The year was 1989.
The 35-year-old Xu Yong witness history on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, standing amongst the student protesters with a camera around his neck.

These historical images that document the biggest democracy movement in contemporary China were kept away for more than a quarter of a century, then finally published as a photobook in the form of negatives. The book, Negatives, was soon banned in China. After 26 years, “89 Student Protest” and “Tiananment Square Incident” are still taboo topics in China.
Perhaps just like the negatives, history itself is also still waiting for a chance to be re-visited, inverted and interpreted.
Before we started our interview, the 61-year-old Beijing resident sought for our understanding for his being conservative in his answers to our questions…

Interview by Wei-I Lee
This article originally appeared in Voices of Photography issue #15.


VOP / It has been 26 years since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident. You have kept these pictures that you took at the Square away all these years, only publishing them in the photobook Negatives this year. What do these images mean to you?

Xu Yong / Negatives is a collection of images that I took during the Tiananmen Square Incident and involves one of the most sensitive political issues in China. These traditional negatives lay deep in my cabinets for a quarter of a century, unchanged by time. However, during these years, photography itself has changed drastically; digital photography replaced the traditional film photography as a means of documenting lives and events in the new era, and online videos replaced the functions of traditional print media as a means of circulating and documenting news and information. These changes– as well as those things that remained unchanged– all reflect the environment that I am in now.

The main artistic concept of Negatives is on the change in photography as a medium, or a reflection on the digital photography of today. The 1989 images are just materials that I feel are suitable in exploring this artistic concept and as such, political events and everyday life incidents are of no difference– they hold the same significance to me.

VOP / It is indeed befitting to present the Tiananmen Square Incident in the form of negatives. Other than documenting what had happened through photography as you have mentioned, negatives not only preserve images in its original form, but also hold the potential of development– both of images and of history.

I think the difference between traditional film photography and digital photography is in its physical properties– the photo-sensitive chemicals attach themselves onto films, making them unchangeable. Therefore, digital photography can be edited, but negatives won’t lie. Traditional film photography is a form of documentation, and negatives themselves are the raw evidence of what has happened.

Negatives is a photobook that tries to interact with its readers; readers and use the “invert colors” functions in iPhones, iPads and other digital devices to explore and uncover the historical images and truths in those negatives, in term explore the interesting relationships between traditional film and digital photography.
Xu Yong

Xu Yong

VOP / You have been actively exploring different ways to construct and present images. Even though we still see a lot of the Chinese society in your photographs, your recent works differ greatly from your first series Hu Tong 101 Photos, which was a classical black-and-white series of photographs that documented the traditional Hu Tong culture in Beijing in 1989. How did this change come about? What kind of photography lingo are you searching for?

The most important thing is that I do not want to repeat myself or repeat what I have done. Neither do I want to spend my time on stereotypes. How I present my works is related to the nature of the social raw material. My so-called photography lingo is decided by my artistic concepts, and the form of expression is my main consideration. Actually, I have been trying to explore the nature of photography itself, like 18% Grey published in 2010 and the recent Portraits of Friends. That’s where my main interests currently lie. Negatives is also part of this exploration– about the temporal, evidential and physical qualities of photography.

VOP / Very interesting, because Negatives does not just uncover some historical images, but also answers some questions about the nature of photography itself. You mentioned about the temporal, evidential and physical qualities of photography, which coincidentally could also metaphorically be used on reflecting upon the 1989 Student Movement and the problems in the history of the Tiananmen Incident, providing Negatives with multi-layers of interpretation on top of its historical and aesthetic values. The using of the “invert colors” functions you mentioned also suggests a process of active-seeking; only through active-seeking and the colors of history be restored.

I’m very curious about the thought processes that go on in the minds of artists in China when you come across sensitive political issues. It seems like due to the current restrictions in China, much alteration and reservation are needed when dealing with or using politically sensitive materials. What are your thoughts on using and the modification of such materials in contemporary art in China?

As we all know, there are many things that can be done in Taiwan but not Mainland China, like the publication of this photobook. Contemporary art in China is marginalized by the so-called mainstream ideologies and even –ironically– government cultural policies. It is just like the cultural image of Confucianism–which was once totally uprooted yet currently being marketed all around the world– being barely able to represent the development in contemporary China. Yet, the government is unwilling to put in any efforts in helping the development of contemporary arts in China that is currently very vigorous among the people. Instead, it has been keeping a tight lookout, and contemporary artists in China are thus caught in between politics and the market.

In fact, it is hard to stay clear of any political issues in China. Most artists, however, do not condone the use of art as a means of resistance either. More and more artists seek to find a balance between the market forces and universal artistic concepts, but there are still artists who deal with political materials openly and directly, like Miss Mao by the Gao brothers. It’s a universal feeling of repression that needed to be let out fearlessly. Therefore, often a times artists are arrested or “go missing”, and artistic events interrupted or terminated.
Xu Yong

Xu Yong

VOP / What was it like when you took those photographs in Tiananmen Square in 1989?

1980s was a time when China was more radical in its reforms and policies of opening up. People’s mindsets changed radically too. I resigned from a government-owned advertisement company in Beijing to start my own business in 1988, and shortly after that the Tiananmen Incident occurred. Time seemed to have stopped for all other activities in Beijing. I once documented the April Fifth Incident in Tiananmen Square in 1976 and knew the importance of what was happening. I was at the Square everyday, from the beginning to the end of the Incident.

I believe no one then had ever seen such a spectacular protest in Mainland China. Other than how this incident had ended (there is a picture of a tank on the street in the photobook), what had left the deepest impression on me was that I fell off the bicycles that I was standing on a few times, spoiling 2 cameras but fortunately unhurt. It was a period of time when millions of students and citizens displayed unity and the beauty of humanity.

VOP / Did you ever consider the fact that Negatives could mean trouble for your when published? Are you troubled by the fact that the title was immediately banned by China upon publication?

Since I stay in Beijing, of course I have considered the dangers that might come with the publication of this photobook. However, I haven’t been in any direct troubles other than some books being confiscated by the customs.

VOP / You mentioned that most artists do not seem to agree with using art as a form of resistance in China. Why is that? Also, how do you not cross the line when creating a piece of art, given the political restrictions?

China is rapidly catching up with the rest of the world in recent decades, and the sharing of information and integrating of markets has changed people’s mindsets and ideologies. Questions like “What is art for?” and “What is the purpose of art?” have been putting the wisdoms of Chinese artists to the test and directly influencing their works. There are artists like Ai Weiwei–whose methods are more controversial– Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang, who all differ in their attitudes towards art. In a world where market forces increasingly influence the commercialization of art, the relationships between art, politics and money become more complicated. Realistically, there are less and less artists who are passionate about political and social issues, unlike those artists back in the 80s and 90s. The young generation of artists lack the life experiences of my generation, and see things very differently from us.

Nonetheless, the universal value of art is creation, which the topics and raw materials can’t produce by themselves. If the purpose is to circulate information, comment or critique, it would have been clearer and much more efficient to develop the June Fourth Incident photographs into proper pictures overseas. However, I wouldn’t call it artistic creation in that case, and Negatives definitely would not have materialized.

Topics like June Fourth, Falungong and independence of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are taboo political issues in China. The contents of Negatives is right on that list, and I am mentally prepared to face the possible consequences of publishing the book. However, I would be even more upset if these are not published. Negatives is an artistic work, presented in very neutral and peaceful manner. I chose not to publish it around the sensitive date of June Fourth, and carefully selected the contents according to my artistic principles. Hence, I only used the image of a tank on the streets–which was in the morning on June Fourth– to wrap up the series of images instead of those that showed much blood and violence.

Film negatives on Tiananmen Square Incident still cannot be developed into normal photographs in China, and are often kept secret, even after almost 26 years. I did not seek for any forms of expression and presentation on purpose. If Negatives can result in any meanings or strength, time and the environment in China actually play a greater part in creating this series than I have. 
Xu Yong
Readers with iPhones or iPads, please go to “Settings” – “General” – “Accessibility” and turn on “Invert Colors”, then use the camera function in your devices to reveal the positive images of the negative works. Other devices have similar functions under “camera settings”, such as “Color Effect – Negative.”

  • Xu Yong, born in Shanghai in 1954, now lives in Beijing. He’s major publications include Hutong 101 Photos (1989), Opening Beijing (2001), Xiaofangjia Hutong (2002), Backdrops and Backdrops (2006), Solution Scheme (2007), 18% Gray (2010), This Face (2011) and Negatives (2014).


All photographs © Xu Yong / courtesy the artist
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