Second-Tier China6 min read

A photography essay from the urban peripheries – Rian Dundon

*From Changsha by Rian Dundon*

The most banal clichés attached to China describe it as unknown, inaccessible, remote and exotic. But the world of second-tier cities, small towns, and villages in Rian Dundon’s Changsha is unknown not because it is inaccessible or remote, but because no one has thought to look; not because it is exotic, but because it is full of ordinary people piecing together lives in a vibrant, scarred, unstable social landscape.  Dundon’s subject is provincial China, far from the glittering and more familiar scenes of Beijing, Shanghai, and other coastal cities. The world he makes visible is neither the mainline east coast success story, nor the rural left-behind story, nor even the hidden-scenic-China story.  It is something else altogether – people in marginal but not isolated places, aware of a world beyond their experience but reworking and inventing local versions of it according to their own imaginations and desires, constrained by material difficulties but in no way intimidated by their status as citizens of a purported backwater.

Rian Dundon went to China in 2005, with no particular background in Chinese language or Chinese studies. He lived in the Hunan city of Changsha (population 7 million) and the smaller city of Jishou; he also spent considerable amounts of time in Kunming. He skateboarded, taught English, played pool, picked up an occasional freelance photo gig. Six years later, fluent in Hunan-accented street Chinese, he had assembled an astonishing photographic oeuvre devoted to youth culture, nightlife, gay and transgendered people, tattoo and street art, small-scale entrepreneurs, marriage and funeral practices, and celebrity culture.

Dundon’s photographs testify to a level of familiarity that is not easily attained by any outsider, let alone a foreigner with a camera. He is there because someone trusted him, consenting to be photographed or vouching for him when he photographed others. Behind each photo is a vast amount of time spent hanging out, a dense network of relationships. The photographs are often disturbing, not because they distance us from the subjects but because they draw us in.

I have spent years in Chinese cities and rural villages. Dundon’s is a China I know little about.  When one of his photo essays about gay men was published in a US magazine, the accompanying story by a journalist was all about gay culture in Beijing. But the photos were taken in smallish cities in Hunan, and that matters. No one who is currently writing about China, including our best journalists and essayists, has much to say about this world. And no photo-journalist passing through China’s second- and third-tier cities, or its burgeoning county towns, can capture images based on years of friendship and close attention. Dundon’s work offers us a way in to what he aptly calls “the other new China.” – Gail Hershatter

Worker at an abattoir in the old city, Changsha, 2008. The building behind him was built as a church by European missionaries. This section of downtown Changsha, just north of the No. 1 bridge, that has since been completely razed for new development.
Audience at a traveling opera, staged in an unfinished construction site in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China in 2005.
Nightly news, Jishou City, Hunan Province, China in 2010.
A squad of firemen prepare to clear ice from outside a shopping mall in the aftermath of the South China snowstorm of 2008 – Hunan’s worst in 50 years – in Changsha, 2008.
Childhood friends, home for the Lunar New Year, prepare to ride motorcycles in rural Xiangtan County, Hunan Province, China in 2006.
Rock concert attendees shelter under a tent during a summer rainstorm at the Orange Island Music Festival in Changsha, China in 2011.
Incoming freshmen at Hunan University participate in combat exercises, part of their mandatory military training, Changsha, 2006.
Couple at a karaoke club, Jishou City, 2006.
Using an electrified rod and a net, men fish in the runoff canals of commercial ponds in Dongan, Hunan Province, China in 2011. Poaching from these rural streams turns up small fish and snakes to be sold as specialty dishes at a nearby restaurant.
Audience at the 46 Bar, a punk rock venue popular with college students in Changsha, 2007.
Cemetery workers prepare a funeral service at the Hunan Revolution Cemetery, Changsha, 2011.
A holdout, or “nail house,” stands alone in a demolished neighborhood near the campus of Hunan University in Changsha, China, 2007. 

Changsha (Modes Vu, December 2016).