For this tale of under the radar voyages, we travel to China’s northwestern Shaanxi Province as photographer Laurent Hou‘s camera captures local emotion and tradition at a time of communal grief and celebration. Hou tells the tale of one Shaanxi funeral — visually and literally.
Within the niche that is documentary photography, the importance of “being part of the community” you’re covering, often prevails. There are good reasons for doing so, as it both gives off a strong subjective viewpoint behind the creative curtain as well as emphasizes the compelling connections with the people in front of the lens.
Hou’s Shaanxi Series was shot in “traditional” documentary style, using only ambient light and catching spontaneous moments. The funeral, the series’ focal point, took place across several cloudy days, providing the right light for descriptive photography: No strong highlights, no harsh shadows.
Hou paints a clear picture.
Moodboards And Magazines
Speaking from a techie angle, docu photography that uses more contrasted light is good for different reasons as it allows for playing with shadows and silhouettes and can be used to create additional emotional levels. Nevertheless, in this particular Shaanxi situation, having a few clouds hovering over the lens did not mean a make or break. Imagine if the whole event had taken place smothered in sunshine; the series would have looked and felt completely different.
The most difficult shots were those taken inside the premises, given it was quite dark and gloomy inside the house and I therefore had to pump up the ISO really high. A certain amount of “noise” can be spotted in these pictures, but there was no better solution at my hands. Using a flash just for these shots would have created a very inconsistent visual feel for the overall series; using a flash for everything would have completely changed the mood and even the meaning of the documentary, while also being potentially annoying for the people I was photographing.
I like people forgetting about my presence, allowing me to catch and capture the candid moments. Using a flash undoubtedly makes that a much more difficult feat to accomplish.
The funny thing about this photography series is that it came about in rather random fashion. I never planned on shooting it and I was not even planning on visiting Shaanxi Province. The series was shot back in 2016, at a time when I was working for (Chinese) state-owned mag China Pictorial — as the main photographer and photography editor of the publication’s English version. Most of the topics I would shoot for them touched upon the arts and culture, as I really wanted to stay away from politics as much as I could — for rather obvious reasons.
[Intermezzo on Terracotta Army related (Xi’An, Shaanxi Province) burial practices coming to you live, from Encyclopedia Britannica: “It is a form of funerary art buried with the Qin Shi Huang emperor in 210–209 B.C. with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. The figures, dating from approximately the late third century B.C., were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong County, outside Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China.”]
The Shaanxi Revelations
At China Pictorial, I would get assignments, mostly when an individual or company would ask the magazine to cover a certain event — and would be willing to cover the trip and accommodation fees, to boot. On one such occasion, the magazine’s editor-in-chief told me that they would like to send me off to shoot in the Shaanxi mountains, where I would be following a university professor who was doing research about a village located in what was officially classified as a “poverty-stricken area”.
That is how the Shaanxi series came about, with me pretty happy to have a trip outside of Beijing, but also knowing that the official coverage might turn out to be quite boring. As expected, upon arrival, things weren’t particularly “exciting”. The university professor was obviously very well-connected to the media and so was acting like the man in charge of all the accompanying journalists. I myself was mostly required to follow and capture him during meetings with local leaders.
Yet one day, when walking from one meeting to the next, we passed by a house with people wearing white scrubs standing in front of it. They turned out to all be part of one mourning family preparing for the funeral of a loved one.
I was quite interested in this family x tradition scene/ setting, so I had a quick look — but wasn’t very comfortable taking pictures. Then the people actually told me that not only it was completely fine to shoot them, but also that it would be great if I could share the story with people across other countries — they guessed funeral traditions would not be the same all around the globe and thus also asked me questions about funeral traditions in my home country. [Vive La France, hein.]
About Documentaries And Communities
A conversation started, but I had to leave for the next meeting so I apologized and walked away. Nevertheless, the family responded with a, “How about you come back for lunch?” Consequently, after the meeting was done and dealt with, I returned to the house and had lunch with them, all the while taking it all in — on camera. It was so interesting that after lunch, I struck a deal with the university professor: He would let me attend the entire funeral process(ion), capturing every moment, and in exchange, the rest of the time, I would photograph anything and everything he desired and he could subsequently use the images for|in his book.
After shaking on it, I went back to the funeral. The villagers proved very friendly and quite curious about me. Even though I was a photographer “harvesting” their story, in that very same moment, I was also telling them mine. Call it a cultural exchange.
In the field of documentary photography, nowadays, the importance of “being part of the community” you cover is often emphasized. Surely, this puts out a very meaningful point of view on a situation. On the opposite side of the spectrum, though, I believe that being different too can contribute added value. A new dimension, even.
One the one hand, as you discover something completely new and off the beaten path to you, you have a fresh take on things. One the other hand, if the situation appears unusual and new to you, you in turn are someone unusual|new for the people in front of the lens. To me, both approaches are valid. People you photograph expose themselves and their way of life, but you too expose yourself to them.
In a small village in the middle of the Shaanxi mountains, people are pretty interested in a Eurasian man who has a French passport, but can converse with them in Mandarin Chinese.
[Intermezzo on China’s burial x bowing culture coming to you live, from Encyclopedia Britannica: “If you bow three times traditionally, it means you pay great respect to the one you bow to.”]
Beijing To Morocco
And now, here I am, living in Morocco. The people here consider me to be Chinese and they are interested in China, ergo many of them show a willingness to open their doors to me and be photographed — provided that I also share my story with them. As I often get invited for lunch, a good way to show my gratitude is to offer them small prints of pictures I shot in China -– if they showed an interest for them, obviously, otherwise I only gift them their portraits. I think that as long as you show empathy, genuine interest and a readiness to make yourself vulnerable and available to the people you interact with, being an outsider in a community and photographing it is 100 percent fine.
In the case of Shaanxi, I had some very interesting conversations with the people I photographed. After the coffin is lowered into the grave, people get up on stage to sing and, given I couldn’t back down or out as a guest, I had to sing in French for the family –and the deceased. It was a very unusual experience for me and also quite an intense one emotionally, at that.
I am, by the way, a completely non-smoking person, but all the men at the funeral were lighting up, some considering the smoking of cigarettes| pipes a tribute to the deceased. Taking all the aforementioned into account, they convinced me to have a cigarette with them. [ Speaking of social smoking.]
When he villagers or family at any given time during the ceremony would see that I felt hesitant due to the setting’s very intimate and emotional character, they would encourage me to keep taking pictures. Everything was part of the story, their story and that of the deceased. No closing of the camera’s eye, not missing a single click. For instance, I did not feel overly comfortable shooting the body inside the open coffin, but the surrounding people insisted it was important to record this as well. A token of tribute.
[Intermezzo on China’s burial x burning cash culture coming to you live, from The Culture Trip: “Chinese mourners have been burning joss paper – known as “ghost money” – for centuries. This is largely due to a folk belief in China that if you burn paper money and make offerings at the graves of your ancestors, the deceased will receive them and benefit from a happy and prosperous afterlife.”]
China’s Poor Countryside: A Wealth Of Inspiration
What struck me most about this series, and the funeral in particular, was that the overall atmosphere was a relatively cheerful one. The main reason for this happiness was that the family was brought together, something that doesn’t happen too often. In this way, this village was very typical of China’s poor countryside.
On a socio-politico note, [intermezzo alert], I would like to add that even if this village was indeed a poor one, it was nothing like the poorest villages I have visited in China when traveling to the nation’s countryside, be it in Sichuan, Henan, Qinghai, Xinjiang or Guizhou Province. Apparently, this “better” appearance was due to the town’s governmental classification as a “poverty-stricken area”, given such areas enjoy more support from the outside and higher up echelons than similar areas not boasting the label.
Back to the joys of family reunions, then. There isn’t much to do out there, in these tiny villages tucked away in the mountainous hideouts, and it remains very hard to make money, resulting in adults spending most of the year in the larger cities doing the odd job here and there (they are migrant workers| 农民工 [nóngmíngōng] in Chinese). Most of them return to their hometowns only once a year, during Chinese New Year, leaving their kids behind with the elderly in charge.
And so, on this sad occasion, the family had once more gathered together, bringing together a sense of merry delight with a note of grief, walking hand in hand throughout the funeral procession.
China’s countryside time and time again makes for a fascinating feast for the eyes, including visual, social and political factors all in one click. Hou has most recently published his series about Qinghai Province on Hans Lucas’ website, and is currently in the process of editing his series shot in Sichuan Province.