Documenting the Public: Contemporary Photography and Urban Space

6:30–9:30 pm
The University of Chicago Center in Beijing
Culture Plaza 20th Floor
59A Zhongguancun Street
Haidian District, Beijing, 100872


On September 6, 2018, the forum "Documenting the Public: Contemporary Photography and Urban Space" was held at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. As part of the 2018 Beijing Exploration Program’s course on “Public Space in Urban China,” the event aimed to explore how documentary photographers from different countries and backgrounds have related to public space. Following the formal presentations in Chinese and English, students, photographers, scholars from China and abroad, and members of the public joined together in a lively discussion of the topic at hand.

The forum began with a presentation by Bao Kun, a curator, photographer, and critic of visual culture, who offered an overview of the relationship between photography, modernization, and urbanization. Photographer Chen Zhixian then presented his ongoing project “The Square, 1984–2018,” which consists of photographs shot annually on the People's Square of Jincheng, Shanxi province. In the third presentation of the evening, Antonello Frongia, Associate Professor of History of Contemporary Art at the Università Roma Tre, introduced the work of the Milan-based photographer Marina Ballo Charmet. Frongia discussed one of Charmet’s works, titled “Soon After” (Poco dopo, 2005), in the context of classical and modernist representations of public spaces in Italian painting and photography. Frongia’s analysis connected the photographer’s stylistic choices with her training as a child psychologist and her writings on perception and distraction.

Yang Zhiyan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at University of Chicago, commented on the presentations and invited the audience to take seriously the question of what documentary photography is, taking into account its diverse modes and tasks. Yang’s commentary emphasized the difficulty of defining it on the basis of style and image content alone.

The event was organized by Paola Iovene, Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, in collaboration with Yang Zhiyan.