by Zhe Chen


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NOTE: This essay contains images that some viewers may find disturbing.

They left their lives in the very wounds they had created for themselves.

Virgil (Roman poet, 70BC – 19BC)

To jeopardize existence for existence itself: “Bees” recorded a marginalized group of people in China, who, faced with chaos, violence, alienation and irredeemable losses in life, feels propelled to leave physical traces and markings on their bodies, in order to preserve and corroborate a pure and sensitive mind from within. In 2010, having “The Bearable” (a photo series documenting my own self-infliction in the past 4 years) as my passport, I had the opportunity to develop a close relationship with some of these obstinate souls – the bees. During the process of exchanging secrets with them, I crossed path with certain possibilities that were formerly unachieved but towards which I had struggled greatly in my personal life. I’m struck by the unyielding actions and reactions they carry on with while encountering sudden and acute emotional fluxes, and moved by the recurrent effort they make to recover themselves afterwards. No matter how different our lives seem to be, we undoubtedly shared common psychological experiences.

Nothing named “abnormal” could be attributed to a certain definite cause. Just like how it is impossible to compartmentalize a chemical compound to identify its original constituents, our psychic is indivisible, the make-up of which consists in a network of chain reactions, instead of linear relationships. Cause and effect interact both as cause and as effect; One level of reactions closely influence another. Depression plants the seed of introspection. The bees take it in; They reason it, embrace it and explore it, forming an isolated universe in their own minds. These self-sustained universes contain every reason that explains the “abnormality” that no one who lacks in common experiences could decode.

I intend my photographs to inquire upon society’s prejudice and preconception towards this community, and not to become illustrations or pictorial evidence for the topic at hand: every subject is an individual, not just “one of them” – his or her life cannot be predicted or dictated by any constructed social code or notion. Not everyone is strong, some are just naturally more sensitive. When the dust settles, some wave their hands and walk away, and others soak it up and digest it. When they feel weak, the bees come up with a rather alternative solution to carry them through the hardships.

I hope a first glance of my work conveys the idea of secrecy and sentiments, under which lies information awaiting exposure and recognition: like an index page pointing towards all the unanswered questions. The viewers will never be in direct communication with these bees, unfortunately. They can only see the images and read the words. What is the best way to summarize the reason for our existence? After all, we are only human. I feel responsible to be part of this dialogue.

Editor’s Note – Antonio Marques

Struggling and coping are the main elements of this essay. Struggling with whatever life pushes your way, and coping… coping, albeit in an unorthodox fashion. Whether pain throws the proverbial and elusive lifeline, or just reminds each person they are alive it is a question that only each one of them could answer, but it is nonetheless a connection to life. Almost like a metronome marking the passing of time, events. Coping…

Zhe Chen’s photos portray each subject, affectionately called by Zhe “my bees”, in an extremely intimate way, and one that would not be achievable if not for a very high degree of empathy and stories shared between subject and photographer. Almost like showing a personal diary to a stranger, each bee has chosen to display their body to the sometimes cold scrutiny of the lens, each scar, each wound, both visible and invisible, a mark of times and events past.

“Bees” showcases some brilliant photographs telling a story of a group, a swarm, and still not alienating each individual, with a story of their own, told in each frame.

About Zhe Chen
Brought up in Beijing, China, Zhe Chen, is a photo-based artist currently living in Los Angeles. In the past four years Zhe has been documenting self-inflicted activities of her own and others, while creating a series of projects focusing on body modification, human hair, identity confusion, post-traumatic stress disorder and memory. Zhe is the winner of 2011 Inge Morath Award, Three Shadows Award and International Photography Awards. Her work has been published internationally.

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