As a photojournalist covering news about Chinese immigrants in the metropolitan area of Barcelona, I noticed that that it was often related to shady dealings such as illegal textile factories, mafia or for offering sexual services in a hair salons. Media depictions together with the superficial interaction that the Chinese had with local people contributed to their stigmatization - generally, they were seen by Catalans as a community shrouded by mystery. Attracted by this exoticism and with the idea to go further than the typical press topics and present another image of them, I decided to make a photographic work about the Chinese community in Santa Coloma de Gramanet.
The first step of the work was to gain their confidence in order to access and show their daily routine. After two years doing the project and facing a lot of difficulties because of a distrust of the work, I managed to get several pictures depicting their private life. However, after the review of these pictures I decided not to use them - beyond the exoticism of visualising a hidden reality, the pictures did not present any personal reflection within them. Therefore, I rejected to show the hidden exotic aspects of the Chinese and focused on analysing their presence in public life. I focused on the particularities of the Chinese immigrants in their social relations with local people, investigating why, having made similar works with other immigrant communities which were more open to collaboration, the Chinese seemed to have such a distrust in a work that had the objective of presenting a positive image of them.
The final idea of the work was formed during a lunch that I had with Yao, my interlocutor with the Chinese community since the beginning of the project. During the lunch, Yao was complaining about the Catalan social perception of the Chinese community: “When you talk about us you always remain in the skin”. I agreed with Yao but I asked her if the Chinese community were doing any efforts to improve this social perception; as Yao knows, I spent years as a photographer trying to know better the Chinese community with the aim of presenting a different image without too much luck. After my comments Yao, for the first time since we started to work together in this project, alerted me that what I was trying to do was not possible: “You cannot know the Chinese if you are not one of them”, and to reaffirm her position Yao asked me a question that she answered by herself: “Why do you think we built a Wall? For not allowing anybody to get in and get out”.
The Chinese wall to which Yao was referring for many centuries had the historical function to preserve the identity and the integrity of the Chinese culture, isolating them physically from the rest of the word. The wall has now been relegated to a historical symbol but so many centuries living with it might show us how it is still present in the Chinese collective imagination. The series ‘Walls’ investigates the relationship between the Chinese diaspora and local people, in which the social interaction with local people is generally done through economic exchange. Beyond the commercial sphere, in ordinary social life, the estrangement between compatriots is the general distinctive character of the Chinese community.
‘Walls’. Santa Coloma de Gramamnet 2008-2011. Series of 12 pictures.