“No one asked me to take close-ups of the bodies, but that’s what I did. I had to get very close, so close I could smell the fishy smell of blood and brains.” -Li Zhensheng

Li Zhensheng, photographer of China’s Cultural Revolution

Li Zhensheng was a photographer for his local newspaper in Harbin, the capital of the Chinese province Heilongjiang. He was to make “positive” propaganda pictures of large masses of people showing revolutionary fervor for the publication. The opening quote in this article is about photographs he made of the Red Guard executing prisoners in Harbin, China during the Cultural Revolution that ran during the years 1966-1976 (opening photo top row.)

Published photos earned Li Zhensheng more film

“We were given film each month according to a ratio: For every picture published, we earned eight frames.” Li Zhensheng explained in an interview with The New York Times, “I would process all my own film. And I did all my own enlargements. I would have to process all the film for the other four guys in the paper too because I was the youngest and the newest on the job. When I was unhappy in the darkroom, I would sing.”

Li Zhensheng would often make darkroom panoramas by printing overlapping frames and putting them together into a single photograph (opening photo lower right image.)

“Positive” photos were shown, “negative” ones hidden

On Photography: Li Zhensheng, 1940-2020
Self-portrait by Li Zhensheng — these were risky during the Revolution because the party was to come before self.

While he was supposed to only take “positive” photos, he also made a large number of “negative” ones. He snipped these from the rolls of film he developed and hid them first in his desk and them beneath the floor of his apartment.

“I knew I had lots of “negative” frames, so I would quickly dry them and clip them off, to not let other people see them. The only fear I had was the others would complain that I was wasting public resources, shooting pictures that the newspaper couldn’t use — and I would leave the positive ones hanging to dry,” Li said during the interview. “I would put the “negative” negatives into brown envelopes in a secret compartment in my desk. In the spring of 1968, I sensed that I would be [searched] soon, I took batches of the negatives home every day after work. I sawed a hole in the parquet floor at home under desk and hid them there.”

These images were not seen until the 1980s. His work is seen most often in countries other than his native China.

Li Zhensheng in Beijing

Li became director of photography in the journalism department of a local college when he moved to Beijing in 1982. He remained silent about his “negative” negatives, his stamp collection that had Goya stamps depicting naked women along with Chiang Kai-shek and Yuan Shikai coins stayed hidden until 1988.

An exhibition of Chinese photography asked him for photos of the Cultural Revolution during 1966 and 1967. He sent 20 photos, both “positive” and “negative.” Li says of his work, “Most Chinese photographers are very obedient to the Chinese Communist Party’s word. But I have been, since I was a student, not obedient. They exhibited those 20 pictures and I won a big prize at that competition.”

His colleagues at the Heilongjiang Daily on viewing the show exclaimed, “Li Zhensheng you recorded history as a whole. We recorded only half of history.”

Li’s advice to all photographers

Li finished the interview with advice to his students and for all photographers, “Many people, when they saw that my Cultural Revolution pictures won big prizes, they said, “But Teacher Li, we didn’t live in Cultural Revolution, so we can’t take such great pictures.” I remember feeling the same when our teacher showed pictures he’d shot in Yan’an [the Chinese Communist revolutionary base in the 1930s and 1940s].

But this is a naïve way of looking at things. It’s not reality that creates heroes, but heroes create reality. I’m not saying I’m a hero; I always tell my students to shoot what’s around them. No need to track down disasters and wars, but just shoot what’s around them, just pick up your camera today and shoot.

It’s not just old photos that have value. You pick up your camera today and shoot, 20 years later they will become old photos too, and will have value.”

Li Zhensheng, documentarian of the unseen side of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution died in a Long Island hospital in Queens, NY. He was 79.

Sources: New York Times obituary.

More lives of inspirational photographers are in On Photography.