“Photography has a special ability to record the spiritual as well as the material aspects of our lives. This is the motive of my work.”

Born Kaifeng, Henan, 1953

Jiang Jian is drawn to the faces of the poor and the outcast, the forgotten individuals who make up China’s masses. Growing up in a remote village to which his father was banished during the Cultural Revolution, he had never seen a camera until he found a job with a national project documenting folk art. Inspired by August Sander’s attempt to create a photographic “atlas” of German society, Jiang Jian compiles portfolios of posed portraits on social themes: peasants, itinerant storytellers, construction workers. When he learned of a charity’s plan to provide support for 1000 orphans until they reached adulthood, he volunteered to photograph them all. The result was The Orphan Files (2004), in which each child is presented in black and white alongside an enlarged colour “portrait” of his identity papers. The outsized documents seem to reduce the children to statistics: name, age, birthplace, cause of parents’ death. The featureless black backgrounds underscore their lack of social support or loving embrace. The uniformity of composition, with the children standing alone before the camera, makes them appear almost interchangeable. Yet these subtle tactics also guide the viewer’s eye to stance, posture, clothing, facial expression: flickers of individuality shining through the gloom.
Postscript: In 2009, five years after these photos were taken, Jiang Jian went to visit as many of the orphans as he could find. Most were in the care of grandparents or other relatives and doing well at school. Ban Xiaokai and Cui Yanqun have left home; their guardians don’t know where they are or what has become of them.

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