Document of a Dying Neighborhood

This Friday, photographer Robin Mas is holding a one-night-only, on-site exhibit of portraits that he took over two years in a traditional neighborhood in Gubei district — miles out West from anywhere most foreigners living here are willing to go. The area, which Mas refers to as "The Green Village" because of the predominant paint color on its buildings, is scheduled for demolition at the end of the month, so the photographs will be scattered throughout the "Village" for attendees to find on their own.

Explains Mas: "I wanted visitors to go around the village and hunt for the photos, trying to appropriate the space and break the barrier of unfamiliarity… just like I had to do while working on this project." He's also prepared an interactive digital map that visitors will be able to download onto their mobile phones in order to track down each piece and learn more in-depth information about each portrait. Here, Mas talks to CH about the project -- how it all got started, the drama that went down and what he got from the whole experience.

"When I landed in China 4 years ago, I was first staying at a friend’s house in one of those expat compounds of Gubei. Behind the tall walls protecting us from the ‘real life’ was this slum-y neighborhood that felt like it was almost as quarantined as we were..." "When asked whether she cared that the village would disappear, one woman responded: 'You foreigners are too sentimental, for us those buildings are like clothes: when they're too old, you change them.'"

"The place’s visual particularity -- the worn out green painted walls -- as well as this street liveliness you find only in those older streets, drew me to it. Upon starting to work on images there in 2011 and talking with the locals, it took a bigger signification: [about] to be destroyed anytime soon, it appeared to be a sort of ephemeral and constantly renewing microcosm that could live in autocracy, cut from the rest of the city..." "As a photographer, faced with this pool of faces and stories that come and go, the uncertain nature of their stay, I felt compelled to produce a memory of this peculiar human theater."

"The place felt quite hostile at first, like you had entered a forbidden world. So [at first] it was important to go there with a camera, but not shoot. Only talking. The response was mixed… The first day of shooting with all the equipment, an assistant, a huge and scary medium format camera… I faced an angry mob -- kids yelling that I was going to put it on the Internet to show the world how dirty China is -- and then the cops showed up. They just wanted to scare me away, but after that I learnt to keep a lower profile."

"Old men were urging me to shoot the Bund instead of this, some people would not pose at all, too shy or maybe they didn't see the point. Then I started hanging out with some families, reduced my equipment to a bare minimum, getting more personal… and had photos to bring back from one time to the other. [It later got] to the point where lots of people knew me, were asking when I would photograph them, volunteering and welcoming me… they even started calling me 'Chuchu.'"

"There’s a family I was close to -- the image "Mother," [with] a woman holding her son -- they've since left, and now I can never give them the photos. We’d gotten closer as her English was really good. She would tell me how she worries about her son being too 'fragile' for the local school to accept him, and I would see the little guy running around with his mohawk hair drinking Yakult all day… you know, those are details, but that's pieces of life. They make the photos dearer to me."

"This woman I photographed in 2011 was nowhere to be found. All residents would tell me she's around, but I never managed to run into her, until this one day where we -- me and my assistant -- literally tracked her down and found her house, woke her up to give her this two-year old photo." "I had never seen her again since I photographed her, but she was there, barely awake, taking the time to tell us about her life and share with us. This is why I do what I do, the links I establish with the subjects of the photos are often quick and superficial in appearance, but there really is something deeper and more significant to the 'photographic encounter.'"

"I’ve learnt a lot about the life of the 'village' and the residents. The buildings belong to old Shanghainese, mostly, and they will be relocated when the place is torn down. But all of the migrant workers seemed to have a very fatalist approach to life. Not in a bad way. They're not too concerned about what's next, they improvise. They're also very down to heart, they skip the drama."


Fun fact: on the equipment used, Mas tells us: "My pro DSLR, and a portable light kit with a softboxer [umbrella with diffuser], for this over-reality feel."

The Adios, Green Village exhibit will be held outdoors, in this neighborhood, located at Minhang Hongqiaozhen Hongliucun Caojiajiao at the intersection of Hongzhong Lu and Huagang Lu. It runs this Friday Sunday only, starting at 2pm. More details here .

Update: Exhibit postponed to Sunday, September 15 at 2pm due to heavy rainfall.

Robin Mas' commercial work, which chiefly covers portraiture and F&B in Shanghai, can be seen on his personal page here.

All images courtesy of Robin Mas