To me, the most fascinating documentary photography are those that bring attention to the fading facets of a culture. As time passes and civilizations evolve, it’s inevitable for certain aspects of daily life to come and go. It often falls on perceptive photographers to, well, document everything about them before they become completely forgotten.
In 2019, Copenhagen-based Ken Hermann one such photographer when he placed the spotlight on the sunrise to sunset porters of Chongqing in southwest China. “For centuries Chongqing’s Bang Bang men have carried the city’s’ weight on their shoulders. Now, their work is vanishing. So are they,” he learned as he embarked on this documentary project.
Meeting the last Bang Bang Men
Chongqing’s porters, locally known as the bang bang men, help carry goods for anyone willing to pay. Hermann tells us that they typically hang out near the city’s commercial areas, waiting for anyone calling out for a “bang bang” to help haul their stuff. They come carrying a bamboo pole called “bangzi” from which their popular nickname was derived.
“Equipped with a bamboo pole or ’bangzi’, whose name inspired the popular nickname for the porters, they climb the steep hills and thousands of staircases to homes and businesses high above carrying up to 80 kilos on their shoulders.”
However, Hermann also noted that Chongqing is now one of the world’s biggest metropolises and a lot has changed when it comes to transportation of goods. With buildings that now tower as high as 72 floors, pedestrian bridges that connect apartment buildings, vertical public transportation and courier companies have all drastically reduced the traditional porters’ numbers.
“A multi-layered city where feet for centuries have been the most practically form of transportation of goods. Earlier, hundred of thousands made their living as Bang Bang men, but now only 10,000 estimated are left.”
Crafting a moody introduction
“Follow the footsteps of these ancient men conquering the steep and precipitous hills of the city hauling loads up and down for a few dollars a day,” Hermann’s somber invitation for this documentary portrait set went.
He was tackling an already sentimental topic on its own, but he also made sure to match his documentation with a somber visual style. His subjects stand against mostly dark and atmospheric settings, which heighten their plight as a slowly fading part of Chongqing’s culture. I think that’s what makes this documentary photography such a poignant perspective into the world’s biggest cities.
All photos by Ken Hermann. Used with Creative Commons permission.