Migrant Nation: Liu Jie Documents China’s Ongoing Transformation

Liu Jie
Liu Jie
Chen Rongying sits in her farmland in a village of Ankang city, Shan’xi province, Aug. 29, 2011. Her husband and three children have gone to big cities working as peasant workers.

In 2011, Liu Jie, a Chinese photographer based in Beijing, visited and photographed more than 20 villages in the Chinese countryside, documenting one of the more silent but equally poignant externalities of the Chinese economic miracle: the separation of rural families due to urban migration.

In 1949, city dwellers represented 10.6% of China’s population. In 2012, that number swelled to 51.27%, making China, for the first time in its civilization, a predominantly urban country. The human costs of such a rapid transformation — within a single generation — are increasingly evident.

“Many children meet their parents once a year or even years, therefore some of them have both physical and psychological problems,” says the photographer.

Liu, who spent the summer at NYU as a 2012 Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellow, was raised in a rural village in Shan Dong Province and is currently based in Beijing, having personally migrated to a city along with his family years prior. Beijing Railway Station, which serves as a gateway for millions of migrants to the capital, is in close proximity to his apartment, giving the photographer a unique view of the daily flood of fresh-faced migrants entering the city.

In Liu’s photographs of rural China, each empty chair signifies the absence of a family member — a mother, father, son or daughter — uprooted from their humble homes. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation in these images, of lonely gazes and empty chairs punctuated by the expanse of a rolling landscape that stretches off into the horizon.

In contrast to many images that seek to show the massive scale of China’s modernization — and in so doing seek to overwhelm the viewer — Liu’s images are quiet and humble. The effect is subtle, intimate, and incredibly heartfelt.

After photographing family members left behind in the countryside, the photographer returned to Beijing and photographed rural migrants in their workspace. In a conceptual twist, Liu reunites family members photographically. Parents, at a construction site or sausage factory, stand beside towering portraits of their children back home, creating a visual contrast—a collision of rural and urban—and a bridging of that chasm of familial separation within a single frame.


Liu Jie is a photographer based in Beijing. In 2012 he was a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Scholar.


Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Latest Posts

Paul Strand Archive—Aperture Foundation

Paul Strand, Master of Modernism, in Retrospect

The first major retrospective of Paul Strand's work in nearly 50 years presents him as not only a critical figure in the history of modern art, but seeks to re-affirm his place as one of the founders of photography as we know it today.

Read More
Steven Nelson, 51, sits where a window was broken at Red's Original BBQ where he works in Ferguson, Missouri on October 8, 2014.

Photojournalism Daily: Oct. 30, 2014

David Armstrong - Fashion

Remembering Photographer David Armstrong (1954—2014)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,881 other followers