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Students who visit the Badaling section, left, pose for a portrait photographer who works at the Great Wall; right, samples and prices of the photographer’s work. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Students who visit the Badaling section, left, pose for a portrait photographer who works at the Great Wall; right, samples and prices of the photographer’s work. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Capturing the contrast between the old and the new in China Add to ...

From enduring to disposable: China is known both for its rich history and culture and its economic rising, fuelled partly by producing consumer products known for being cheap and throwaway.

I spent five weeks in China this spring on a project to retrace parts of Mao Zedong’s Long March. During my trip, I was often struck by the strong contrast between Old World and New World. I wanted to come up with a way, as a photojournalist, to capture that contrast.

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In the end, I decided to photograph the Great Wall: a vast, handcrafted and almost indestructible rock wall looking over majestic landscapes. A true symbol of the Old World.

The lens came in the form of a Chinese Holga film camera: a cheap, disposable black plastic box so poorly built that it’s known for its light leaks and vignetting. If you push the shutter too hard it snaps off.

It was, for me, the perfect visual way to show the permanence of the ancient world through an instrument of the modern one.

The Great Wall of China was built centuries ago to keep out the Mongolians (who never did attack), but now it’s stormed every year by swarms of tourists, some who chisel graffiti into the stone and toss their trash to the side. The Holga went into production in the early 1980s as a cheap, mass-market, film camera for working-class Chinese.

My tour along the Great Wall was concentrated on two places: Badaling, which has been heavily reconstructed and is visited by a growing number of tourists every year, and Jinshanling, which is in a mountainous area, has hardly been reconstructed and sees far fewer visitors.

As for the camera itself, it presented a professional challenge because I’m no longer used to film, having used digital cameras for the last 15 years. In the end, though, I was excited by the possibilities – a huge feeling of creativity from what is essentially a simple plastic box.

Follow on Twitter: @johnlehmann

 

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