The Faces of 1980s China: Unearthing China’s Past through Photography
Mike Emery is an Australian photographer known for his compelling collection of images capturing a critical period in China’s history. In 1980, aboard an American cruise ship, Emery made a unique choice – instead of focusing his lens on the passengers, he turned his attention to the local people in the Chinese ports they visited. At a time when China was still largely closed to the West, Emery’s photographs offer an invaluable glimpse into a society on the cusp of transformative change. From over 200 striking images, we see not only the faces of the people but also the fabric of their daily lives – the streets, buildings, clothing, and hairstyles – all indicative of an era poised between a challenging past and a rapidly approaching high-tech future. Emery’s work is a rich tapestry of human stories, etched in time, revealing a China that has since been reshaped by the relentless forces of development and modernization.
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What initially inspired you to focus on photographing the local people of China during your visit in 1980?
I was a cruise photographer on one of the first cruise ships to travel to China with American passengers. My job was to photograph the passengers when they went a shore in Beijing and Shanghai. I then decided to take some life style shots of local people in there own environment . It then developed into photographing streets , building and the countryside.
How did your experience as a foreigner in China during the early years of the reform and opening-up period shape your perspective on the country and its people?
I was an oddity, walking down Nanjing rd in Shanghai, I would be the only westerner , pale skin and blonde hair carrying two Nikon cameras. I would have 30-40 people following me , some uni students would practice there English. “Please may I practice my English”they would say . So polite and friendly. There was no hurry , the people went about there business in a casual way, no “hustle and bustle “a gentle pace . I never experienced the opening period, I was gone before it happened. Every one wearing Mao suits , no tee shirts or jeans yet.
What challenges did you face as a photographer capturing life in China during the 1980s, considering the limited access and restrictions that existed at the time?
The majority of Chinese people at that time had never seen a camera, so they didn’t know how to react. So I had to wear bright colored clothes and make faces to make them laugh. If you look at some of my photos, the people in the foreground are smiling, the next layer of are straight faced. Beijing was difficult to maneuver around, very strict. Shanghai I had plenty of freedom to move around without restrictions.
Can you share some memorable moments or encounters you had while photographing the locals in China during your visit in the 1980s?
There were many memorable moment. One particular moment,a grand father and small grandson (included). He was holding the little boy , I just wanted a reaction it took me five minutes to get this shot , I only took two , the second shot I put my hands out to hold him , as you can see he copied me ! I got the shot I wanted.
What differences and similarities did you notice in the people you photographed between your first visit to China in 1980 and your recent trip in 2023?
My last trip to China was January 2019 , my aim was to photograph the places I’d been to in 1980 and see the difference .. I found little difference, in the people still happy smiling faces no different from 1980. Life was a lot faster , busier streets tall buildings modern cities. If you walked to the older parts , very little had changed.
How have your photos of China in the 1980s been received by the Chinese audience? Have you noticed any particular reactions or emotions that your work evokes in them?
I can say the interest has been incredible, the young people want to see how the parents and grandparents lived in those days . The middle aged people it brings back memories, some good some bad . The parents and grandparents can show my photos and share stories to the younger people . I think this is very important.
How did the idea for your book “China in the 80s” come about, and what was the process like in selecting the images to include in the collection?
My photographs were waiting to be shown to the world. It took me nearly 40years for me to get to that stage of publishing a book . I think now the wait was worth while.
What is your next project?
My next project to hold an exhibition in Beijing and Shanghai and try to find the people in the book and hear there stories. I think that maybe another book. It will be an interesting read . I have already found two people! So hopefully more o come.
Photos courtesy of Mike Emery
Topics: Mike Emery photography, China in the 1980s, historical Chinese photography, Mike Emery’s photojournalism, cultural transformation in China, Chinese history through photographs, Mike Emery’s Chinese portraits