Silent workers get their moment to shine before the Games begin
The Age newspaper and here on-line. 7th August 2008
THEY line up one by one to have their picture taken. Behind them are the new Olympic stadiums that will define Beijing and China for the decades to come.
But in a twist of perspective, it is not the magnificent steel lattice of the National Stadium’s “Bird’s nest” or the space-age blue bubbles of the “water cube” Aquatic Centre that dominate the picture, but the individual migrant workers whose sweat and blood – at least six workers died during Olympic construction – have created these structures.
British artist Helen Couchman, who has lived in Beijing for 18 months, sneaked on to the Olympic building site over two days and offered to take pictures of any workers willing to pose.
She deliberately used the same background, with the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube, for each picture to focus attention on the individual. She returned a few days later to give each worker a print. (A few are anonymous because they could not return or be tracked down).
At first people shuffled around uncertainly, but once the first volunteer stepped up she was inundated. Couchman had to encourage people to get back to work so that she wasn’t ejected from the site.
When she returned to distribute the pictures she got each worker to write down their name, village and province.
The resulting 143 portraits, along with the worker’s signatures – the individual Chinese characters vary from sweeping calligraphy to simple characters – have been published in a book titled Workers (Gongren).
In the pre-Olympics crackdown, Couchman’s first printer decided they could not print the book without government authorisation, the day after the proofs had been approved.
She managed to find another printer willing to take on what she considered to be an apolitical project that celebrated the workers behind Beijing’s Olympic transformation.
The book was launched in Beijing before Couchman flew to London in late June to take part in an international exhibition on China’s new buildings, which included eight of the migrant worker portraits and the book. She was then invited to show the portraits and launch the book in Hong Kong last month.
“The reason for doing the project was I was thinking of Lewis Hine photographing the people who built the Empire State Building in New York and the photos of the Eiffel Tower being built in Paris – these historic cities, captured in their construction, being built by these unknown workers,” Couchman said.
“Back then in New York it would have been migrant workers, the Irish and the Italians . . . here it’s about the migrant workers who have come from all corners of China.
“I wanted the project to be about the people, hence the composition with the worker in the centre of the frame. It (the portrait) becomes a piece of personal family history and will return to the countryside with them . . . that’s what I’m so delighted about, that these photographs have travelled back with these workers to their home villages all over China.
“These people will not see the Olympics, except on television, but from the photograph, a villager in some remote part of China will see that their uncle or aunt, or mother or father, played a key role in the 2008 Olympic preparations.”
Ironically, as part of Beijing’s clean-up, the city’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have been sent home for two months.