French photographer documents decades of changes in China

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2015-4-10 5:03:25

A bicycle parking lot in Qingdao, Shandong Province, in 1987  Photo: Yann Layma

After a 10-year struggle with manic depression, French photographer Yann Layma has returned with his first Chinese photo album Yesterday's China, continuing his love affair with the country.

Since 1985, Layma has spent nearly 20 years traveling around the country, documenting the lives of Chinese people of different ethnicities in different landscapes with his cameras.

From citizens buying stocks from sales counters using abacuses in Shanghai to Kazakhs using eagles to hunt in Yining in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Layma has depicted a diverse and changing China through his tens of thousands of pictures.

When comparing the China of today with the situation in the country in the mid-1980s, Layma says everything has changed. "It's probably the biggest change to have taken place in the world in the last 30 years," he told the Global Times on Monday.

"It was very closed at that time. No cars, no shops, no restaurants, no nothing. People didn't wear suits, but were only dressed in white or blue," he recalled of his first impression of China. "Also, the people were not free, not free to talk with foreigners, not free to have relationships with foreigners."

But some of the changes have made him a little sad.

"In the race for money, people have lost their smiles in the last five years. In big cities, they are getting tense, and drive crazily," Layma said.

Yann Layma in 1994  Photo: Courtesy of Yann Layma

Early vision 

Born in Brittany in 1962 to parents who were painters, Layma's connection to China literally started with a dream. "At the age of 16, I had a dream in which I was living in China. It was quite mystical," he said in the preface of Yesterday's China, which hit the Chinese market in March.

In 1979, China announced that it would issue individual visas to foreigners. At the same time, Layma's favorite magazine, National Geographic, started its French edition. Perked up by the news, Layma started to study Chinese and photography.

In 1985, he left for China. "I had a vision, like the biggest population in the world was calling me to come and portray its big changes," Layma said.

The memory of his first arrival in Beijing at 11 pm on a chilly day in January is still a vivid one for Layma. "There was no highway from the airport to Beijing Hotel. No cars were seen, only three or four bikes. It was an earth road and dirty," he recalled.

In 1989, he went to the home of the Dong minority in Southwest China in Guangxi's Sanjiang county. There, he received a rather unexpected welcome. "People screamed 'ghost' and ran away when they saw me. Some even asked if I came from the moon," Layma recalled.

In 1992, he went to Yunnan to shoot rice paddy terraces made by the Hani ethnic people in Yuanyang county, where he lived for four months. Many media outlets published his photos, and a documentary Mountain Sculptors he made was broadcast by more than 300 television stations in nearly 40 countries.

In 2013, the Hani Rice Terrace was declared a World Heritage Site. Layma is considered the first photographer to introduce it to the world.

Two men carry a pig for a wedding in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in 1989. Photo: Yann Layma

Humanistic pictures

Layma never took black-and-white photos or news photos. But he said he never intentionally catered to the tastes of any particular media outlet.

He never hinted at misery, poverty or poor living conditions in his pictures. "I'm humanistic, I like human pictures. I like daily life pictures. I liked China from the very beginning," he responded.

"I like taking pictures of happy people. I shot in my own way."

In 2004, Layma held a private photo exhibition showing the past 20 years of China in Paris. In the same year, his album China was simultaneously published in six languages.

In 2005, he was honored with the Chevalier Medal for his contributions to promoting cultural exchanges between China and France.

Layma said he went to more than 80 countries but it was China that attracted him the most. "Here, my property and I have never been threatened, and I never got infected with any diseases," he said in the preface, noting that the journey was filled with surprises, warmth and joy.

In 1998, he began to suffer from manic depression. The cause is unknown. "Even when I was very sick, too high or too down, I was still taking pictures. It was a kind of cure, which made me feel happy," he said.

As the sickness grew worse, in 2004, he decided to take a break from his job. Now he said he has found suitable medicines and has been well for more than half a year.

In the 1980s and 1990s, taking pictures and then flying to other countries to sell them were his main job. A set of photos could sell for as much as 300,000 yuan ($48,000).

Different path

But now he is no longer dedicated to taking pictures. In addition to being invited to take promotional pictures by some Chinese provinces, he is also involved in selling French villas to Chinese buyers.

"Photography has changed a lot in the past few years because of the Internet and digital cameras. It has become extremely difficult to make a living out of it and continue to be a professional," he noted.

Layma plans to publish six or seven more albums in China in the near future. According to him, 15,000 copies of Yesterday's China have already been sold. On, one leading online bookstore in China, it is sold for 80 yuan a copy and has gathered more than 120 comments.

"I bought it for my child. I want him to know the history of parents and cherish the life today," one buyer said. "What a nice album. It conjures up many memories," said another.

In 2011, Layma met a Chinese woman on the Internet and got married in 2013. Last year, their daughter was born. The family had planned to settle down in Beijing, but due to the air pollution, they moved to the countryside in France.

He said if he were younger, he would go to shoot pollution and traffic jams in China.

He also has another wish: to record the daily life of Chinese President Xi Jinping. "I will probably make my official request next year," he said. 

Newspaper headline: Through the lens of time

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