In September 2014, the young poet Xu Lizhi committed suicide by throwing himself from the 17th floor of a mall in Shenzhen. An émigré from Dongliao county, he followed the path set out by so many other hopeful migrants seeking economic betterment by relocating from the outer provinces into the metropolis of Shenzhen, a city — only four decades ago a humble fishing village hugging the coast, now at the forefront of the global technology market. Finding himself at Foxconn’s controversial manufacturing factory, which in 2010 saw a spate of worker suicides, Lizhi turned to poetry in reaction to the dire working conditions and poverty he and his fellow migrant labourers found themselves in. With an immediacy both visceral and haunting, his poem Nightshift documents this abjection, and seeks to represent the collective anguish of not only a community, but a generation, of migrants whose dreams have been quashed. Arriving with the promise of opportunity, the beaming “light” of prosperity, they have instead ended up toiling on the nightshift.
Lizhi’s words serve as the epigraph to Christopher Anderson’s newly published photobook Approximate Joy, and cue the elegiac tolls that vibrate throughout the work. Composed of a series of images which depict the faces of young city-dwellers, the work contemplates the lives of Shenzhen’s émigrés who have made the same leap that Lizhi made. A leap as daunting as it is courageous, the work is naturally infused with the tension between the daring of dreams, and the anxiety of their falling. Melancholic, subdued and vacant, the faces we encounter are suspended in an indeterminate state — between promise and doubt, freedom and unfreedom — and burdened by the fantasy of modernity and economic liberation they were once fed. These dejected wanderers are unresponsive and seemingly automatic, and appear to be devoid of impulse or even desire. The best they can hope for is an approximate joy, rather than joy itself. These sobering images thus speak not only of the piercing disappointment of dreams deferred, but, on a more profound level, the degrading impacts of human labor on the human spirit, and ultimately one’s humanity itself. As Lizhi himself reflects upon in his poem Sleepless, “Where we trade in our youth and our muscle./ Finally we have nothing to trade, only a cough/ And a skeleton nobody cares about.”
Though on the surface Anderson’s work appears to be rooted in a place and a time, it simultaneously resists the specificities of socio-political circumstances. Through his framing, cropping out the subjects’ surroundings to leave us with close-ups of faces that are not only anonymous but decontextualized, the focus transcends the city, and instead points towards a truth that is cross-cultural and universal. Only through the faint gleams of artificial light and technological screens are the subjects’ surroundings suggested. It is also through these illuminating glimmers, cast forth across their faces, that we are made to consider the subjects’ very tactile relationship with the technological world they exist in, and in many cases contribute to, thereby prompting a wider reflection on the physical as well as psychological impacts of such a society. As Anderson explains, “I think I made a book that comments on the idea of consumerist society and something that speaks to a more universal theme — the nature of happiness and consumerism. It just so happened that I photographed it in China.” In Approximate Joy, Anderson shares with us his vision of the future, a globalized future of anywhere and everywhere, where west has become east and east has become west.
Yet for all the vastness of Anderson’s scope, we find ourselves continually returning to the heart of his work… the elusive, enigmatic yet very real wanderers of Shenzhen. Their dreams, their longings, and their fears. We have met them in a brief and passing moment, but what of their futures? It remains their enduring and everlasting question: “These black eyes, can you really lead us into the light?”
Photography Friday is a regular feature from Shanghaiist in association with Photography of China, Marine Cabos’s fantastic platform about photography and photographers in China.