In Guangzhou, where Africa and China meet
I lived in China for almost a decade. My mother is Chinese, so I grew up speaking Chinese. I also have a lot of family there, and I thought it would be a good place to start working as a photographer and filmmaker. I lived in Beijing and then in Shanghai, but I would occasionally go to Guangzhou for photo assignments.
One day in 2005, I came across this neighborhood in one of the older parts of the city. An immigrant neighborhood. There were lots of Uighurs, from northwest China, and also people from the Middle East. When I found myself on a pedestrian bridge, crossing over a big highway, I was surprised to see a lot of Africans.
In 2007, I had a parallel experience. I was working on a project in Rwanda and saw a Chinese construction crew in downtown Kigali, and I thought, What are they doing here?
I learned that China’s been investing heavily in Africa in exchange for oil and resource rights, and that by some estimates, there are now about a million Chinese people living in Africa. This community of Africans in Guangzhou could be seen as the flip side of that dynamic. People in Africa see China’s economic success, and they perceive China as a place of opportunity.
Whenever I’ve gone back to Guangzhou in recent years, I’ve returned to the bridge. It connects two different neighborhoods — one that’s a bit more developed, with high-rises and shopping malls, and one that’s more residential. But it also functions as kind of a public square suspended above the highway. People pass through, but they also hang out and chat, and at night it becomes an ad hoc market with people selling clothing, electronics — there’s even one guy selling snake oil, literally a snake-oil salesman.
In 2009, I was up there photographing when I noticed a Chinese man who had a point-and-shoot camera and was taking pictures of African immigrants and visitors. He would have them stand at the edge of the bridge with the high-rises in the background, kind of a snapshot of modern China. Then he would take the camera’s memory card out, put it into a portable printer, print out an 8-by-10 photograph, and charge one or two dollars.
I observed this guy for a while, and then I asked if I could take a look at some of his pictures. I was immediately struck by them. They had a lot of energy — and humor. Partly because he was using a pretty basic camera with a hard flash, the pictures had a kind of rawness to them. They were very direct.
His subjects seemed to have a sense of what they wanted. Guangzhou is in the Pearl River Delta, which is known as the workshop of the world. Traders come from developing regions, spend a few months there, buy the goods they want, and then ship them back to Africa and the Middle East. So the photos were a way for some of these traders to make souvenirs of their time there. They wanted to show the new China, with its tall buildings and modern architecture. Others liked to be photographed underneath the bridge, where there were bushes and trees for background. A lot of the women were trading in fabrics and textiles, so they would often wear the fabrics they had bought, which were colorful and beautiful.
I got to know the photographer, Wu Yong Fu. He told me that his wife had come in from the provinces to help him, and that they’d been so successful taking pictures that she’d had her family come join them, too. Eventually there were several different couples working on that bridge. But there was limited business for that many photographers, and things became tense — Wu apparently ended up splitting up with his wife over it, and he stopped taking photographs.
Later, I started talking to one of the new photographers, Zeng Xian Fang, a relative of Wu’s wife. I asked him if he would allow me to collect the images they had made and create a kind of archive. He agreed. To date, he has shared more than 10,000 images with me. For the past few years, though, he’s been telling me that business is going down, now that more people have gotten smartphones and are able to take their own pictures.
From the beginning, there’s been something ephemeral and fragile about the whole endeavor. The archive wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t given the photographers hard drives, because they were deleting their memory cards at the end of the day. It makes you wonder whether that’s happening simultaneously in a million different ways, whether there are millions of other worlds out there that we’re not seeing.