Many years ago, when I was about thirteen and home in Khartoum for the holidays from school in England, my mother took me on a train trip to Port Sudan, from where we drove to Suakin, an extensive deserted city on the Red Sea. Old Ottoman-style buildings lay scattered around us in ruinous states ranging from the almost intact to mere piles of bricks and stones. I was particularly struck, I remember, by the enclosed balconies which jutted out from the second floors of some of them, and remember wondering what the people who looked out from them might have been like. Why didn’t anyone live there any more? What happened to them?
Balancing on a narrow boat in the middle of Aberdeen Harbour—the Jumbo Floating Restaurant in the background—were two dancers from the Hong Kong Ballet in a perfect pose, the red of their shoes and shorts popping against the red of the boat’s lanterns. In the background Hong Kong Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre was giving his feedback on the shot; photographer Dean Alexander was trying to capture the moment.
To take a photograph, Susan Sontag tells us, “is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.” A photograph also preserves evidence and exposes the human condition, which the viewer then appropriates. Old photographs preserve worlds that are gone, but they also bring them back, because the moment which they record is there forever, and cannot be moved in time either backwards or forwards. David Bellis knows this, and he has given us a glimpse of a world that is still present in photographs, a world which contains stories that are also preserved.
China shares borders with 14 other countries, more than almost any other nation. Its near neighbors represent a diverse collection of countries, from dominant powers such as Russia and India, to the smaller emerging nations of Laos and Bhutan. Throughout China’s history, it is through these borders that the influencing forces of trade, ideology and imperialism have traveled. China’s border regions have resumed their importance in recent years with political protest among the country’s ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the development of the One Belt, One Road initiative—which seeks to further bind China’s neighbors to its economic agenda through the creation of a “New Silk Road”. As it currently stands, China’s borders represent an opportunity for trade and cultural exchange, but also a risk from political agitation, terrorism and even military conflict.
It’s always been a pleasure to handle a Folio Society book, and having three of them at one time, all on Asian themes, was even better.
“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.
A photograph captures an instant frozen in time; old photographs therefore take on a higher significance precisely as a record of the past. Photography was born roughly at the same time that Hong Kong entered world history in the early 1840s; the emerging British colony soon attracted photographers of international repute on their first trips to Asia, and local photography studios were already being set up in the 1850s.