respond to friends’, family’s, and strangers’ questions about the global direction of China and their stereotypes of the people. ‘Should we be scared of China?’ or ‘Where is China headed?’ or broad assertions about the collective character of billions of individuals that make up the country. The project aims to give faces and voices to a small section of the Chinese people caught in the center of historic shifts in the country’s socioeconomic circumstances. Recent years in China have been marked by mass migration toward urban centers, substantial increases in personal wealth, radical changes in the country’s educational and industrial sectors, and the start of China’s role as a global leader in political and economic matters.  Ordinary people, the subject of We Chinese, are caught in the middle of this unprecedented change. While the big story is this change itself, an important and often-overlooked aspect of modern China is what this cultural transformation means to the people and their future.

In 2010, I traveled throughout major urban centers in eastern China stopping people on the street to ask the same two questions about their country and their future. The respondents filled out a one-page typewritten questionnaire that included these two questions and some basic information including name, age, and occupation. The questions were interpreted variously, and the responses range from prosaic to poetic, from rote to inspired, and from unemotional to patriotic. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the entire population, the people photographed here expressed a sincere love of country and optimism about the country’s future development and peaceful position in the world.

The name ‘We Chinese’ comes from a phrase I encountered time and again when talking with Chinese people in China, both in Mandarin and English. Answers to questions about the person’s opinion about something or other would often begin with ‘We Chinese…’ (‘Wo men Zhong Guo ren’), instead of beginning with something like ‘I think…’

The project also comes from suspicions of my own methods in documentary work. My work imposes visual and written narratives on situations and cultures. By photographing anyone willing to be a part of the project, using the same set up for the portraits, and asking the same questions of all the subjects, I hoped a narrative about China and its people would naturally emerge.

The final project comprises 100 portraits and short interviews. The text and pictures are meant to be viewed simultaneously. The work has not previously been published, beyond on the website and blogs. Word of mouth has been tremendous, but I’m still looking for exhibition and publication opportunities for the project.

Translations by Heidi Wickersham, http://www.threeriverslanguage.com/


M. Scott Brauer is a photojournalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  His work can be seen at: http://www.mscottbrauer.com/ and, along with Matt Lutton, he founded dvafoto.com, a blog about photojournalism.

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M. Scott Brauer

We Chinese

dvafoto blog

13 thoughts on “scott brauer – we chinese”

  1. How interesting! I think if you had done the same with American, French, or other [westernized] country, you’d get answers that were more philosophical. Their answers seemed so literal, and after several of them, very predictable. How interesting that so many saw themselves as nothing more than the proverbial cog in a wheel. They seemed proud to look upon that future, although you’d be a better judge of that. And then to look back at the picture and see them wearing a Quiksilver t-shirt. That was the best.

  2. Interesting concept, Scott. I’m immediately struck that all the participants are in relatively good physical shape. Is it just coincidence? If done in the United States, half of them would be well over-weight. So is it true that China doesn’t have an obesity epidemic like the U S A?

  3. Interesting!! I’ve never been in China, I have a few remarks… there are 31 portraits of chinese citizens, none of them are wearing chinese cloths…they’re wearing Crocs shoes, McDonald T-Shirt, I like #18 (the guy is wearing an Argentinian football jersey). I’m from Buenos Aires, and Beijing is just the opposite coordinate planet place if you traverse the earth by its center… no can’t go further!

    A photographer once told me: Patrick, remember from where you come and who you are to take pictures!
    Scott: Chinese are a mix of cultures or just they want to forget their past??

    Great photojournalist job Scott. Hope see an exhibition somewhere with picture at human size :-)


  4. I did not read all of the answers because I think the images speak volumes… What defines West from East? is it an imaginary line drawn through the Pacific Ocean? Because if one were to hop on a plane and fly west wouldn’t that person likely see China, Japan, India, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Israel and Egypt and any number of other Countries considered “East”? The biggest thing I notice when looking at these images is the obvious influence the U.S. has had on this part of China. China – the country once seen as exotic, warriors, communist, and a million other things, now looks like home. The don’t look any different than kids and parents from my home town. Whats shocking is the $ – it appears in China on Clothes like it appears here in the States on items. Everything seems so faux…
    What I think worries those from the States is that they’ve influenced a very powerful people and what will those people do with this influence? thats yet to be discovered. Perhaps there is a better system than our democracy. if one were to come up, would we be too afraid to embrace it? would it be a sign of pride being crushed? What if the Chinese come up with a “cure” for poverty and starvation before we do? Does that mean the U.S. is weak? No of course not. Like the old saying goes – two heads are better than one. And if you think about life in a fractal sense: what is the ultimate life here on Earth?

    …atoms make molecules, molecules make proteins and other “life” compounds – proteins make cells, cells make organs, organs make bodies, bodies make population, populations make nations, nations make countries, countries make…

  5. yeah, the pictures in human size, in a mall – I can imagine that.
    Great series.
    The combination of their portraits with their quotes is a good insight into a world, which seems so far away. At the same time, we all wear cloths which are made in china. What do we expect as chinese clothing?
    Very interesting!

  6. scott! :))

    great to see your work here…and this story…i’ve seen it and followed it and like where you are going…in other words, i like the banality of the pictures and their juxtaposition with the banality of the text….my only lament is that as a person, a teacher, with close close ties to china and taiwan and with lots of chinese students, i found some of it playing into the cliche of what the west expects/sees/interprets as the New/Now china…truthfully, i found what they said (and yea, i read every single one this afternoon at lunch) seemed more akin to what they might tell you, a westerner, snapping their pic….

    as pics i LOVE the mosiac….

    but, i found the Sothian approach not quite edifying…or revealing….

    there must be some of who you have met who’ve the same broken/poetic understanding as the folk in Jia Zhangke’s films…no? ;))))…

    anyway, conceptually interesting strategy…and i am so happy you included chinese characters…why not ditch the English translations? ;))))….

    congrats, and so happy yu’ve published the project here :)))


  7. Scott


    I Love this series. I love it because I love cleanly shot, un-pretentious straight up pictures of people. What I especially love is the fact that you have shot all of these full lengh. I love body language. Look at these people, the body language is fascinating. It ranges from cocky, to formal, to shy, awkward, relaxed, etc. Our bodies can reveal at least as much as our faces.

    The comments are fascinating, and perhaps a bit sobering. I have a sense, though this is a small sample, that it accurately reflects the mind-set of many Chinese.

  8. I hoped a narrative about China and its people would naturally emerge.

    I’m really sorry, but most of what I’m seeing is a totalitarian culture going to psychotic lengths to brainwash its citizens and at least succeeding in getting them to parrot the party line in public. From what I understand, there’s a very real possibility those subjects lives could be ruined if they thought otherwise and said what they thought and it was published in a western magazine. And what Bob said, for the most part. Though check out #24 again, the guy who sees his role as a red envelope in china’s future. That’s some broken/poetic understanding. Hope it doesn’t turn out he was a fool for sharing.

  9. hi scott

    my heart sinks when an editor asks me to shoot vox-pops, (although it is an easy buck), and so i’m a bit bemused by this work.

    when the magazine is published it seems disposable.. superficial.. seems to rarely survive more than a fleeting glance, and more often than not deservedly so..
    whats the last record you bought?
    best festival of the year?
    and so on..
    MTV soundbites for the MTV generation with little depth and span for concentration… so..
    artistic endeavor in relinquishing control to the subject, or just “hired eye” work?

    i was surprised to see this for that reason, as i have seen a lot of good work from you – from china – which could achieve what you are trying to emphasize much better.. a bit of punk.. a little tradition.. the shifting sands of that huge land.

    i can appreciate that the experiment was to hand over the perceptional reigns to the subjects themselves, yet the nature of a two question interview by definition limits and compresses any truth.. resulting in the stereotypes and barely expressed thoughts to which bob might allude…

    imposing your own visual and written narrative need not be overbearing and given an empathetic nature, at the very least a fairly honest general impression can be projected to viewers..
    by you.. as a creator and guide..

    much more than that can be achieved in fact, and while this approach towards collaborative photography, where the subject is complicit and proactively involved in half the works creation. might seem fresh, i have to say i find it quite dull.

    philosophical points raised concerning photography and the projections of photographers upon subjects may be lost in the nature of limited questions.. questions selected by the photographer in the first place.. posted to people also selected by the photographer..
    the work is still your own, yet vastly watered down and for me less effective.

    too many demographic and social factors influence the answers in any vox pops to extrapolate much..
    what would be the answers from the people of the tibet autonomous region, for example?
    or people away from the cities?
    also – the photographs straddle environmental portraits and fashion, yet neither seems committed to…. consequently i find them difficult to climb into.

    when i saw your name alongside china in the rss feed, i was delighted – yet to see a simple vox-pops, (perhaps over indulged with a weight of meaning), was a disappointment..

    as a gallery show i would find the work rather presumptuous, grooming the gallery-going public to extrapolate so much as you hint towards from such a limited source of information, and as a book i think i would find it a little too technical.. clinical..

    i can see the work in a magazine for certain – of course – and wish you continued success.. give VICE a call :o)

    yet still two questions nag:
    why are we not seeing your more crafted, perceptions of china?
    what does the ‘m’ preceding scott brauer stand for?

    apologies for my bluntness – i’ve enjoyed your work for a couple of years, since PhotoShelterArchive…


  10. Pingback: Interview: M. Scott Brauer’s “We Chinese” | dvafoto

  11. Just back from Ai Weiwei’s exhibit ‘Interlacing’.. among other work there was a whole wall with portraits like the above.. without text though, always 3 pictures taken in the same spot.. this essay came to my mind while looking at his…

  12. I like the utter simplicity of treatment of the subject, which is after all about citizens who are not standing for, not being, not saying, and I suspect, not doing (save the character on the Great Wall?), anything extraordinary.

    I watched a few of the latest essays just now, the first time since Mid-March, this is the only one I stayed a while with each picture, which seems to come as a paradox to me, since nothing particularly individual is projected out of each frame. It is a doubly interesting as I am watching this right after seeing Katia’s essay, which, for all the individuality and “out of the box” behavioural choices one can reckon from each frame, leaves me totally uninterested and with no wish of connection (Like Katia, a few years on), ie. too deja-vu.

    yet, what is more deja-vu than these snapshots of chinese people, with little to have us get too curious about? Maybe This has to do with the fact that these very ordinary chinese mean a lot more in this world, or soon enough, than Katia’s specimen of First Right amendment physically lived. Between the two, who seems the most uniform-ed, after all?

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