The Floating Officials of China
China is at the forefront of many 21st century technologies like superfast trains and alternative energy research, but regional officials around the country might need a primer on one of the most basic of desktop technologies: Photoshop. A public relations disaster is brewing in Ningguo, a small city in eastern China, where officials were found to have doctored a photo in which they pay a visit to the city’s oldest resident, a centenarian named Cheng Yanchun.
The picture was supposed to be a heartwarming photo-op for Ningguo vice-mayor Wang Hun and his comrades. Instead, the altered photo (above)—which depicts three Yao Ming-sized officials and one floating/vanishing legless man towering over a Hobbit-like elderly lady—has triggered a storm of ridicule online.
Originally posted on the Ningguo Civil Affairs Bureau website, the photo was discovered after another local controversy drove traffic to the government site. The officials apparently did in factvisit the elderly Ms. Cheng, but they were unsatisfied with photos that had been taken. Xu Feiyu, the employee responsible for the Photoshop screw-up, told CCTV: “I thought this photo by itself didn’t really represent the occasion. So I put the two pictures together. At the time I didn’t think there would be such a big reaction.”
Chinese Teenagers Are Obsessed with Justin Bieber, Too
Right now, Justin Bieber is in the middle of the Asian segment of his “Believe” world tour. As well as playing some arena shows, he marked the occasion by making his groupies carry him up the Great Wall Of China and skateboarding around Beijing, as his own sweating bodyguards followed him. Unwilling to miss such a significant meeting of Western cultural imperialism and Eastern screaming teenagers, I headed over to the Mercedes-Benz Arena in the Pudong district of Shanghai to meet the local Beliebers.
Chinese people seem to be masters of the cult of personality and love famous people even more than the rest of us. When David Beckham was in Shanghai in June, for example, there was an actual stampede in his press conference and seven people were hospitalized. When was the last time YOU cared enough about a stranger to get covered in your own blood for them? If they were killing each other over a retired midfielder from England, what would they do for the most famous kid on Earth?
The first people I met were Crystal (left) and Amy. As Crystal booted up her battery-powered “Belieber” sign, Amy told me that she likes Justin because, “he has a dream”. However, she also warned me that, “You don’t have to like everything about someone – I don’t like his tattoos and he was a bit lazy on The Great Wall.”
Unlike many of her western counterparts, Amy never wanted Selena Gomez—Justin’s ex—to disappear. “I like her music,” she explained. “And anyway, Justin would not fall in love with me, he’s 19.” Amy has got her head screwed on straight. When she chased me across the street five minutes later and begged me to get Justin’s autograph for her, I wished I could help her.
The Art of Taboo – Ren Hang
Being a radical artist in China is a pretty tricky prospect. Considering censors banned paradigm of inoffensive banality Katy Perry from the country’s airwaves for supposedly being too vulgar (and not forgetting that time authorities made Ai Weiwei disappear for posting seminude photos of himself online), you would have thought that Chinese photographer Ren Hang would lay off filling his portfolio with gaping buttholes and models pissing on each other, or sustaining his unparalleled level of dedication to photographing erect penises.
But he hasn’t, which is a good thing, because his photos are great—somehow managing to desexualize naked bodies and turn them into sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, sometimes gnarled, hairy, human-shaped sculptures that make you want to get naked with all your friends, paint your dick red, and hang out on a roof in Beijing. Which is basically the end game all photographers are going for, right? I wanted to talk to Ren about his work, so I did. Here’s that conversation.
VICE: First off, why is everyone naked in basically every single one of your photos?
Ren Hang: Well, people come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people’s original, authentic look. So I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies.
Is that why the bodies aren’t presented in a kind of conventionally “sexy” way, even if the photos are sexual?
No, I don’t take photos with any particular purpose or plan—I just grasp whatever comes into my mind, arrange that in front of me and take a photo of it. I don’t pay too much attention to whether a scene is sexy or not when I’m taking photos.
Yeah, a lot of the bodies end up looking more like kind of grotesque sculptures.
That’s not really intentional, although I do consider bodies as sculptural—or, as you say, grotesque sculptures—so I suppose the sculptures exist because the bodies exist.
Continue + Watch the documentary
Watch Episode 4 of VICE on HBO Now, for Free
Our Emmy-nominated HBO show recently wrapped up its first season, and complaint numero uno that we got throughout its run was: “I reaaaalllyyy want to watch your show, but I don’t have HBO.” Well, your cries have been heard. Yesterday we released the first episode on VICE.com, and today, right here on the page you’re on right now, we’re airing the fourth episode. Next Monday and Tuesday we’ll release episodes nine and ten, respectively.
In epsiode four of VICE, Thomas Morton investigates China’s dating customs, where old-fashioned courtship has been replaced by lucrative matchmaking businesses, and Shane Smith travels to Greece and Spain to see how the youth are responding to Europe’s crippling financial crisis.
Click to watch
The Cult Who Kidnaps Christians and Is at War with the Chinese Government
Above: The female Jesus, Lightning Deng (left) and Eastern Lightning founder, Zhao Weishan.
In some ways, Eastern Lightning are hilarious. For starters, the cult’s core belief is that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a middle-aged Chinese woman called Lightning Deng who now lives in Chinatown, New York. Then there are the bizarre evangelizing attempts to recruit China’s rural communities—stuff like the sudden appearance of live snakes painted with scripture and mysterious glow sticks hidden in people’s homes that somehow (I’m really not sure how) signal the second coming of Christ.
Leaders of Christian groups warn their members against the “flirty fishing” methods supposedly adopted by Eastern Lightning ladies to convert Christian men to the path of their female Christ. Lastly, of course, there’s the name, which sounds more like an energy drink or AC/DC cover band than a cult. Perhaps that’s why, these days, they often use the alias “Church of the Almighty God.”
To their victims, though, Eastern Lightning aren’t a joke. In fact, to some they must seem kind of terrifying. The cult operates by infiltrating China’s underground house churches (proper ones are banned in China) and integrating themselves into the community, before allegedly seducing, kidnapping, bribing, or blackmailing members into joining them. Highly organized and comprised of over a million members, according to some estimates, Eastern Lightning train their leaders to build trust slowly over months before making their move.
Their activities have not gone unnoticed by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the two sides are currently engaged in a low-key fight to the death.
I Spent an Entire Day on the Beijing Subway
If Beijing’s subway feeds the city’s beating heart, then Line 2 is its circulatory system. Its looped route traces the path once taken by the ancient city walls, but Mao’s disdain for history saw the structure make way for subterranean tunnels and the heaving ring road directly above. A staggering 1.5 million people use the line every day, each one a tiny blood cell that helps keep the great capital alive.
My self-imposed mission is to spend an entire day on Line 2, circling central Beijing from first train to last. Part social observation and part endurance test, there is no better way to sample the cross sections of a city than to watch them change around you from the discomfort of a single subway seat. This is a people-watcher’s paradise.
Andingmen Station at dawn.
4:51 AM – There’s a palpable smog in the air as I descend into the depths of the subway. A kind voice on the PA reminds me to “stand firm and hold the handrail,” which is helpful. It’s reassuring to know that the state cares about my well-being.
5:05 AM – The doors to the first train open. “Welcome to Subway Line Teeooo” declares the automated announcer in a Chinese/American/robot accent that, over the course of the next 24 hours, will come to be my disembodied nemesis.
I take my seat in a clinically-lit car pasted with ads. Video screens above each bank of seats promote insect killer, a dating website, and some kind of cooking oil. Even the windows exist to remind people of their need to consume. As we speed between stations, lines of LCD displays inside the tunnel play yet more ads through the glass.
There’s More to Stuart Franklin Than the Most Famous Photo of the 20th Century
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
One-time Magnum president Stuart Franklin is probably best known for his photo of an average-looking man with some groceries defying a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Yet, as I discovered when I spoke with Stuart, that photo was not the instant sensation people might expect it to be. He talked me through art school’s effect on his work, the difference between approach and style, what “news photography” really means, and getting caught up in the Heysel Stadium disaster.
VICE: Unlike some of the people we have spoken to in this series, you were classically trained in the arts.
Stuart Franklin: I studied drawing, painting, and photography on a degree course at what used to be called the West Surrey College of Art and Design.
Do you think that influenced the way you work?
In terms of photography, it gave me a better sense of lighting and urged me to not be afraid of anything—formats or technical hurdles. On the postproduction side, I was able to go straight into setting up my own darkroom in London, processing my films and functioning as an editorial photographer, which was quite useful.
Manchester, England. Moss Side Estate. 1986.
I feel that maybe your styles and subjects have been more varied compared to those of most other photographers. Do you attribute that at all to your lack of concern about formats and techniques?
I believe there are two things to consider: one is style and the other is approach. I think the approach I take to photography is quite consistent across the board. It’s a considered, gentle approach that I have to working in almost any context. The tools that I pack in my bag to take on different assignments or projects vary enormously. They become a localized and temporary style, but I think that underneath everything there is the thumping bassline of the work, which is about my approach attempting to be quite graceful, to be quiet. The tools are whatever I pick up on the day—it could be a pencil, it could be a camera.
You became well-known after covering the famine in the Sahel in the mid-1980s, directly after you studied art. How did you transition into photojournalism?
In the beginning of the 1980s, I did a lot of work in Mexico City, supported by the Telegraph Magazine. I also did lots of work in the north of England looking at the decline of the manufacturing industry, as well as similar stuff in France, the Pas-de-Calais and areas around Metz. Those were my early bits of work. I joined Sigma in 1980, and over a period of five years they mainly sent me to cover breaking news. The first major story I covered was the 1983 bombing of the US barracks in Beirut, where I think 285 US soldiers were killed. [It was 241; a further 58 French servicemen were killed in a separate blast nearby two minutes later. Six civilians and the two bombers also lost their lives.] I covered the civil war in Lebanon in a wider context, too—those things all happened before I went to Sahel to cover the famine.
Beirut, Lebanon. 1983. American soldiers sift through rubble in the aftermath of a devastating truck bomb in Beirut.
How did those early assignments compare to the expectations you had? Was photography as a job something of a shock?
I remember one of the first assignments I had with Sigma was the IRA bombings in Hyde and Regent’s Parks in 1982, down near Horse Guards. Sigma rang from Paris and asked me to go and cover it. I got there to see police tape, miles from what had happened. I couldn’t really see anything, so I went back home. They rang me later furiously asking what I had got. I told them that it didn’t look very interesting. I learned then that, in a news situation, anything visual is valuable—even if it’s only a photo of the police tape with something blurry in the background a mile away.
The materiality of any war or news story overrode the aesthetic potential for a while, and that was quite a shock to me. I was expecting to make powerful, striking photographs and often I was actually just expected to photograph anything I could.
On the subject of striking photos, I was wondering about your photo of the man in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. First off, do you ever feel that one image overshadowed the rest of the work you did during the student protests there?
Well, it didn’t actually happen that way. When I got back from China, I went into Michael Rand’s office at theSunday Times Magazine. He was laying out one of my photos on the cover of the magazine, but it was another of the photos from my trip —a topless guy with his arms raised. That became equally well known for a while. The “Tank Man” picture grew in importance over time, but it didn’t actually stand out far from the body of work immediately after the event.
But yes, in more recent years people talk about that photo a lot. Does it annoy me? Well, you can’t really be annoyed about it. I am just glad I was there. All I know is that I did my job and I think I did it well.
The $wiftest Pigeon
What is the sound of 1 million yuan flapping?
While most nouveau riche happily spend their new money on shit the old money has already deemed acceptable, China’s spoiled young princelings aren’t content with horses, sports cars, and insanely tacky watches alone. In tribute to the intrepid bootleggers who’ve propped up their country’s market economy, China’s rich have taken arguably the worst bird of all time, the pigeon, and slapped a Louis Vuitton logo on it. Racing pigeons are the new thoroughbreds here, with birds auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece and races netting millions for the championship flock. Which sucks for the old timers, whose balcony-bred birds don’t stand a chance against these million-dollar superflocks. And which just sucks in general because, well, pigeons. Fucking pigeons.
Watch the documentary
We can hardly believe we’re saying this, but the sixth episode of our HBO show is upon us. Time flies when you’re hanging out with child suicide bombers, chatting up gun-toting preachers, and looking for love in China. We feel so old. But, like some old people before us once said, “ever onward.” And so tonight at 11 PM we will thrust our faces and adventures into your living room yet again, provided you have HBO.
Here’s what you can expect.