Kou Ren, Mouth People 2014

This series is the result of a success and a failure. It’s also one of my absolute favorite explorations of this world so far. The title comes from Chinese small talk, “How many people are in your family?” This line works wonders with taxi drivers. The direct translation is even more interesting, “Your home has how many mouth people?” In Pinyin (the made-up in-between Roman alphabet phonetic of proper Hanyu characters that was invented in the 50’s):

ni jia you ji kou ren?

你家有几口人?

I was teaching English at a Vocational High School attended largely by girls. Their majors of choice included: Air Stewardess, Secretary, and Manners and Etiquette. For many of these kids, I was the first foreigner they had ever spoken to in person. Aside from being an amazing, heart-warming, life-affirming experience, it was also a lot of damn work. On the day we ended up doing this project I had absolutely no lesson plan prepared at all. I had completely run out of ideas to keep them entertained (failure). However, I had just managed to track down the only photo lab in town that sold medium format color film and could both process the rolls and print them for me (success).

 Here’s how it works:

A camera and tripod is set up at the front of the class, film is loaded and English words are discussed. The students are then instructed to go in roster order, taking turns as both photographer and subject until every student is included or we run out of class time. They were given free rein in terms of posing, the only real rule (which was quickly broken) being that any negotiations between photographer and subject be done in English.

These kids spend an enormous amount of time together. They eat together, they study together, sleep and exercise together for years and years and years and many of them will go into the workforce at the same companies, together. They don’t change classrooms at the end of a lesson, it’s the teachers that come and go. They are assigned a roster order that is soon memorized by all, because it only varies slightly from year to year. They are an extremely tight knit group, much more of a clan than just adolescent classmates.

The resulting images are just absolute gold to me. From the quintessentially Chinese classroom setting, to the interactions between the subject and the rest of their cohort, and then on to the age-old connection between subject and photographer. I am blown away by the symphony of nuance and gesture. There is participation and non-compliance, the kid who had to go first, the popular kids, kids who weren’t ready, confidence, friendships, power struggles, dramatic poses and mistakes and laughter and teenage eye-rolling.

Is this maybe the only way to authentically document a community as an outsider? Am I empowering or exploiting? Does it matter that I didn’t push the button? What would it take to photograph a classroom in this style, in every country around the world?