Time to Rethink Western Interperation of Chinese Workers

January 22, 2013


Photographer Michael Wolf captures portraits of toy workers in China holding up different toy parts. He tries to reveal the “countless Chinese factory workers slaving away in stuffy environments to construct piles of plastic toys”.


This kind of images portraying Chinese migrant workers have filled the media and art world in recent years. On one hand, I give full appreciation to these photographers who are passionate about showing the lives of Chinese workers; on the other hand, I feel frustrated that these intelligent people are always shown in such disconnected and impersonal way – they are not the toys they make, yet, they look as uncharacteristic as the toys they make.

The conditions of Chinese factories need to improve, and the workers deserve better treatments. But it is not all doom and gloom, factories are never sexy and there are millions of people around the world who are doing uninspiring job everyday, not because they want to, but because they have to. Isn’t it time we move on to a more personal understanding of these people?


When western photographers take a photo of Chinese people, there is very little or no communication between the photographer and their subjects. There is a general Western view on Chinese workers which is not the same as Chinese culture. Anyone has been to China know Chinese people are very open to conversation and making friends with Chinese is easy. Chinese people are curious  and always interested in other people and cultures. But  Western photographers tend to strip all the cultural context when photographing them. The results are often a serious of dull looking people looking guarded on camera. Of the 800 Chinese migrant workers I have interviewed for my project, everyone has exceptional vivid personality when I start to know them better, and these personalities shine through even in the hardest living or working conditions. They are often left disheartened by how the West often fails to capture the richness of their personalities.


Perhaps it is a time we find out more about their integrity as person rather than merely pointing camera at them. Instead of feeling sorry for the lives they are living lets try to understand their admirable strength and how they risk everything to challenge and to change the fate of their future through factory work in China.


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