Related News

Home » Feature » People

China inside out

MOST Westerners know China largely from the outside, the exteriors, the street scenes. Far less known is the inside, the interiors, the family-at-home scenes. Photographer Robert van der Hilst decided to get the inside story.

"I'm fed up with taking pictures on the streets. I want to move inside. Throughout my career as a photographer, I have always had a strong passion and curiosity for photographing people inside their homes," said the 71-year-old van der Hilst, who has been photographing China for many years.

He said he was greatly inspired by Dutch painters like Vermeer, van Hooch and Jan Steen, adding, "Their paintings are always of simple people inside their homes."

Thus, in 2004 van der Hilst set out to photograph people around China in their homes, showing their "real face." During the following five years, he visited around 2,500 families in 27 provinces, taking 3,200 pictures of rich, poor, young, old, urbanites, farmers, mountain villagers and everyone in between.

Thirty-two of them are showcased in an exhibition "Chinese Interiors" at m97 Gallery at 50 Moganshan Road. The show runs through April 17.

His artbook "Chinese Interiors" features 240 photos and is sold at the gallery.

"Westerners have seen a lot of China, but very few of them have any idea what a Chinese family is. Most of what they have seen is always the outside, the street shots. I want to show them the interiors," van der Hilst told Shanghai Daily.

Van der Hilst started photographing China in the early 1990s, sometimes on assignments for magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle. Some were shown in his first Shanghai exhibition, "Shanghai: 1990-1993."

However, in 2001, van der Hilst decided to concentrate on his own projects, interior photography. He started with "Cuba Interiors" and then moved on to "Chinese Interiors."

"I fell deeply in love with this country the first time I came here," said van der Hilst.

Not speaking Chinese was a problem.

"How was I supposed communicate with people when I try to walk inside their homes and get into their lives?" he asked. But, he was in luck. His "Cuba Interiors" was shown at an International Photography festival in Pingyao, Shaanxi Province, 2004. There he became friends with Chinese photographers who spoke fluent English and were willing to help.

"My photographer friends often took me to their hometowns and drove me around to find suitable subjects," van der Hilst said. To his surprise, people were marvelously gracious.

"They invited me in, offered me a cup of green tea, shared cigarettes and showed me around the house. I was spoiled with their genuine hospitality, kindness and curiosity."

He set up his large-format camera on a tripod and waited for the perfect moment of color, composition and light. Sometimes he posed figures but altered nothing in the setting, then he waited. His works have a painterly air of portraiture and still-life.

Sometimes there were unscripted moments of perfection.

"When I was taking a photo of a Uygur family, a man carrying a dead sheep came in. He didn't look at me, he just threw the carcass on the table right in front of the camera. I was stunned by the scene, its composition and color. All I did was lift the cloth covering the carcass a little and quickly took pictures. One with the family behind it, more with just the carcass. I like that one better."

In another scene, a Yi ethnic woman from a remote village in Sichuan Province sits on a bed, holding her baby boy. The picture is sad today because both the mother and the child later died from AIDS.

In one of van der Hilst's favorite works, a bronze water jug stands on a dark brown wooden cabinet. Against the gray wall is a yellowed book with a print of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong on the cover. The colors are dim and subtle.

Van der Hilst rents a house on Jianguo Road W. and travels between China and Paris.

His next project is another China journey, this one "looking for unforgettable faces of Chinese women, old or young, pretty or ordinary. They all have this beautiful fortitude."

"Chinese Interiors"

Venue: 97 Gallery, 50 Moganshan Rd

Date: Through to April 17


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend