At the recent Frieze New York Art Fair, Chi-Wen Gallery (Taipei) presented two black-and-white photo series by Austria-based Taiwanese photographer Chien-Chi Chang: “Escape from North Korea” (2007–11) and “China Town” (1992–2011).
Born in Taiwan in 1961, Chang studied at Soochow University, China, and at Indiana University, USA. He joined Magnum photographic cooperative in 1995 and became a full-time member in 2001. Perhaps best known for his early work “The Chain” (1993–99), a collection of full-body portraits of men and women chained together in pairs at a mental asylum in Taiwan, which explored concepts of those marginalized and dispossessed.
In 1992, Chang began the ambitious project titled “China Town,” which documented the lives of illegal immigrants in New York City’s Chinatown. Many of the immigrants are usually restricted to finding work in Chinatown due to their language barrier, and would toil long hours in dingy sweatshops, restaurant kitchen, and dirty laundromats, among other places. Having left their families behind in Asia, these men generally stick together and find the cheapest lodging. It is here in Chinatown tenement homes where Chang spent most of the time documenting these immigrants’ lives, listening to their stories and gradually forming close relationships with them.
It is admirable of Chang to continue this project over the past 20 years. He not only follows immigrants in New York, but also returns with them to their hometown, to cities such as Fuzhou, China. This ongoing work was first exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore in 2008 as part of a mid-career survey titled “Doubleness,” as well as at the Taiwan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2009.
Similarly, in 2007 Chang began to document North Korean defectors from Northeast China to Thailand, which has culminated in a body of work titled “Escape from North Korea” (2007–11), which won the Canadian AnthropoGraphia Award for Human Rights in 2011.
Recently, the artist has begun working in moving images, which has added to an extra dimension to his stilled photography.
Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.