Contemporary by Angela Li is proud to present The Exempted, a series of portraits of old peasants by renowned Chinese photographer He Chongyue. He Chongyue, one of the most esteemed contemporary artists in the circle of Chinese photographers today, has had the idea of his project brewing in his mind for a couple of years. He travelled through China, going deep into the country’s rural areas and captures with his camera the insignificant and fading people of our time.
“After the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the political rights of the peasants were finally written into the constitution. However, several decades after the establishment of the ‘New China’, the rights of the peasants are still violated time and again during major political movements,” explained He on why he decided to shoot this portrait series of old peasants. Despite the rapid economic growth brought about by the “Reform and Opening” policy in 1989, as well as the massive scale of globalization and urbanization today, the lives of the peasants who remained at their farms underwent minimal changes. With scars and heavy memories from the past, the peasants become forgotten and excluded from the roaring development and transformations in China – hence He Chongyue named this series “The Exempted”.
The younger generation from the countryside gives up farming and flocks into the cities as migrant workers. As the older peasants age, they are no longer the glorified food provider but instead become burdens of the society. The effort they put in their youth earned them nothing but the negligence of the government. The authorities have broken the promise they made in 1985 – “government will provide for the elderly”, and are now indoctrinating peasants with ideas such as “good to postpone retirement, we need to take care of ourselves”. Witnessing the government’s abandonment of the old peasants at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, He is determined to restore their dignity with photography and show it to the world.
In the old, worn-out hut he called home, an elderly who lived a solitary life said, “right now, I’m just waiting to die. I’m only afraid that when that day comes, no one will even know.” To him, perhaps death is not half as frightening as being forgotten. With The Exempted, He Chongyue placed their situation under the spotlight for the society to see. He said, “We will all grow old one day. If we treat the old people well now, we are actually treating our future selves well.”
Behind the camera, the old peasants put on their best clothes and staggered towards He Chongyue. Before the camera, they faced the world with dignity and sincerity. As art critic Hai Ze (海則) remarked, “The spirit of the age ought to side with the humanitarian”. He Chongyue strives to document the “dirty laundry” the authorities try to tuck away at all costs; he puts the exempted back into our sight.