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Pictures of progress

Updated: 2012-07-10 09:17
By He Dan ( China Daily)

Pictures of progress

Four photos in a series depicting French amateur photographer Benoit Cezard's vision of China in 2050, when foreign workers take on jobs currently handled by Chinese migrant workers. Photos by Benoit Cezard

Pictures of progress

Benoit Cezard and his Chinese wife Liu Xuewei at their home in Wuhan, Hubei province. Provided to China Daily

My China Dream | Benoit Cezard

Benoit Cezard likes Wuhan so much he is teaching its citizens to look at their home with new eyes. He Dan reports in Wuhan.

He is a young Frenchman who grew up in Metz, a city in northeastern France. In 2006, he struck up a friendship with a young Chinese from Wuhan when they were at college together. That led to an invitation to visit the city - and a trip that changed his life.

"From the moment I touched down, I knew I liked it here and wanted to stay," says Benoit Cezard, 29, recalling his first impressions of the Hubei province capital.

Six years later, his love for the city and the country is stronger than ever, and it has become a major driver for his creativity as an amateur photographer.

A recent project is a series of photographs which he named China 2050, through which Cezard envisions China in 2050 as home to a vast wave of migrant workers taking up jobs such as street cleaners, construction builders and factory workers - except they are all foreigners.

The photographs are posed, and the models are drawn from Cezard's network of colleagues and friends, both Chinese and foreigners. They dress up to play roles ranging from street vendors to a demolition crew.

Why the odd vision? Cezard says he believes China's high-speed economic growth will attract increasing numbers of foreign jobseekers, and they, in turn, will eventually replace the millions of rural migrant workers dominating the labor force in Chinese cities.

"Chinese need to start preparing for this," he says.

Soon after he uploaded five photos onto the Internet in April, they stirred up both attention and controversy.

Responses were mixed. While some said the photos were "entertaining" or "ridiculous", others felt Cezard was pandering to the China image, and that he had "ulterior motives" in hyping up the "China threat".

Cezard disagrees with many of the comments, and says he was surprised by the reactions.

"I wasn't deliberately seeking the spotlight. I am happy to take the photos as a record of my life, experience and feelings," the Frenchman says, adding that Wuhan has become his new home, especially after he got married here in 2009.

Since moving to China, his lifestyle has undergone a dramatic transformation. He spent the first 23 years of his life in Metz, but now, his habits are more like those of a Wuhan native.

He starts the day with a bowl of reganmian, or hot dry noodles, a traditional Hubei breakfast. He then hops on a bus from his home to his classroom full of eager Chinese students all wanting to learn French.

After work, he wanders the alleys of Wuhan, camera in hand, and may stop to grab a bite to eat at the local food stalls when he gets hungry.

"I don't know why he likes this city so much," says Liu Xuewei, Cezard's wife. "As a native of Wuhan, I feel our streets are too dirty and noisy, and the locals always speak too loudly. But that doesn't bother him at all. On the contrary, he says it is lively."

For Cezard, what he sees, hears and experiences is inspiration for his photography, a hobby he picked up only after he came to China.

"Every day is different, and every day is full of new things," he says. "The streets are abuzz with people and cars. Everyone seems busy, but by nightfall you can see people sitting on roadsides, eating, drinking, and chatting with friends. These vivid scenes attract me most."

To support his rather expensive pursuit of photography, Cezard quit his teaching position at a local university and moved to a similar job at the Alliance Francaise de Wuhan. His teaching schedule here is a lot busier, but Cezard is not complaining.

"The moment I decided to stay in China, I was thinking as long as I could stay, I'd like to take whatever job available, even manual work. I believe many other expats have similar thoughts. We love China. We want to be part of the society," he says.

Cezard observes that many urban Chinese will not accept jobs that require hard labor, and these are left to migrant workers from the rural areas.

"They are not menial jobs, and I believe migrant workers are the backbone supporting the development of Chinese cities," Cezard says. "They are most diligent but also the most often overlooked in this country."

He hopes his photographs will highlight this fact and make the Chinese re-examine the discrimination against migrant workers. People from all walks of life should be treated equally, he believes.

It took him nearly a year to prepare for the China 2050 project. He designed the sets, recruited models and bought costumes and props - all with his wife's help. It cost him 400 ($63) to 800 yuan a photograph.

"Thanks to the almighty Taobao, I could find all the props," he says, referring to China's wildly successful version of eBay.

His wife, colleagues and friends became models.

"It was an interesting experience, although it's not something I could do for a living," says Remi Dubois, who appeared as a street cleaner in one of the photos. "One thousand people can look at the photos and walk away with a different understanding, and that's what amazes me."

Cezard says his art is an intrinsic part of his life in Wuhan.

"Photography means a lot to me because it enriches my life. It requires the investment of time and money, but it is a passion of mine."

Cezard is here to stay. He says he isn't done with China 2050, and he plans to continue working on the project. In fact, he is so accustomed to life in China that he says, if he were to return to France now, he would have trouble adapting.

Contact the writer at hedan@chinadaily.com.cn.

Zhou Lihua in Wuhan contributed to the story.

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