Rian Dundon

Fringe Life: Negotiating Modernity in Chinas Provincial Grey Zones


This project re-examines China’s shifting cultural norms, economic transitions, and socio-political changes from within the context of its marginalized interior regions. Moving beyond the urban-centric/scenic/iconic structures, which dominate the current visual record of China, it considers the cultural dynamism of smaller provincial cities and rural prefectures far removed from China’s coastal metropole. These peripheral spaces, borderlands of China’s rural-to-urban transformation, are a crossroads for individuals finding their own place within a fluctuating and subjective cultural (and indeed physical) landscape.



If economic growth has opened new avenues for expression in China so too have resultant ideological deviations affected the way people see themselves and their place in the world. This project looks to provide visual evidence of that reality by focusing on the differentiated actualities of life in an environment of sustained cultural flux.

In China’s interior provinces, where the full benefits of economic growth have yet to be realized, negotiating modernity requires hustling for a place within fresh modes of individualized experience and personal redefinition. This project traces its narrative across the diverse geographies of these liminal regions to witness how divergent notions of sex, desire, image, and identity coalesce to help shape a cultural reality not found in dominant media representations of China. Its images form a visual diary chronicling the interpersonal relationships of people living on the fringes of China’s social sphere and the vulnerability I see reflected in a generation of young people coming of age in a society set on fast-forward.




Rian Dundon (Portland, 1980) is an independent documentary photographer and writer from Monterey, California. His words and images have appeared in The Irish Times Magazine, New America Media, Time, Stern, Out, and Newsweek. Since 2005 Rian has produced several works of photography addressing social issues in China including urbanization, drug addiction, celebrity culture, homosexuality, migrant labor, and HIV/AIDS proliferation. His work has been exhibited at the Angkor Photo Festival, the FotoGrafia Festival, Caochangdi Photo Spring, The Camera Club of New York, and the New York Photo Festival. Rian is currently working on a series of photographs analyzing the impact of incarceration on prisoners in California. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and is a masters candidate in Social Documentation at University of California, Santa Cruz.


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Rian Dundon

30 thoughts on “Rian Dundon – Fringe Life: Negotiating Modernity in Chinas Provincial Grey Zones”

  1. I like this a lot mostly because it’s a side of China that I neither see nor think about, always nice to see something new.

  2. scottbennettphotoblog

    Rian, I just loved the “insider” feel of this essay. Also, the loneliness, youthful angst, and empty existence pervade and inform your work here. I really like #7…although the subject matter is clear, I sense imbalance that gives this photo a sense of ambiguity (I guess I am so used to seeing Chinese military lined up perfectly…) #11 has a real sense of complicity and mystery. I also like the contrast with the people holding hands (the design on her sweater) with the sweatshirt on the couch (with the man pointing a gun to the woman’s head). I also liked #20 that shows the social reality of being female (the brothers go to school first etc.) with the karaoke girls. Keep up the great work!

    @DAH I sent you an email to your burn address (about the portfolio review / twitter contest / Puerto Rican mask). I do understand if you are too busy. I’m just glad to be a part of burn. I look forward to making more comments in the future and being involved with the discussion. Thanks!

  3. Great stuff Rian

    Wow, this is classic, traditional style and an un-expectantly candid and intimate window into a piece of China we don’t expect to see. I especially like #22, oh how I wish it were sharper.

    A minor techno-weenie nit-pick, I really don’t like the tonal range in most of these. It seems to start about 2 tones down from white and then descend quickly into blocked up blacks. The mid-tones are muddy.

    Classic, traditional, I’d even venture to guess shot on film (watermark upper left #4?), though I’ve been fooled before. In any case, despite my nit-picking, I like this very much, as well as the work on your site.


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  5. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Not to provoke too much dissent here, I just want to say that while I appreciate much about what is shown here, I am also a little bored – in general terms – by photographic visions of dislocation, isolation, depression, bleak futures, seeming hopelessness all performed by well-pedigreed photographers who are well-published and well-exhibited in this social-realist-centric mode. (I realize this statement will stir some passions here). And so I will accept that perhaps this is a statement which says more about me than about the state of the art.

    That said, I really do appreciate the obvious dedication of the photographer – the focus, language ability, commitment to place and subject. Maybe I’m just greedy. I just want something more than what I feel I have seen in spades previously.

    Congratulations on the recognition of your work here.

  6. Jamie

    Your comment won’t provoke any dissent with me. I have complained here on many occasions about the fact the negative themes you mention seem all too pervasive. Bored, no, weary, yes. It is a sad trend.

    Perhaps it reflects the mind-set of young people in these times. Generation Y bother. I feel and see this attitude in my own children and their friends. They are not hopeful for the future, and hear nothing but predictions of doom for the planet and economic chaos. They party with a kind of angry abandon. There is a fatalistic “what’s the use” attitude.

    Like you, while I appreciate the story being told here, I’d also love to see more of a balance, as in the dignity and humanity evident in your work.

  7. I found the amount and diversity of images absolutely fascinating and it’s nice to see a long essay. The only point I would make is where is the positive side to China’s economic growth? Surely there must be good aspects.

  8. Probably about as good as it gets for a 23-shot essay. I got the message and believe that message to be congruent with the situation. Very well done, Rian. Thank you for sharing it here.

  9. Just got back to the US from India and I am listless and have a headache – but I am alone in a motel room in Mesa, Arizona, with a decent wireless connection and so finally I can sit down and take a look at this essay – in full screen mode..

    I pretty much agree with everything that has been said above, including the opposing viewpoints expressed by those who vehemently disagree with each other.

    Except for John Vink’s statement, which I most definitely do disagree with:

    Four, 8, 11, and 14 really do need to be in this essay. When I hit four, I had to stop, to study the face of girl and wonder about her. She seemed like someone I knew, somehow. And 14 probably put more questions into my head than any other single frame in the essay. I wanted to ask the girl in 11 to dance with me, but I probably would have scared her, so it is good that I was not there to ask. Why had the youth fallen? Why? Why? Politics? Alcohol? Meth? Banana peel? I do want to know, but it is okay that Rian does not tell me, but leaves me to wonder and to draw my own non-conclusions.

    This is one of those essays that tells me that no matter how different we all are, we are all same. We are all disaffected youth – even those of us who most people do not think of as youth, just because we have white beards or bald heads and grandkids. It doesn’t matter. We are youth and we are disaffected. We will remain disaffected until we are put in our graves or cast to the wind and waters – as Ryan has so well demonstrated in this fine essay.

    I am going to go search for a hamburger now. I feel a little guilty about it, because I sure don’t need one and I enjoy the way all those cows in India just hang out and do whatever they want without having to worry about being made into hamburger.

    Congratulations, Rian.

  10. I just changed my mind. I had forgotten about Filiberto’s. I am not going to get a hamburger. I am going to get a Filiberto’s burrito, with cold Pepsi to wash it down.

  11. Bill:

    Yeah, I agree with your disagreement with John’s critique. At first I was impressed with the artist statement, and loved the photographs, but I couldn’t make the connection. Looking at Vink’s refuses, it became a little clearer. The small-town girl in Beijing, the cheap-thrill bar, the relatively lax security at the university, and the young homosexual writhing in pain/bodily fluids/booze? all helped to make it for me. Rian knows what the norm for the Western media interpretation of China is, I don’t. The other other could probably exist in Beijing, just as the youth of New York City are really no different than the teenagers of Buffalo, or Portland.

    By the way, does anyone think number fourteen eerily similar to David’s photo of Andrew Wyeth climbing through the window? ;)

  12. At first I did not really like it. No reason, really. I don’t know why honestly.
    Now it’s growing on me….
    I do have to ask why black and white? I think this will work better in color.
    The black and white gives it (to me) a dated look. I feel like I’m looking at pictures from the eighties not the present. It almost looses all the impact that it’s trying to portray.

    This does not happen to me when I look at Gilden, Petersen or Pellegrin….

    Well….anyways….it’s a fine essay and it’s great that it’s published here on Burn.

  13. Congratulation on being published here. This really does feel like an insiders view of the group. I can see these as as snaps posted on facebook for friends to comment. Complete immersion. Wonderful stuff!

  14. nice essay (and not a lot of essays I find nice)

    Photos which make the story for me: 2, 3, 6, 7, 12, 13, 15, 17, 19, 20, 22
    I don’t see why the following are included:
    1, 4, 8, 10, 11, 16: seem to be there to convey a sense of being close to the lives portrayed, but poor photographically compared to the others which some are really great pics
    14: too litteral
    21: cliché opposition and too litteral interpretation

    As for the comments which say to like the feeling of being there close and others which say that it seems passersby…that seems superfluous critique…passersby look can be so good (Alex Webb), living with the subject can be so good (Bruce Davidson 100East Street)…it just has to be a stream…

    the flowing can be beter in this essay with another selection, but close and some really great photos

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  16. Despite what Rian Dundon’s pretentious narrative claims, the REAL Changsha is a plain, average Chinese city, hardly “on fire” as he so desperately wants us to interpret from his little art project. Anyone can take some snapshots in the bars and bus stations of ANY city across the world and manage to capture the worst of people. It’s almost laughable how hard Rian wants people to believe that he alone has discovered China’s backstreets; this kind of stuff has been on Flicker for years! What’s even more pathetic are those websites who are ignorantly helping Rian perpetuate this faux-dark side of China. Professor Gail Hershatter, Rian’s college teacher, seems to have also been duped into his money-making scheme by writing an essay. Note to Rian and other wannabe photographers: high-contrast B&W photos does not automatically make something “dark and mysterious.”


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