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The Cultural Revolution , led by Mao Zedong with an arm of iron and a red book in the hand, is one of the episodes capital (as influential as shameful) of the recent History of China. However, it is also one of the least known and the most deleted of its historic memory. The overwhelming censorship applied officially for years regarding these events, in a sort of Damnatio memoriae, so characteristic of Imperial Rome, “chinese style”, he managed to keep closed the eyes of the world to the real knowledge and true of the events and iniquities which gave him shape. Fortunately it only in part. Other eyes, those of the photographic look of Li Zhensheng (1940-2020), allowed, at least to some extent, be eyewitnesses of many of them. Now, with his death, those eyes were closed, but only in a partial way, and by the magic of the magic of the photographic art, continue to and will continue to live in our History and in our memory.
Passion for the image
Li Zhensheng was born in the port city of Dalian, Liaoning , in the northeast of China, in September of 1940, in the bosom of a humble family; his father had been a cook in a steamer, and later farmer, and his mother died when he was only 3 years old. Shortly after, the family moved to another city, in the eastern province of Shandong, where it would grow next to his little sister and another brother, who died in 1949 fighting with the revolutionary army of Mao Zedong.
From a very young age he felt a great interest in film and photography, moving on to study filmmaking at the Film School of Changchun , in the province of Jilin, where he also learned the foundations of what would be its syntax as a photographer. After graduating in 1963 he found work as a photojournalist in the Newspaper Heilongjiang, in the city of Harbin . Five years after contracting a marriage with Zu Yingxia, an editor of the same newspaper. The diary itself, within the standard pattern of those years, had to meet a strict policy imposed by the government not to publish anything more than images, “positive” that gave, therefore, a partial vision, and fictional (re)constructed reality of the country.
Hid under the floor of his house twenty thousand negative facts “politically incorrect”
The same Li and his wife suffered this repression, going on two years in one of the many fields of re-education that existed by those dates. In 1972 he was able to return to the newspaper as a head of photography. Ten years later, he became a professor at the University of Beijing. His last years were spent between this city and New York, where resided his son Xiaohan and his daughter Xiaobing, a city in which he died on the 24th of June, in the eighty years due to a stroke. “I’ve spent my whole life struggling to be witness and document the History . Now finally I will rest in it”, was the last message that he wanted to make public to the world through his family.
And there is no doubt that this will raise act visual of important part of some of the facts that you wrote -in many cases with letters of blood and fanaticism – the History of the second half of the XX century in your country constitutes their main contribution to contemporary photography.
Li Zhensheng drying photographs at the beginning of your carreraCensura official
His position as a photojournalist, with the wristlet red official photographer, allowed him access to a series of scenes, moments and situations, “politically incorrect”, which, were it not for the testimony of his camera, would have been lost forever in the smoke sepia of oblivion. For 35 years, and due to the iron censorship officer, had to hide under the floor of their house in bags of paper more than twenty thousand negatives, without disclosing these facts, together with a detailed description of people, places, and specific events.
In 1988, taking advantage of a brief opening period, had the opportunity to show 20 of those images forbidden in Beijing. It would be only a mirage. However, it was also when he started working with the agency Contact Press Images , fact that eventually culminated with the publication in 2003 of a selection of these photographs in a book called Red-Color News Soldier (in allusion to the inscription that appeared on the bracelet, red), which allowed since that could be seen in more than sixty countries, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, but not yet in their own homeland.
Li Zhensheng also photographically documented the protests in Beijing that resulted in the events of Tiananmen square , in 1989, but never came to publish those images.