Unintended Homecoming

Hai Zhang

Words and photographs by Hai Zhang

In the beginning, I was hoping I could use photography to help myself, and others, grasp the complexities of a country that I had been absent from in the past decade, and to get a sense of what it means to be Chinese today. But instead of getting a clearer image of these issues, I am often puzzled and frustrated by the misalignment between my imagery and my actual experience. It has become impossible to try to visualize today’s China while capturing the stark contrasts that define the everyday.

The photograph of a lone house in the midst of rubble and in the shadows of a skyscraper fails to communicate that the building owner had collected several million dollars as compensation for the demolition and moved overseas. Those that are invisible are the now-homeless migrant workers, who could only afford a room in such a building.

It is not uncommon to see a crowd being chased by policemen for selling black market train tickets for a profit. But no one knows that most of these people are workers who just lost their jobs in nearby factories. I photographed an almost uninhabitable shabby room, which was in fact the last refuge for a migrant worker’s children. A month after the picture was taken, the family of five moved into a 20sq metre room that could only fit one bunk bed.

Facing the complexity of these stories, photography appears inadequate. Perhaps beyond documentary or visual evidence, photography should not give answers but raise more questions.


“Facing the complexity of these stories, photography appears inadequate. Perhaps beyond documentary or visual evidence, photography should not give answers but raise more questions.”


Unintended Homecoming represents a journey to thoroughly photograph what I encountered while wandering across China. It is my attempt to grasp the life experience of others and of myself before those memories become diluted. Rather than a journey of discovery, this project uncovers layers of a society that makes me feel both familiar and alien. I hope that I can one day turn the camera back on me. I would see myself in these situations and be able to reconstruct my own identity as Chinese and to understand the country in which I am rooted.

Hai Zhang was born in Kunming, China in 1976. In 2000, after his graduation from college in Chongqing, he moved to the US. Since then, Zhang has lived in Alabama, Miami, Washington, DC and New York City. Zhang is interested in photography as a vital tool for investigating context; the alien and the familiar. In 2013, Zhang has his first major solo exhibition at La Galerie Voies Off, France. The following year the Luise Ross Gallery in New York also mounted a solo exhibition. Zhang was nominated for the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize 2014. Zhang’s work also featured in the Bursa International Photo Festival (2012), Chobi Mela VII (2013), Aphaisa (2005), and America Through A Chinese Lens (2012). Currently, Zhang commutes between the US, China and Europe.

nineteensixtyeight presents a selection of 13 images from the series Unintended Homecoming, available to buy in our shop.

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