Born on September 22, 1940, to a poor family in Dalian in the northeastern province of Liaoning—a part of China then under Japanese military occupation—there was little in Li Zhensheng's background to suggest that he would become the premier documenter of a crucial moment in Chinese history. His mother died when he was three. His older brother, a member of Mao's army, was killed during the civil war. Li himself helped his father, a cook on a steamship who later became a farmer, till the fields until the age of ten.

But although he began his schooling late, Li quickly rose to the top of his class, and through his single-minded drive succeeded in earning a spot at the Changchun Film School. Yet obstacles would continually dog Li's way. When his future in film was converted to the more "socially useful" one of photojournalism, his complaints led to his being sent to the far-flung province of Heilongjiang to photography scientific documents. And when through persistence he found on his own a better job photographing for the Heilongjiang Daily in 1963, the Socialist Education Movement soon intervened and he ended up back in the countryside for nearly two years, living with peasants and studying the work of Chairman Mao.

Li returned to Harbin just months before the outbreak of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the Spring of 1966. Then too he would be severely tried. Lack of film, marauding Red Guards, and a political dictate against photographing "negative" scenes, all conspired to reduce him to the level of a propaganda functionary. Li, however, proved resourceful. Realizing that only those wearing the armband of the Red Guards could photograph without harassment, he founded his own rebel group, which soon rose to power at the newspaper.

But for all his troubles, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Li would be plotted against by rivals, publicly denounced, and once more sent back to the countryside in September 1969, this time to the May 7th Cadre School in Liuhe—the Chinese “gulag”—where he, as well his wife, Zu Yingxia, spent two years at hard labor.

Luckily, Li had taken care to keep his meticulously documented "negative" negatives hidden under the floorboards of his one-room apartment. They remained safe as he returned to the newspaper and became the head of the photography department in 1972. Even after Mao's death in 1976, after Li became a professor at a university in Beijing in 1982, and as he began to undertake in the 1990s the preliminary work for Red-Color News Soldier — his photographs remained as fresh and vital on the heady days when they were taken.

Presently Li Zhensheng is engaged in research, and lectures on the Cultural Revolution, tirelessly pursuing his lifelong mission to enlighten the world about this critical, cruel, and largely unknown period in Chinese history.

2003 © Jacques Menasche

Li Zhensheng's work is not just reportage — it asserts a personal point-of-view, a way of understanding events as they happen. Beyond simply covering the unfolding Cultural Revolution, Li gives it an epic dimension, beauty in its forms. What we first notice is the compositional quality: the square—Li often used a 2 1/4 camera—is very "full"; the image occupies the entire frame. Li mastered this notoriously difficult format, framing his shots with precision, resting his composition on the edges of the image, giving it energy, and creating tension between the different zones.

Whether using a 2 1/4 or 35mm camera, Li plays with the entire range of depths, de-centering the subject, sometimes subtly tilting the frame. Thus he organizes into visual perspective the events he photographs, generating stress between the subject and its surrounding context, between the protagonist, or protagonists of the action, and the bystanders. An approach that results from the political process then engulfing the country. Li takes photography beyond the limitations of the still image, expressing his intuitive narrative sense, but also that of movement...

2003 © Gabriel Bauret