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Photographer from France snaps a few decades of change

China Daily | Updated: 2021-04-02 07:25

The moment when Yann Layma, a renowned French photographer, once again met Yang Naiqunjian, the subject of one of his photos taken in China 30 years ago, he was more than surprised.

The reunion, via an online video chat in early March, propelled the photographer's memory back to the day in a hillside hamlet of the Dong ethnic group in South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, when he took the photo of Yang. "At that very instant, we are connected to the past," says Layma.

Layma says that when he first encountered Yang, she was walking along a mountain path, shouldering a bamboo pole, with her two little sons each sitting in one of the baskets. She smiled at the foreign stranger, leaving an indelible image on the film behind Layma's lens.

To reconnect with Yang once again through live video chat "was a lovely surprise", says the 59-year-old photographer.

"Carrying children in a bamboo basket is our custom. It didn't feel like anything special back then,"Yang, from Tangchao village, Guangxi, says.

"This man, who looked really different from us Chinese, suddenly appeared," Yang recalls, noting that the two boys were so stunned by his appearance that they broke into a short wail.

During his last visit in 2018 to a Dong community in Guizhou province, Layma says he was impressed by its rapid development and current efforts to preserve local ethnic culture.

"I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos illustrating daily life in China's many regions that show the country's specificity and its changes," says the photographer.

Layma was among a handful of Western photographers who came to China in the late 1970s, when the country started to initiate its strategy of reform and opening-up. Over the following decades, he traveled across urban and rural China, and revisited many places to document the country and its people, yielding 600,000 pictures illustrating the profound changes in the lives of the Chinese people.

He recalls that in 1988, it took a whole day of bumpy driving and trekking to visit a Dong village from the nearest township. His foreign appearance ignited the curiosity of the whole village, and the photos he took in the Dong community caused no less of a sensation back in France, according to the photographer.

With extensive networks of highways and railways built around the Dong community, especially since 2000, tourists from other provinces in China and abroad increasingly frequent the region. Yang's children can now greet foreigners naturally.

Of one of his visits, Layma remembers: "The hotel was big and nice. Thirty years ago, there weren't really decent hotels there for travelers".

As a photographer, Layma has paid extra attention to the preservation of the Dong ethnic culture. He says that the region has made efforts in preserving the ethnic clothing and wooden architecture, as well as the Dong choral music, Kam Grand Choir, a polyphonic form of singing that was added to the World Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009.

Layma is proud of the photos of Yang and the wooden buildings, which brought a wider awareness of the small village."Great changes have taken place in the region, and I am very happy to see that their lives have improved," he says.


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