09 November 2017

The Making of China’s Contemporary Family Archive

09 November 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet

In her new book, Elizabeth Heyert positions herself as an outsider in, and more precisely as the observer of, Chinese society making up for the loss of their visual heritage during the Cultural Revolution.

© Elizabeth Heyert, from the book, The Outsider

Elizabeth Heyert is an experimental portrait photographer, known for having depicted people in their funeral bed, people looking at themselves in the mirror, and people sleeping. In each scenario, she watches and composes, but never directs. “I like the fact that a portrait happens outside of my direction. I only set up the situation”, she explains.

In her latest book, she pushed this approach further by portraying Chinese people photographing each other at various local landmarks, and unambiguously called this work “The Outsider”, as if to assess her role. A short fiction story by Madeleine Thien, featured at the end of the book, resonates with her being: “If indeed he was guilty of a crime, perhaps it was that he kept seeing, no matter how he tried to turn his head, what others told him was not there to be seen”, it reads. More importantly, the novel reminds the viewer of China’s historical context - it’s a country that the Cultural Revolution has deprived of its past. “The fact that an entire generation had no visual record of their ancestors was distressing and moving to me. It’s one thing to have somebody tell you about your history, and to have a photo. A photo brings the past to life”, she comments.

© Elizabeth Heyert, from the book, The Outsider

Observing these tech-oriented people restlessly taking pictures of each other, Heyert felt like they were making up for what was lost. Armed with a small film Leica camera coincidentally dating back to 1969, when Mao declared the Cultural Revolution to be over, Heyert strolled around families, couples and friends staging their environment to fill in their personal photo albums.

“I was curious about the pose, and the things they chose to surround themselves with, and how comfortable they are in this situation”, she explains. And what is striking about her photos is how uncrowded they are compared to the dizzyingly populated scenes one usually experiences in China. They subtly unveil an uncommon landscape. "As a student, I went to family gatherings and photographed them as a group. I was intrigued by the ritual. It is a very different experience to shoot a group picture as a commercial photographer.”

© Elizabeth Heyert, from the book, The Outsider

Far from taking on the role of a family photographer, Heyert captured these many relationships, in the same way they are unraveling in front of her by bringing together both the photographer and the poser, and even the occasional child who stepped out of his dad’s frame. “Nobody paid attention to me - except when I was loading films as they are not sold in China anymore. This way it’s only about them and what happens between them”, she describes.


The Outsider by Elizabeth Heyert

Short story written by Madeleine Thien // Published by Damiani, October 2017

96 pages, 43 black and white photographs                                    

$30 | £25 | €28



Elizabeth Heyert is a portrait photographer living in New York. Her photographs are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and numerous private collections.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes