Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Remembering Li Zhensheng Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

26 June 2020

The Chinese photojournalist Li Zhensheng, who surreptitiously documented the crimes of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, has died. Li, who lived in Queens, had been hospitalized on Long Island after a brain hemorrhage. He was 79.

"I have spent my life striving to bear witness and document history and now I will rest in history," his family quoted his message to friends about his death.

As a child, Li traded his stamp collection for a camera. Friends pooled their money together to buy film so he could take their photos.

He studied cinematography at the Changchun Film School in the northeastern province of Jilin but couldn't find a job in the movies. So he looked to his camera for a career.

When Mao came to power in May 1966, Li was a staff photographer for Heilongjiang Daily, a local newspaper in northeastern China. He was issued a red arm band proclaiming him a "Red-Color News Soldier" that was the equivalent of a press pass to the revolution.

'My purpose is to show people what happened in the past so that nothing like that will happen again.'

In his mid-twenties, he welcomed the change and took the propaganda photos his publication needed. But his access to events as a journalist showed him the darker side of what he called "this tumultuous period." And he didn't put his camera away in the face of them.

"I was supportive of the Cultural Revolution," he said in a 2003 interview. "We thought it was the right thing to do, to enable our country not to change into a western culture and also so that our Communist party would not be like the Soviet revisionist party."

But his college girlfriend gave him up when her mother was accused of being an enemy of the people. Associating with him would have ruined his carrier, she knew. The mother, he later learned, committed suicide.

He married Zu Yingxia, an editor at the paper where he worked, in 1968. A year later, her father was accused of "capitalistic errors" and was publicly humiliated and tortured.

After he was denounced, he and his wife were themselves sent to a hard labor camp for two years. They returned to Harbin in 1971.

"I did want to be successful," Li said. "But fame is the by-product of social service; if you serve society you will become famous. Fame without social service has no substance. Great men are remembered by what they actually did."

So he shot 100,000 black-and-white images documenting the executions, public humiliations and other excesses of Mao's movement. But to protect himself, he hid the film of some 20,000 images under the floorboards of his apartment in Harbin, developing them only years later.

When Mao died in 1976, photographers were ordered to hand over their images. But Li kept his hidden until 1998 when the political climate changed. That was when Li first publicly exhibited 20 of the photos for a national photo contest.

Organizers had prevailed on him to exhibit when they expressed their concern about omitting "an entire decade of history" from the competition. He agreed to submit the images and subsequently won the contest.

In 1982, Li began teaching photography at a university in Beijing. There he eventually met Robert Pledge, a founder of the photo agency Contact Press Images, who worked with him on a book of the images.

In 2003, Contact Press Images published Li's Red-Color News Soldier in the U.S., U.K., France, Japan and other countries. The photos have been exhibited in over 60 countries, but efforts to publish them in China have been blocked.

Though a Chinese-language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong in 2018, it was banned from sale in mainland China. His images were still considered taboo in his home country.

"The whole world knows what happened during the Cultural Revolution," Li said. ŇOnly China doesnŐt know. So many people have no idea," he said at the time.

"My purpose is to show people what happened in the past so that nothing like that will happen again. It is not an attempt to lay bare Chinese authority."

BackBack to Photo Corners