The project to bring Li Zhensheng’s photographs of the Cultural Revolution to the wider world was first conceived fifteen years ago in Beijing. It was there, at the Chinese Press Association's photography competition in March 1988, that Li first publicly exhibited twenty images from his “negative” negatives – that is, those which had been deemed counterrevolutionary under the political dictates of Chairman Mao Zedong. The affect of the exhibit, entitled “Let History Tell the Future”—which included pictures of the former governor of Heilongjiang Province having his hair brutally torn out at a Red Guard rally—was seismic, and Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspapers for the first time were heard to use the term, “shocked.”

In December of that same year, Li met Robert Pledge, director of Contact Press Images, the international photo agency, who was in Beijing on the occasion of the seminal exhibition: “Contact: Photojournalism Since Vietnam” held at the National Museum of History at Tiananmen Square, one of the first contemporary western photography exhibits on the mainland, which was attended by over 10,000 a day during a ten-day period. There, Li and Pledge quickly determined to work together to someday bring out Li’s work. Politically, though, the climate would have to be right.

Seven months later, in June 1989, the brutal events at Tiananmen Square squashed the ascendant democracy movement in China, and with it, hopes that Li's images would soon be brought to light. It would be nearly another decade before the work on the project would truly recommence. Jiang Rong, who had been Pledge's translator in Beijing in 1988 and had become friendly with Li, was now in New York, working at the United Nations as an interpreter. Wang Gang (Peter Wang), who had initiated and coordinated Contact's tour in China, was also in New York, having founded his own digital imaging company. Li, too, was living part-time in New York City, accompanying his two children who had been awarded scholarships to study in the United States.

Beginning in 1999, work got under way. First, there was the delicate matter of bringing the negatives to New York. These were frames Li had cut from his negatives strips at the Heilongjiang Daily throughout the sixties, kept hidden under the floorboards of his home during the height of Red Guard storm, and — as is natural in China ever since in relation to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution— didn’t much talk about. They arrived at Contact's offices in several batches comprised of multiple bundles of brown paper envelopes, each containing a single negative. There would be about 30,000 such envelopes, each of which would be carefully examined by Pledge over and over during the many rounds of editing.

On approximately one hundred weekends over a four-year period, Contact's offices on West 38th Street in New York sprang to life with the sounds of Chinese, French, and English, as the "work team"—Li, Pledge, writer Jacques Menasche and translator Rong Jiang—later joined by Li's daughter Xiaobing, plunged into the task. At any given moment, one might find Li, Rong, and Menasche in heated discussion at one side of the office, while Pledge and Li Xiaobing pored over negatives, prints, and old pages of the Heilongjiang Daily, deciphering calligraphy on rebel banners and placards, on the other. Statuettes of Mao, Li's cameras, revolutionary posters, documents, Chinese books and music, even the sound of Li singing revolutionary songs — all combined to create the super-charged atmosphere in which the project was forged.

Augmenting these sessions, normal work weeks were full of thousands of exchanged e-mails and telephone calls clarifying details, especially regarding the text written by Menasche, which based on his hundreds of hours of interviews with Li, ping-ponged many times from Chinese to English and back again, as well as in-depth research of both primary and secondary sources. In time, Contact would assemble a prodigious library of books, photographs, and documents related to the Cultural Revolution.

Over the years the team would grow: in New York, Wang Gang scanned Li's prints, sometimes assisted by Li’s son, Li Xiaohan, with production coordinated by Tim Mapp at Contact; in Paris, Gabriel Bauret helped arrange the opening exhibit at the Hotel de Sully, initiated by then-director of the Patrimoine Photographique, Pierre Bonhomme, and later overseen by Michaël Houlette, while Dominique Deschavanne, director of Contact's offices in Paris, supervised every aspect of the French edition of the book. Joined in both places by the impressive staff of the publisher, Phaidon—notably designer Julia Hasting, editors Karen Stein and Valerie Vago-Laurer, publisher Amanda Renshaw, and company president Richard Schlagman—in 2003 the historic project finally came to its long-planned-for fruition.

2003 © Contact Press Images