Masses of Labourers: A View on Edward Burtynsky by Fangfei Chen

Written by NYPD on . Posted in London Photo Diary

Images courtesy of Edward Burtynsky

I always wondered why international photographers are drawn to the depiction of Chinese factories. Are they shocked by their scale? Do they wish to portray factory workers as robots? Or is it something else?

When I first saw this photograph by Edward Burtynsky I was attracted by its colour, the way it was framed and its interesting perspective. Bright yellow unites the image on a whole, from the uniforms, to the factory flags, and finally the factory itself.

The people are presented as part of mechanism. They are integrated, or perhaps, are forced to integrate. The bright yellow of the workers’ uniforms advances into the distance creating an illusion that the image is endless.

Growing up in China, Marxism was taught from a young age. However, until very recently, I had never read Marx’s original works. In schools Marxism is reduced down to small quotes on textbooks. Rather than reading the original text, we were asked to recite particular passages. Had I read Marx’s original texts I might have understood what this photograph was edging towards. Now, when looking at this photograph, a line from The Communist Manifesto (1872)

“Masses of labourers, crowed into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine by the overlooker, and, and above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.”

In many ways this quote could form the caption to Burtynsky’s photograph. Or maybe Burtynsky had this quote in his mind when he released the shutter? For me, the photograph visually encapsulates the exploitation of workers. And in the end, there’s a strange irony in the fact this image was taken in a country that instills Marxism in its children.

Fangfei is a Ph.D candidate of History at the University of Essex, with a primary focus on the research of photographic materials. She is from China and has an MA in Arts Market Appraisal from Kingston University, and an MA from the University of St. Andrews in the History of Photography. She has worked as Assistant Manager in the Beijing Huachen Photography Department, as well as working for several photographic archives such as in the University of St. Andrews. Her interviews and reviews have been published by Art Gallery, Art Guide and The World of Photography, among other publications. Her interests include the history of Chinese photography, the photographic market, management,  festivals and installation.

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