In 1980, Mike Emery was the first Westerner to photograph mainland China. With his historic collection now immortalised in a new book, the time to go back is certainly now.
Mike Emery took up photography because a mate advised him it would be an easier option to pursue in his arts and education studies than his original choice of abstract art.
He became absorbed by it and subsequently took a course in professional photography. As a fall-back position, he also gained a licence as a croupier for blackjack and roulette and thus gained a highly desirable combination of qualifications for a job on a cruise ship.
In the Spring of 1980 at the age of twenty-three, he was employed as both photographer and croupier on the Aqua Marine when it became the first cruise ship to take American tourists to China since its society was opened up in 1978.
The cruise itinerary comprised inland tours allowing Mike to visit Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and the Great Wall and take lots of photographs. He employed 1980s non-automatic equipment comprising two Nikon cameras, Kodak transparency and a combination of Kodak and Fuji negative film.
He photographed Chinese people of all ages who had never seen or heard of a camera before let alone owned one. As his odyssey evolved he became increasingly aware he was creating a photographic collection of a standing way beyond mere tourist shots.
Once the authorities in Beijing became aware of his activities they limited his scope to roam at will. In other cities, he was able to explore freely where no white man or camera had gone before. He captured the essence of Chinese society in an age of innocence where politics, the internet, fake news and consumerism were yet to intervene.
Mike realised that not only was he taking the first-ever photograph of some people but possibly the only one they would ever have taken. That’s when he started to appreciate the significance of his work.
He recorded a time and a place in Chinese society that largely went unrecorded and produced a photographic collection that is a rare snapshot of the era, perhaps even a pictorial record that is without peer.
It also constitutes a breath-taking collection of photo-art.
Some of the images from Mike’s collection were included in a gallery exhibition last year. They made such an impact that he was finally persuaded to include 125 of them in a showcase publication entitled China’s Children.
It is a fascinating illustration of both a moment in China’s time and also of Mike’s consummate photographic talent.
It depicts all China’s children, the elderly, the youth, the street vendors, the families, the workers and the kids.
China’s Children has received widespread acclaim both from historians and lovers of photo-art and Mike’s recent trip to China sparked a huge wave of interest. Its commentary is in both Mandarin and English making it a rare gift not only for Chinese citizens in Australia but also for Chinese friends and business associates in China.
Mike’s ambition is to reconnect one day with the people he encountered with his camera in 1980 perhaps with a view to recording where their lives have reached at another moment in time.
He has had an outstanding career in photography but believes that in China during the Spring of 1980 he reached a dimension in his art that he’s never quite managed to recapture.
China’s Children Photo-Art Collection by Mike Emery
can be purchased at www.chinaschildren1980.com