City On Fire

In 1938, rather than see the city of Changsha fall into the hands of Japanese forces, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek literally burned the city to the ground. Changsha, now a city of six million, is what Rian Dundon has titled a “City on FIre.” The sprawling metropolis is an exemplification of a contemporary China torn between its traditional roots and the alluring attraction of modernity.

Rian Dundon, an American photographer, spent six years in the city photographing his journey in gritty black and white photographs in an attempt to document both the city and the people who often get left out of the discussion in the story of China’s economic development. The result is a fascinating piece of work that depicts street life in modern China and the everyday activities of those that live in the modern economic miracle that is China. Take a look at some of his photos below and checkout the conversation we had with Rian about his travels in China:

Can you tell us a little bit about your travels in China?

Long story short, I moved to China with a girlfriend to teach English. We both became really involved with people in Hunan and with learning Chinese, and personally I felt I was onto something photographically, so we decided to stay another year. After that I stayed on alone to continue my photo work. The biggest challenge is always the self-doubt, questioning the quality of the work and your place in it. Pushing through long stretches of waiting and still trusting that it is worthwhile what you are doing, that in the end you will have work to show for it. Most of this kind of photography is waiting and watching, putting in the time and building intimacy with people. And being unsure that any of it will be coherent in the end.

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Language must have been a big barrier for you in your first few years.

Yes language is hard. But the great thing about skating is that it is still a real tight global community, wherever you go. I’ve done this in other countries, and in China: you find the central plaza or skate spot in a city, introduce yourself and borrow a board for a few tricks, and boom, you instantly have a crew to roll with. I cant think of any other sub culture that is so accepting of strangers. By my first week in Changsha I had located the main central skate spot, Wu Yi Square, and I just kept going back. Hanging with those skaters helped me learn the language as well, and gave me a reason to become intimate with street life in their city.

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How has skateboarding affected your work?

Like I said above, skating has certainly helped me make connections in new places. But having grown up skating I also think it is part of who I am. I think skating taught me how to hang out, and to be comfortable being on the streets. This definitely helps in doing documentary photo work, which is basically just a process of prolonged hanging out. It also made me appreciate the rhythm of urban street life. Skating, and I mean street skating, forces you to slow down and acknowledge the things happening around you. It makes you a more active participant in the civic energy of a place. This was always the thing that most attracted me to skateboarding. And the reason I never really enjoyed skating parks.

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What is the street culture like in China?  

Of course every city and country has its own flavor of street life. China’s is crowded as you might expect. And chaotic. But there is a novelty to skateboarding there that is gone here in the US. People crowd around to watch you skate still, and cops don’t hassle. And I feel like people spend much more time out in public in China, socializing with friends and neighbors, eating, drinking, exercising and playing games. So you get this feeling that the streets are an extension of the living space, not just somewhere to pass through on your way home or to work. Plus the street food is way better.

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Your work seems to be getting a lot of love from people out there, do you have any other projects in the works that folks might want to know about?

Yes, I am working on a new project back home here in California that I will start to promote in coming weeks. Also putting the finishing edit on the next book, which is work from my project dealing with celebrity culture and fame in China http://www.chinafile.com/being-bingbing

People can follow my blog for updates as they come http://riandundon.tumblr.com/

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