Western media project a certain image of China, but is it an accurate one? Pondering this question, Adrian realised how little he (and many others he knows) understood about China’s young people; their worries, hopes and dreams. Formerly a photojournalist, he had been living in India for the last seven years, and seen for himself the rise of South-East Asia, and in particular India and China. Together these countries have 1.2bn young people (aged 16 to 30): this generation is going to have a huge influence on the world, and so to understand where the world is going we need to understand how they see the world.
Adrian spent a lot of time thinking about how best to capture this generation before coming up with the idea of giving them a blank piece of paper and asking them to write their thoughts. After testing the idea with a few people in India and getting good results, he set off for China. The idea was to cover North, South, East and West, digging into even the most remote corners that the media usually don’t pay attention to – no mean feat when you think about the size of these two countries. In China he had a 30 day visa, which meant he covered an average of 420km per day.
It’s difficult to represent a whole country in 60 or so photos, but Adrian has tried to get a balance between different backgrounds, lifestyles and genders. He says he ‘followed his nose’, using a variety of methods to find people to photograph. He approached students on university campuses, people in cafes, strangers in the street. Sometimes he’d photograph someone with a friend in another town and that would help decide the next stop on the itinerary.
How did he get people to open up and share their thoughts? In China especially, self-expression is not as common as in other countries. Adrian used a translator to get over the language barrier, and usually spent a couple of hours talking with each person, asking questions about their life, to create a rapport and gain trust before taking the photo.
The photos give an impression of the shear range of lifestyles in both India and China. Adrian mentions a woman he talked to in Assam, North East India. His team visited her house, which they travelled to by boat. Her whole world was a small piece of land surrounded by water. Daily existence is a struggle for people in her community. It’s a long way from the shiny images of ‘new India’ which tend to dominate international reporting.
It’s taken a while to gain momentum, but iSpeak China in particular has got a lot of attention over the last few months – both within China and outside.
Now Adrian is back in the UK, photographing young people in London and writing a proposal for funding to visit 25 more countries (the UN is already on board). He hopes Africa will be next. “DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], for example, has lived through years of war and seen the most casualties since WWII. I want to see what effect that has had on the outlook of their young people”
Does he see a difference in London after talking to young Indians and Chinese? “In China and India, people were mostly positive. Of course their countries have problems, but their economies are growing, they are on the way up. In the UK, there is a feeling that things are not quite right, that we’re headed in the wrong direction, we need to reinvent ourselves”.
Find out more about Adrian’s work on his website Adrian Fisk.
About the authorLucy