Publicity is meaningless for an artist. If the pictures are good, it doesn’t matter who took them, and if the pictures are not good, it also doesn’t matter who took them.
Our point-and-shoot culture is awash in photographs. The reigning snapshot aesthetic has grown threadbare, exhausted by its own success. What began decades ago as a “Kodak moment” has metastasized into an infinity of banal images. The snapshot is modernity’s visual correlative to lives measured out in coffee spoons.
But there are other means of measurement. Lu Nan, China’s foremost documentary photographer, uses his camera to gauge the distance between the misery of the body—the transience and fragility of it—and our hopes for it. In these photos, the agony of existence burns with a lyricism and a reverence that sear the soul. Here is the mystery of man laid bare by poverty and illness. Even here on the margins of despair come sudden, brief illuminations of man’s orientation toward the eternal.
Born in Bejing in 1962, Lu Nan was fourteen when Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ended. Like others of his generation, he was raised to survive within a culture lethally antagonistic to religion. Yet the work of this non-religious man is infused with a rare sense of the holy. All of it, from Myanmar prisons to Tibetan homes, brings urgency to Jean Mouroux’s 1948 prophecy: “What is at stake in our civilization is whether man shall remain—or re-become—a sacred thing.” Res sacra, homo.
Lu Nan’s great trilogy—three distinct portfolios totaling 225 photographs—took fifteen years to complete. The first set depicts patients in China’s mental hospitals; the third surveys the life of Tibetan peasants. The middle set (On the Road, 1992-98), about the prohibited devotions of Chinese Catholics, was dangerous to create. Like his subjects, he risked arrest and prosecution as he worked. In 2009, he spent three months photographing the inmates of Myanmar prisons.
He rejects assertions that he is interested only in the underprivileged and the marginal. He answers that he is interested in man, in the shared human predicament: “Human lives should not be labeled. Labels cover our eyes and make many things invisible to us.”
Protective of his private life, Lu Nan rarely attends public occasions, and often refuses to be photographed himself. He also has a habit of signing his works under different names and has been known to surrender his copyright claims on some works. Contrary to art’s pretensions, and alert to the vanity of celebrity, he says he would be satisfied if his photographs were appreciated by five people in the next twenty five years. A member of the elite Magnum Photos, Lu Nan has earned far wider acknowledgment than that.
Note: Text that appears under the photographs below is Lu Nan’s own identifying comment.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1992). Han Ying Fang, 71 years old, is a fifth generation Catholic in the family. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Army raided each Catholic home, confiscating bibles and other religious references. If the order was not obeyed during a given period, they were severely punished at town meetings. At the time, Han Ying Fang’s husband hid this crucifix in the ceiling, and it has survived to this day.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1995). Li Hu is 82 years old. He is a faithful believer. He made a coffin for himself five years ago. On the coffin is written: I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY. He says, “I believe in eternal life. this coffin is a hut for my rotten body, but my soul is offered to God.”
Lu Nan. Yunnan Province (1993). The funeral of a Tibetan Catholic girl, 4 years old, who had died of a sudden illness. This village is located in the heart of the mountains, and it takes two and a half days to reach the nearest hospital. Children with an illness cannot often get cured, and on average, one or two die very young each year.
Lu Wan. Shaanxi Province. Duan Yuxin, 82 years old, has been suffering mental illness for more than 60 years. She recites the rosary throughout the village day and night. From 1966 to 1976 when religion was not allowed, she was the only person who could publicly say the rosary. During that period, many church members spent nights with her on her bed saying the rosary together. Today, she is seen as an important member of the church and is treated with respect.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1992). In China, the number of the ordained is far smaller than the Catholic population. Sometimes a Father has to hear nearly a thousand confessions.
Lu Nan. Shaanxi Province (1995). Mass is offered in a Catholic’s home in a village with no local church. Mass in a family house is officially prohibited by the government. But “unofficial churches” take the risk.
Lu Nan. Inner Mongolia (1992). Sister Maria, 70 years old, with an orphan she has adopted. The baby must have been a “Chaoshengzi,” the second child of a one-child-family policy. In this village, if a Chaoshengzi is found, the parents are fined 3000 Yuan. Those who have adopted a Chaoshengzi are also fined. Sister Maria helplessly hid the babies in a sheep barn, or left them in the care of distant families, but authorities still did come to investigate her upon catching a rumor. The Sister kept insisting that the babies had died, and she was finally released. Sister Maria is a Sister in laity [sic], and she looks after the villagers who are ill, baptizes villagers, and devotes herself to other religious activities voluntarily.