Never before seen images of June 4 Tiananmen protest published as negatives

Never before seen images of June 4 Tiananmen protest published as negatives
Smartphone needed to view as positives the images by Xu Yong, which the Chinese photographer insists are art and a way to examine the events of spring 1989 that makes readers interact

Bernice Chan

A negative image of the goddess of democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989, shot by Xu Yong. CLICK ON IMAGE TO LAUNCH PHOTO GALLERY.

As you flip through the latest photography book by Chinese artist Xu Yong, it seems strange to be staring at colour negatives of scenes from demonstrations in Tiananmen Square during the spring of 1989. Nothing makes immediate sense. But the jacket cover instructs readers to use their smartphones and change the settings to “invert colour” or “colour effect – negative” – and suddenly images come to life of protesters holding up banners and shouting slogans beneath the portrait of Mao Zedong on the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

A smartphone set to reverse colours is used to view the original images in Negatives, a book by Xu Yong. Photo: Antony Dickson

Negatives is an art book, says Xu, adding: “I have no interest in discussing what the images mean.”

Indeed, when the publisher of New Century Press in Hong Kong, Bao Pu, originally wanted to release the book to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown last June, Xu insisted the subject of the book wasn’t important, and he wanted to avoid launching it on an anniversary, lest people “attack the book’s meaning”.

“I respect his strong feelings for artistic expression. I compromised and had the book printed in December last year,” says Bao. “He was very meticulous before we printed the book. Xu did the scanning professionally. He was concerned about the quality of the images. He made the scans himself and treated the colours.”

“I have no interest in discussing what the images mean,” Xu Yong says.

“If it was printed in ‘positive’, then you would just look at the images and lose interest,” publisher Bao Pu says

The two met through mutual friends last spring after Xu finally decided to publish the negatives for the first time.

“I met him for the first time when he came to Hong Kong twice, for a week each time,” Bao recalls. “He came when we were getting the book ready for the printers, and then came again to make sure the colour was right.”

Bao Pu. Photo: Reuters

The printing and effect is strictly according to the artist’s wishes, says Bao, adding: “It’s not a normal book.”

Xu had just quit his job in a state-owned advertising company in the spring of 1989 when students took to the streets in Beijing, demanding an end to corruption, less censorship and more freedom. The unprecedented movement inspired the avid photographer to take about 500 rolls of film, but in the end, he chose only 64 images for the book.

The images show thousands of people congregated around the square, holding up posters; people with bullhorns shouting slogans; tents set up; and then the last negative in the book is an ominous, blurry photo of a tank.

When the books were printed and distributed to bookstores, Xu wasn’t happy with the cover, and the publisher had to scramble to recover all the copies and reprint. It was finally released in February. Bao says the cover only looks slightly different from before.

“When you use the smartphone, you feel like the artist is speaking to you with this interaction,” publisher Bao says.

“We’ve had requests from European dealers about the book,” Bao Pu says.

Having the reader use a smartphone creates interaction with the book. “When you use the smartphone, you feel like the artist is speaking to you with this interaction,” Bao says. “You choose where you want to go and see all the details because the scans are in high resolution.

“If it was printed in ‘positive’, then you would just look at the images and lose interest because these are pictures you’ve seen before. But since the book is printed this way, you feel the need to spend time examining the photographs in front of you. It’s an interactive feature I’m proud of. It’s welcomed by the artistic community. We’ve had requests from European dealers about the book.”

Xu made the negative scans himself and treated the colours.

Xu is no stranger to controversy, although not with political themes. In the late 1980s, he took haunting black-and-white photographs of Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways, capturing them before they were knocked down for redevelopment. Most recently he followed a prostitute for 24 hours, taking pictures of her face at various times of the day.

He was also one of the main activists who pushed for an abandoned munitions factory in Beijing to be turned into an art complex, which is now known as 798 Art Zone.

Xu Yong shot about 500 rolls of film at Tiananmen in 1989.

Xu is pushing boundaries again with Negatives, although he insists that what he’s done is art. “He took the photographs 26 years ago, but he has never printed photos from the negatives before,” says Bao. “We want to preserve the negatives as they are. It also illustrates he cannot print positive photographs on the mainland.”

Xu says digital photos are easily manipulated, so they lose credibility compared with negatives that can be admissible as evidence in court. “We interpret these images as a record of what happened. Xu considers that they are a form of expression,” says Bao, who adds the book’s subject matter is too important not to publish.

“It’s not a normal book,” publisher Bao says.


Cheng Yee-man – co-founder of C&G ArtPartment, which promotes local artists and exhibits political art – says Negatives is an interesting project, and understands Xu may be concerned about drawing attention from the authorities. Even so, Cheng thinks the pictures should be published in positive.

“It should not be necessary to use a smartphone,” he says. “It’s too much; it needs to be accessible to everyone. If you have a good photograph, viewers will take time to appreciate it and examine it carefully.”

Because the book is printed in Hong Kong, Bao hasn’t been able to send copies to Xu by courier. He tried once, and the shipment was nearly confiscated.

“The courier company is forced to act as a Chinese censor,” Bao says, clearly frustrated.

“We told them to send it back, but they said we would have to pay more. We had already paid a lot to send it and they didn’t even deliver it to the artist, and then we had to pay more to get it back. It’s one of those headaches.

“It’s just an art book.”

Negatives is available from Green Field Bookstore, price HK$320

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Negative approach

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 6:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 June, 2015, 11:22am

#June4   #TiananmenSquareCrackdown

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Robert Chaen

Global CEO-Founder of ChangeU and Movsha Movers & Shakers, Hero-CEO Whisperer, Writer, The #1 Alpha Change Expert, Father of Asian FireWalking Robert Chaen is an International Keynote Speaker, writer, researcher, and corp games designer. He is famously known to be the “Hero-CEO Whisperer”, 1-on1 coaching with many CEOs and Celebrities for corporate strategies, staff & office political issues, personal branding, and even public figure OSHA safety drilling called Drager Defense. He has transformed CEOs and managers in Coca-Cola China, TVB Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airport Services, VADS, TM, Public Bank, Auditor General's Office Maldives, etc. He is the prolific creator and online Author of innovative management tools such as DragonCEO, Diamond Leader, Papillon Personal Effectiveness, OSHA Drager Defense, KPI Bank, etc. He is also the Founder of Movsha, an international networking with monthly mingles with MOVers & SHAkers, Angels, Entrepreneurs, CEOs, Celebrities, HR-PR-CSR, HODs, and the Most Influential IDEA people. ​Chaen is widely considered as one of the top International Platform Keynote Speakers for Resorts World Genting Senior Management Conference (Manila), 7-Eleven HK, Samsung, Coca-Cola China Mini-MBA @Tsing Hua University, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Jockey Club, The Story Conference where he interviewed Datuk Kamarudin (Chairman of AirAsia) and Siti Nurhaliza. He has been widely featured in TVB, AWSJ, CNBC, SCMP, The Star, and Sin Chew. As “The Father of Asian FireWalking”, he coached TVB celebrities (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin) to walk on 650°C fire; and raised HK$68M in the world’s 1st and only live TV Charity FireWalk (TVB Tung Wah Charity Show), before Tony Robbins even came to Asia. If Robert can get you to walk on 650⁰C fire, he can inspire you to be THE BEST. He champions CN-HK-EU-US Tycoons to be philanthropic, and to be angel investors to support the next generation of Jack Mas, Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons, Steven Spielbergs, or Barrack Obamas. With some slick motivational speakers with fake doctorates out there, graduates often describe Robert to be "the most credible, empowering, truthful Coach" who believe in his graduates to believe in themselves. ​However, clients have described Robert as "The #1 Cool Badass Alpha Change Expert". He has the coolest first class stature, rapport and trust from clients. He will not hesitate to tell the badass truth ever so gently because clients are paying him big bucks to reveal the truth, find solutions, persuade the hostile HODs, and align cross-teams within the organization. Originally based in Hong Kong for 20+ years, he had worked with top Branding/Ad agencies at J Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett, and was a certified FranklinCovey (7 Habits) in USA, and NLP MasterCoach (USA). His warmth is known to soften the most hardened, resistant sceptics. He will inspire your team to Go for Top 1, or to be a Dragon CEO. With boundless energies, Robert owns 15+ successful business Joint-Ventures, and created unique products under his global VC network called Chaen's Angels VC. He is deeply passionate about ChangeUTH Youth CSR, Science-Based Medicine (vs. quackery), short films and Reality TV. Touched by a personal tragedy through the loss of his HK-born Portuguese wife, co-coach and business partner, Brenda José of 18 years, Robert explores the many ways in which the spirit world is communicating with the living with real scientific studies and evidence. He gives inspiring conferences on The Secret Afterlife.

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