On A Red Assignment with the New York Times

NOTE FROM JONAH: This post was originally written for Dan Chung’s DSLR News shooter blog.

While all around China, journalists were reporting on the July 1, 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China and dozens of red revival stories are popping up — to celebrate this anniversary I went someplace where there was no need for a red revival. This place had been red for a long time.

It was nighttime when I found my Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM pointed up at a 10 meter high portrait of Stalin in the middle of Central China. I was filming in a village called Nanjie — China’s last Maoist collective.

While contemplating Stalin’s role in history the words of the village’s Party Secretary echoed in my head. “Nobody is perfect, even saints make mistakes.”

I was filming in a place where Stalin is considered a saint. Next to Stalin’s portrait were equally over-sized portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin … all of which were trumped in size by a 20 meter tall statue of Mao Zedong.

Over the past three decades while China has been moving toward a market economy, this place had stayed frozen in time. All of the land and the commercial enterprise are owned by the collective.

Residents get free housing and apartments, education, health care — even food. This place was actually what I thought a communist society was supposed to be like, just about the opposite of what I see at home in Beijing. It was as though I were transported 60 years back in time — but given a Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 60D and Panasonic Lumix DMC-zs10, a Pelican case full of glass and a Kessler Crane Pocket Dolly v2.0 to take with me.

This was one of the stranger assignments I have been on in China. As if everyone in the town had eaten some communist version of ecstasy, to say the least, it was hard to get anything negative out of anyone in this town.

This was a classic example of going someplace end being escorted around by the village’s PR, as if the town was a museum. While being escorted around in golf carts, a young pretty girl with a headset would tell us about the town pointing out landmarks and notable buildings. While everyone was seemingly happy as could be, I was initially skeptical I was just being shown the “good” side of things. However, after we dipped out from the PR and seemingly lost our follow, I began to talk to lots of random people — seemingly uncensored. I came out thinking these people were truly happy. Although only four subjects made it into the short news clip, I interview about twelve people.

However, there was something a bit dodgy about this village of only 3000 people. The 3000 people — have 7000 migrant Chinese working for them. On top of this, the town had massive bank loans.

What appeared to be a simple video, was now something a little more tricky. It had to be a revealing piece — showing that one layer below the peacefulness of the commune, lay some confusing philosophies.

At some point, New York Times reporter Ed Wong asked the Party Secretary if he lived in the same housing unit that everyone else did.

“I have a house,” the secretary said. “How many villagers live in an actual home,” asked Ed.

“Just me,” he said, and smiled.

Orwellian notions filled my head: “All are equal. But some are more equal than others.”

While there was clearly some strange communist ideology going on, no one in the town thought this was strange or bad. Even the migrant workers seemed to be happy — making more money then they might in other parts of China, although they still didn’t get benefits from the collective.

Coming off some longer video pieces, I was trying to keep this under four minutes, so to reveal this was tricky.

While the town seemed to be stuck in time, I pulled back the saturation on all the footage to give it a little bit more of a historical and film feel.

On my way back to Beijing, I tried to recap the seemingly North Korean-esque village I had just shot. I wondered if my footage would accurately represent the place. Happy, yet dodgy. Socialist, but elitist. In the end, we got the video to a pretty compact nature. Quick, quirky and hopefully insightful and entertaining at the same time.

— To read New York Times reporter Ed Wong’s story “In China, a Place Where Maoism Still Reigns” click here.

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing-based freelance visual journalist working with photography, video, print and web design. Follow Jonah on Twitter here and see his web site here.

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