/08 Works

Pierre Bessard

Wuhan Boiler Company Workers

Making photographs, not just taking snapshots. At first I was hesitant about doing this new project. We’ve seen so much work on Chinese factories and their workers where the western conscience wants to portray the subject as alien. What is the point of adding yet another page to a story that has been written so many times before? Then I decided to take a look for myself. I had often passed through Wuhan on news reporting missions but I’d never really got to know the place. It is not so much a town, rather a human beehive, where one can get a true feeling of China’s density and urgency. The French have invested heavily here and are always given a warm welcome. I was given free reign to wander around the colossal Wuhan Boiler Company factory. 

I was immediately taken aback by a setting of cinematic grandeur. A rigorous geometric composition traced by immense beams, tentacle-like piping, and shafts of light pouring through high-perched windows. Streams of warm colours on plastic tablecloths. The careful attention to detail. From every angle. The stage was already set in this giant studio. The actors, machines, lighting… all natural. I couldn’t refuse. I’d have to work quickly though, a vast relocation of men and machines was already underway. The factory was about to be transferred to a locale on the outskirts of the city which looked like a high-tech Californian start-up.

It wasn’t about being nostalgic, but to simply preserve a memory, to portray these places and men evolving with the times. No regrets or giving in. The idea of using black and white was immediately excluded, that would be too heavy in significance. Colour had to be used. The factory wasn’t just another victim of the painful restructuring that many Chinese state companies underwent in the early 1990s, it is undergoing a natural evolution in a country that is constantly changing. 

The chairs are empty now, and the kettles used for filling green tea thermoses are unplugged, but these huge rooms are still full with the emotions of life. The place is still alive with fifty years of work and the spirit of thousands of workers who made the huge boilers used to power the country’s coal-fired power plants…the lungs of the Chinese economy. Before their final move, more than 400 employees wanted to give their own account of their work in this place, and were happy to participate in my photo sessions. In my mini studio there was plenty of laughter, a few tears of emotion, and always a lot of pride.

Text: Pierre Bessard