Chinese Man Hid “Negatives” Under His Floor During the Cultural Revolution

The New York Times has a fascinating interview with Li Zhensheng, a photojournalist who worked at a local newspaper in China during the Cultural Revolution. In addition to the “positive” propaganda photos he shot for his paper, he also captured “negative” photos that he kept hidden until decades later.

Most events I went to there were positive pictures and negative pictures. Some slogans were actually not all that positive but as long the crowd’s mouths were open and fists pumping air — that looks positive in the photographs. And I’d leave some film for “negative,” “useless” pictures. We were given film each month according to a ratio: for every picture published, we earned eight frames. I would process all my own film. And I did all my own enlargements.

[…] I knew I had lots of “negative” frames, so I would quickly dry them and clip them off, to not let other people see them. The only fear I had was the others would complain that I was wasting public resources, shooting pictures that the newspaper couldn’t use — and I would leave the positive ones hanging to dry.

I would put the “negative” negatives into brown envelopes in a secret compartment in my desk. In the spring of 1968, I sensed that I would be [searched] soon, I took batches of the negatives home every day after work. I sawed a hole in the parquet floor at home under desk and hid them there.

Li says he spent a week sawing the hole in his floorboards slowly, bit by bit, while his wife kept watch at their window. His secret photo collection is now one of the best records we have of what actually occurred in China decades ago.

A Panoramic View of China’s Cultural Revolution [NYTimes]

  • Jeremy Madore

    The unsung heroes of times past… the effort and risk this man (and his family) put into preserving these photographs cannot be assigned a dollar value, and what can be learned from it is priceless.

  • Daniel Austin Hoherd

    *awesome*. In this day and age, the equivalent would be encryption and innocuous transmission. Photographers should know storage and file transfer technologies.

  • Alan Dove

    Wow. In addition to the enormous personal risk this guy took, I’m amazed at his technical achievement. He got rationed 8 frames of film for every published photo, and also deliberately took some “negative” images at each event that he knew couldn’t be published. Nonetheless, he managed to get enough decent exposures and compositions (and few enough processing errors) to simultaneously stay employed and produce a separate, secret history of the events around him. Just … wow.

  • CaptainJackAubrey

    This is why I like Petapixel more than, say, DPReview, which would be filled with comments about the resolution and sharpness of his photos.

  • kendon

    so you figured you’d make a comment about the resolution and the sharpness of the pictures?