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Peering Through an Open Door

July 2021

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She is tucked away in the corner of the room, camouflaged by a floral quilt and a pile of flannel cotton shirts wedged between the bed and the desk. She’s nestled in an alcove of the bed, the desk and the walls. Made to feel safe, in her fabric fort, she naps. Other than the ticking hand of the clock and the slight rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing, all is quiet.


He quickly steps through the jarred door to the middle of the room, camouflaged by his camera. It’s hard to infer how much time elapsed between his discovery of the napping girl and the pressing of his shutter. Photography is ‘an encounter, a surprise’ to the French Photographer Marc Riboud, so it’s unlikely that he had been there for long, meticulously composing a frame. I picture his right leg taking a small step backwards, his body subconsciously gives way to his camera as it lowers into a quick half squat. He holds a breath. And I hold a breath as I picture him.


Dreams are fleeting yet the photograph eternalises the act of dreaming. 



I imagine the moment was captured with a surge of spontaneity, driven by intuition and curiosity. 


I wonder, when Riboud made this napping girl the protagonist of a frozen frame, was he drawn into the stillness of the moment he stumbled upon? Did he linger for a while to make sure he didn’t disturb her dream? 


Surely the napping girl was unaware of the chance encounter. After all, it’s single-sided. but I wonder if she had ever found out about the photographer that had immortalized her nap in 1965. 


I believe that a photographer, although most of the time unseen, is never invisible in a photograph. 


A photographer’s intention is ingrained deeply within the frame he’s chosen, no matter how accidental or trivial. And to see a photograph, our sight is only built upon the eyes of the photographer. 



If it weren’t for a chance encounter at a preview for an auction, this particular photo by Marc Riboud probably would’ve never caught my eyes, for he had taken countless photos during his 22 visits to China over 60 years, and this particular photo is too unassuming in comparison to others. Although it is collected in “Visions of China”, aside from the book, very little can be found about the photograph. I don’t blame it, the first time I laid my eyes on it, I quickly dismissed it too. 



At first glance, my eyes darted and my mind jumped to judgement, I deemed the photograph ordinary. It captures a person taking a nap, a scene that any of us encounters on any day. So I moved on quickly. It’s easy for photographs to elicit reactions in me upon first sight because they are usually charged with immense energy. Although with this one, at best, it was a lolled curiosity that was largely fuelled by spectatorship — an ordinary photo (mercilessly deemed by me) by a famous photographer at an auction, an interesting case study on the value of art if nothing else. 


Strangely, as I walked through the entire exhibition, the photo slowly began to develop in my mind as it would have in a dark room. The elements in the scene manifested in a dream-like fashion, the dotted ordinary details that I had dismissed began to take hold of me. Even the blandness of the photo started to intrigue me — What sparked Riboud to capture this moment? Was he drawn in the same way I am? 


My curiosity soon grew beyond the initial spectatorship. As I’ve proven myself wrong, I was too quick to judge, the photo deserved more time. 


It pulled me back. 



This time, instead of looking, I tried to see. 


I realised that the ordinariness I observed earlier actually came from a sense of familiarity. This new understanding put me right in the moment. As I became the napping girl, I realised that what’s in front of my eyes, is an honest moment unembellished without worry — the worry of an outsider’s gaze. 


This is a moment only shared between the closest of family. This moment could be the strangest and most unfamiliar moment to our protagonist herself, yet it’s been eternalised and made so public. When one’s sleeping, how would she know what’s happening in the world outside her dreams? 


I was so intimately close to the moment. All of a sudden, I felt like an intruder, I became lamented for the thought of intrusion. 


Yet, I have been invited by Riboud, haven’t I? I was peering in through the door Riboud has opened for me, to see a moment like this, to be in a moment like this, I hold gratitude but also regrets in my heart as I keep seeing. 


Was this what Riboud felt too?



According to the photographer’s note, ‘[t]he family’s most precious possessions are gathered in one corner of the room[.]’ Coincidentally, the objects that build up the family possession also fill up the rest of Riboud’s frame. 


Giving the objects a majority of the frame and tucking the napping girl away in the bottom corner, was it a conscious choice or an intuitive reaction? 


Perhaps Riboud also felt the intrusion I felt, therefore he let the surroundings take the unwanted attention away from the girl. Perhaps Riboud’s unconventional composition was driven purely by intuition, to include the world the girl sleeps in, as if it is what makes up her dreams. 


Or, did Riboud find similarity in the arrangement of the precious family possession and the western idea of the ‘Wunderkammer’? In that case, our napping girl, quietly slumbering away, is she the guardian of the family ‘Wunderkammer’, or, is the collection of family processions quietly guarding her?


“Leave her be,” as if they whisper quietly. “Leave her be,” as if the photographer echos the whisper with his camera. 


On this thought, I quietened my breath, held my body still, and covertly removed my gaze from her. I let my eyes drift in the room while she drifts away in her dreams. 



When my gaze landed on the name on the Certificates of Merit on the wall, it was an exhilarating discovery, a ‘tiny spark of accident’. 


Struggling at the end of a feudal society in the 1930s and 40s, being able to make ends meet was a wish of many Chinese families. The name on the certificates, Jin Nengfu (金能富) is a name from this era. It’s probably the napping girl’s father’s name. The last name Jin (金)means “gold” or “money”, the given name “Nengfu”(能富)means “can become rich”. It carries a family’s humblest and most practical wish for a better life.  


In China, a name might not be sacred but it is always heavy. It carries the bloodlines and it carries the wish for a child to alter a family’s fate. But beyond that, it also mirrors the time one is born into, and it contains the shifts of society. 


Yet, a name that is ladened with a family’s wish and a country’s shifting circumstance is only reactive to its time. Wishful thinking is ground in reality but is rarely realized. 


Marc Riboud believed that ‘photography cannot change the world, but it can show the world, especially when it changes.’ 



This photo captures a moment in a housing project for workers in Changchun, China, in 1965. Between 1961 and 1965, the country has worked hard to revive socially and economically from the previous traumas. However, the gaps of ideologies and different agendas of the political leaders only lay out an unpredictable future. For a country that has persevered through many hardships and a society that is happy to embrace steady growth, another storm is brewing unbeknownst to the napping girl and the many like her. 


Against the social-political backdrop of Chinese society then, this lesser-known photo of a napping girl departs from a simple slice of life and takes on a new narrative. Riboud’s photograph captures such a placid moment yet it’s ironic to look back at the people that have struggled through the next decade with little peace of mind. 



Years have gone by, the China in Riboud’s vision has also changed dramatically. The country has long healed from the wounds of the past, fewer and fewer people will remember the growing pain of that particular era, but there will always be the version of China that Riboud captured with his camera. 


He was acting ‘[to] be the eyes [… to] the doors [that] are opening’. Being the silent observer, quietly slipping in and out of moments, he transported the viewers into the ephemeral eternities he weaved through his peering into the worlds. 


I wonder when the napping girl woke up from her slumber, did she sense the change in the air? ||








他迅速跨过没关紧的门,走到房间中央,他藏在他的相机后面。很难推断从他发现小憩的女孩到按下快门,这之间过去了多长时间。摄影对法国摄影师 Marc Riboud 来说是一次“邂逅、惊喜”,所以他不太可能在那里呆了很长时间来精心的构图。我想象着他的右腿向后退了一小步,他的身体下意识地给他的相机让位,快速进入半蹲状态。他屏住呼吸。想象着他的样子,我屏住了呼吸。








午睡的女孩肯定不知道这次偶遇。毕竟它是单方面的。但我想知道她是不是知道那个让她在 1965 年的午睡永恒的摄影师。




如果不是在拍卖预展上偶遇,这张马克·吕布 (Marc Riboud) 的照片可能永远不会引起我的注意,他在 60 多年来 22 次访问中国期间拍摄了无数照片,而这张照片与他其他作品相比,太不起眼了。虽然它被收录在《中国的视野》中,但除了这边画册之外,关于这张照片的资料少之又少。我在第一次看到这张照片的时候,也很快就否定了它。



乍一看,我的眼睛飞快地跳过了照片里的元素,我的脑子过于武断的下了结论 -- 这张照片很普通。它捕捉到一个正在小睡的女孩,这是我们任何人在任何一天都会遇到的普通场景。所以我很快就决定把这张照片抛之脑后。很多照片容易引起我第一眼的反应,因为它们通常充满了巨大的能量。但对于这张照片,第一眼看上去充其量只是一种在很大程度上由旁观者助长的好奇心——一位著名摄影师在拍卖会上拍摄的一张普通照片(我毫不留情地认为),充其量是一个关于艺术商品价值的有趣案例研究。





















根据摄影师的笔记,“[t]她家最珍贵的财产都聚集在房间的一个角落[.]” 巧合的是,吕布的照片刚好被她和她的家庭财产的物品填满,没有一丝别的东西。








“让她睡吧”就好像他们悄悄地耳语似的。 “让她睡吧”,仿佛摄影师用他的相机回应了这个耳语。













Marc Riboud 相信“摄影不能改变世界,但它可以展示世界,尤其是当世界发生变化时。”





这张照片捕捉了 1965 年中国长春工人住房项目中的一个瞬间。1961 年至 1965 年间,中国努力使社会和经济从先前的创伤中复苏。然而,意识形态的鸿沟和政治领导人的不同议程给百姓描绘了一个不可预测的未来。对于一个历经艰辛、乐于拥抱稳定增长的社会的国家来说,又一场风暴正在酝酿,这对于睡午觉的女孩和许多像她一样的人来说都是浑然不觉的。









不知午睡的少女从沉睡中醒来,是否感觉到了空气里的变化? ||





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