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Chinese Eyes
By Ron Steinman


Here is a simple premise for a unique project. Hand out easy to use point and shoot cameras and one roll of film each, once a month, for a year to more than 250 people and tell them to go shoot whatever they want. The Nature Conservancy as part of its Photovoice project did just that with people of ethnic minorities from 60 villages in northern Yunnan Province. Called “Voices From South of the Clouds,” the American Museum of Natural History in New York City mounted an exhibition of 45 of the photographs and put them in the Akeley Gallery for viewing. The exhibition will run until July 23, 2006. The Nature Conservancy’s aim was to record the diversity of the many cultures in Yunnan Province through photos of the people and their environment, a way of life that may be ending through no fault of their own. Some of these people are already on the verge of disappearing and their ancient ways, particularly regarding religion, could become extinct.

The Eastman Kodak Company donated the simple cameras and the film the people used. They had classes in how the cameras worked and what they could do with them. Then the budding photographers, men, women, old and young, went out to record what they saw as important to their lives. And they did just that. They created a remarkable record of life as they live it. Life as they see it. As Photovoice explains, they then told the story of each picture, including “everyday life and work, religious rituals, and family activities, with a focus on their interaction with the surrounding environment.” All to “help guide the Conservancy’s conservation efforts in northwest Yunnan.” The photos are extraordinary in their approach, and their ultimate simplicity. The colors are surprisingly vibrant for cameras that sell in China for only seven dollars.


However, there is an added dimension, almost serendipitous, in its result. I lived in the Far East. I worked and lived in Hong Kong and in Taiwan. I traveled to, and worked in China. Though I spent months in China, I never saw enough of the country. We know of the massive industrial and economic changes in China as it becomes an unexpected world power with its form of government-sponsored capitalism. This exhibit shows there is another China still alive, yet struggling to survive the onslaught of modernism that is engulfing that massive country.

Seeing the exhibit and then viewing these photos, and reading the captions, it is easy to appreciate the variety of ethnic minorities represented here. Keep in mind, that some of these people have their own language and do not even speak Chinese. Ancient religious rites, once the spiritual essences of many people in Yunnan, are a shadow of what they once were. In their simplicity and splendor, these images are a view of life that we may never see again. That surely is worth the price of admission. The exhibition is a remarkable, unique effort of the Nature Conservancy, the American Museum of Natural History and the grant from the Eastman Kodak Company. Go now to visit the museum, savor the beauty of the photos, and enjoy the stories they tell while there is still time before what China is now destroys what China once was. Take advantage of this exhibition, and to whet your appetite, here is a representative selection of the pictures as a courtesy from the Nature Conservancy.

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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