Since 1989, artist Lu Nan has completed 15 years of photography “Trilogy / Trilogy” (“The Forgotten Man: The Living Conditions of Mental Patients in China” (1989-1990), “On the Road: Catholicism in China” (1992) -1996) and Four Seasons: Daily Life of Tibetan Farmers (1996-2004)), the Chinese version was published by China National Photography Art Publishing House. In October 2018, the famous British publishing house GOST Books first regarded “Trilogy” as an epic and complete photographic art work, and launched the English version of the hardcover volume and the English version of the trilogy. More than 20 new unpublished works have been added and newly designed by the famous London designer Stuart Smith. The publication of this book has once again aroused more attention and awareness of Lu Nan’s artistic achievements in the Western art world and mainstream media.
Interview with Lu Nan
1. What was your early life like growing up? Can you talk a bit about your background? When did you first take up photography? What interested you about the medium?
LN: I had a neighbor who was a magazine photographer, and he helped me understand the essentials of photography. Later he introduced me to a magazine press, where I served as a darkroom technician for five years. Having read Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (about Van Gogh) and Somerset Maugham’s Moon and Sixpence (about Gaugin), I had a hankering for that kind of life. For me, photography was the only medium that could make that wish come true.
2. Have there been any influential photographers or mentors in your career? If so, how have they influenced you or impacted the way you take pictures?
LN: During the 1980s, when I first came in contact with photography, China was just opening up to the outside world. We started seeing works by a lot of foreign photographers, and they had an influence on me. One example is Joseph Koudelka, whose poetic perspective and clean, strong images affected me. I drew insight from Sebastio Salgado’s mode of work, which was to turn any project he engaged in into a book. I could add more names to this list.
My visual treatments are also influenced by two great painters, namely Piero della Francesca and Jan Vermeer. Francesco’s works have a quiet, solemn atmosphere; they have clear spatial structure and the figuration is unassuming yet powerful. Jan Vermeer’s pictures portray simple settings that are serene yet full of poetic feeling, displaying the tranquil beauty inherent in life. His works had a big influence on me.
Three people from outside the visual arts also exerted an important influence: Martin Buber, Marcel Proust and Johann Goethe. Almost every day during my six years of shooting The Forgotten People and On the Road, I leafed through Buber’s book I and Thou. Although I did not peruse it further while shooting Four Seasons, that book had a big influence on my trilogy from start to finish.
I spent over ten years learning from Proust. I read the entire Remembrance of Things Past twice, and I leafed countless times through the final volume, Time Regained. When artists speak to the world, they do so in terms of a whole. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is an organic whole—one that conveys insight into human beings while giving readers the sense of an all-round summation. This work had a key influence on my trilogy as it was taking shape as a complete work.
I first began reading Goethe’s books seriously in 1995. I was captivated by Goethe’s precise exposition, broad knowledge and precise thinking. Now I realize that Goethe was the mentor I relied on while doing my project in Tibet. During the seven years that I was shooting Four Seasons, I dipped into books by Goethe almost every day. My main sources for learning from Goethe were Eichmann’s Table Talk of Goethe and the novel Wilhelm Meister. I made sure to take these books along on my trips to Tibet. I went there a total of nine times, and each time I read them both cover-to-cover. Goethe’s thought had a big influence on Four Seasons.
As I read works by these three authors, I learned their methods of cogitation and their ways of viewing the world. At the same time, I drew upon them to guide and scrutinize my own work.
3. For each project in the trilogy, you have focused on a specific group of people who share certain commonalities. What drew you to these specific groups and why did you feel they needed to be photographed? How did this concept of trilogy come about? Did you always see these three projects coming together like this, or was it something that developed along the way?
LN: Because I’m working for myself, my choice of projects is a matter of my own interests. In China, there is not only prejudice against the mentally ill and their families, society even directs prejudice against medical personnel and nurses who work at mental asylums. The status of these medical workers is on a low stratum of society.
I was curious about the lives of mental patients, so I started with a project on mental hospitals. At the hospitals I found out that family members of patients face a tough predicament. In order to present the life-circumstances of mental patients in an all-round, in-depth way, I expanded the shooting from hospitals to private homes and even to the homeless.
The final photograph in The Forgotten People was taken in a church, showing a priest as he gave a blessing to a mentally ill church member. The moment I took that photo, I knew that my second project would be Catholicism, and that my third project would be Tibet. If we say that I deliberately chose the project on mental illness, then the following projects on Catholicism and Tibet chose me, because only those three projects would constitute an extended work with inner coherence.
4. What do you see (if any) as the common thread linking the projects together?
LN: The Forgotten People is about suffering and adversity; On the Road is about purification; Four Seasons is about a blessed, serene state: it is about human life as heaven and humans existing in blessedness. (According to the Buddhist view, heaven is not an abstract idea, it is a concrete reality: when a person’s inner being is in a state of serenity, then that person is living in heaven and existing in blessedness.)
The three component works of the trilogy present three states of the life-phenomenon. As life unfolds, we all get a taste of these three life-states to a greater or lesser extent. The soul’s paramount wish is to get away from suffering and, through purification, find its way to a blessed state of peace-at-heart. This wish is what connects the three parts together.
5. Many of the images in The Forgotten People depict harrowing circumstances and deep human suffering. Can you discuss your approach to documenting such sensitive subject matter, as well as what led you to photograph inside these psychiatric wards?
LN: Early in 1989 I went to shoot photos in a mental hospital. As I walked into one of the sickrooms, I saw a male patient standing at a window looking out. I unconsciously raised my camera to look through the viewfinder. As I lowered my camera, I saw that the patient was walking toward me with rapid steps. I thought of running away, but I feared this would hurt his self-esteem. As I hesitated over whether to run or not, he stopped right in front of me. I instinctively protected my camera and lowered my head. My mind was a blank, and I half-expected to feel the impact of his fist. But that blow never came. As I slowly raised my head, I saw his extended hand poised between us. It turned out that he wanted to shake hands. Beginning from that moment, the label of “mental illness” faded from my mind. In my view, those were human beings first of all, and only then were they mental patients. In The Forgotten People, they were all treated with dignity.
Friends helped me to sign up for a press pass, so I could go in and out of hospitals easily.
6. The work focuses on church members and their daily lives. What interested you about their lives outside of the church?
LN: I am interested in every aspect of love as it is practiced by church members outside the church.
7. I understand the conditions you work in above sea level in Tibet can be quite difficult and harsh. Can you talk a bit more about challenges you faced, physically or emotionally while photographing and creating the work that would become the trilogy? During your time in Tibet, did you live with the peasants while you were documenting their lives throughout the seasons? I know this particular part of the project took place from 1996-2004, during that time, how many separate trips did you make, and what was the typical duration of your stay?
LN: From 1996 to 2004 I made nine trips to Tibet and stayed three to four months each time. On my last two trips, between August 2002 and May 2004, I worked in Tibet for fifteen months—six months the first time and nine months the second. During the shooting of Four Seasons, I photographed the entire spring planting season twice, and I shot the entire autumn harvest four times.
My mode of working in Tibet was to choose a township each time I went. (A township is the lowest-level administrative unit of Chinese government.) A township has jurisdiction over several hamlets. Upon arriving at the chosen township, I would work within the scope of its jurisdiction. During my time there I would not leave for even a single minute until my work was concluded.
I did homestays with four different families for four months. Because most farmers’ houses don’t have guest rooms, living with them was a bit inconvenient. Later, I would stay at the township government: sometimes I’d share space with a township cadre or sometimes I would stay in an unoccupied government building.
During my time working in Tibet, I had no problems adapting to that setting, because my way of living and working in Tibet was similar to my usual mode of living and working at home.
During the fifteen years that I was shooting the trilogy, my daily routine consisted of work, reading and listening to music. I do not watch television. My way of keeping connected to the outside world is listening to BBC, Voice of Germany or the Chinese broadcasts of Radio France.
My biggest challenge while working in Tibet was solitude. Because I had four to six hours of reading time every day, I was solitary but not lonely. If there was an inconvenience, it would be the lack of electricity in rural villages, where I had to use candles to finish my reading.
In fifteen years of shooting photos for the trilogy, not a day went by when I didn’t question my own work. That’s why I scrutinized what I was doing by means of reading. This mode of assessing action through thought and assessing thought through action helped me to complete this trilogy.
The trilogy is concerned with human beings. I hope that by looking into real life, I’ll find something fundamentally and enduringly human.
8. Can you talk about the concept of “fate” and how it plays into your work? In particular, part three of the series, Four Seasons?
LN: Goethe said that as long as we’re on the right path, there will be an intangible hand helping us. In fifteen years of shooting for this trilogy, everything I experienced proves the truth of his statement.