Nov 22, 2013
07:43 AMArts & Entertainment
Canaan Photographer Zetterstrom Shows 80's Images of China at Wesleyan
A photo from China by Tom Zetterstrom of Canaan, from an exhibit running through Dec. 6 at Wesleyan University in Middletown.
A collection of images from China in the 1980s by an American photographer, which has not been shown for 30 years, has recently come back before the public’s eye.
The Mansfield Freeman Center For East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown is displaying “Faces of China,” photos taken by Canaan photographer Tom Zetterstrom during his 1981 trip to the country. The exhibit ends on Dec.6. (See a video interview with Zetterstrom.)
Zetterstrom captured many portraits of Chinese people in a time before globalization and political riots and only three years after the end of Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s “Open And Reform Policy.” He said one of the things that struck him was the people’s optimism about this historic transition.
“They were self-assured and attractive,” Zetterstrom said. “You saw a lot of brand new bikes riding around.”
Zetterstrom joined a group from Yale-China Association on that visit. He took any chance that he had to get out of the scheduled routine and take photos of people he randomly encountered. He said the Chinese people he met were comfortable presenting themselves and felt honored to be selected by a western guest.
“People were curious about me as much as I was curious about them,” Zetterstrom said, “They were willing to engage with me...I ended up doing optimistic friendly portraits.”
Another thing he observed was the early capitalism in the appearance of advertising art. Mao’s painting and sculptures also caught his eye, which became a subtext of his photoshoot. In Changsha, a city in the south, he was stopped by a man when he tried to photograph a Mao monument with graffiti of a Mao’s quote on it.
For Zetterstrom, Tibet was more challenging in terms of creative freedom and access. Chinese officials “were keeping little things in track,” he said. He added that the Tibetan people were still eager to hear news about the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader. They would ask anyone from the outside world if they knew anything about the Dalai Lama. Zetterstrom took 12 photos in Tibet in the end and three of them are displayed in the exhibit.
The biggest obstacle was language. Zetterstrom said he and his subjects communicated mostly through eye contact and the trust he gained as a foreigner. Today the best Chinese sentence that he can speak is “Can I take a photo of you?”
Zetterstrom went back to China in 1987 for another tour, two years before the breakout of the students’ democratic movement and the Tian’anmen Square Massacre. He said he didn’t see much difference in those six years except the fading of the socialist art and more emphasis on fashion. His photos will be displayed in Beijing in 2016, when he hopes he can go back to China for a visit.
“[The best thing] for me was to be exposed to a totally new experience and a different culture,” Zetterstrom said, “I had enough resources and freedom to explore it. When I got home, I had enough time to massage what I had, analyze it and figure out how I could make a visual statement.”