Patrick Zachmann

Espace Photographique de Paris

There are over 100 photographs in this exhibit and nearly 150 in the accompanying book, which bears the initially baffling title W. ou L’oeil d’un long-nez (W. or the eye of a long-nose). The scale of this show somehow befits the ostensible subject: the Chinese diaspora. Patrick Zachmann, a member of the Magnum photo agency, spent eight years exploring Chinese communities from his native Paris to the Golden Triangle, by way of New York and San Francisco, Hanoi and Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Tahiti, and elsewhere (including a fortuitous visit to Tiananmen Square in May of 1989).

The wealth of images attested to Zachmann’s sustained encounters with the haves and the have-nots of the Chinese emigration: the well-to-do Westernized businessmen who all look alike regardless of where they happen to be making their fortunes; the workers of the world’s Chinatowns; ·the marginals of Southeast Asia’s drug and sex trades. If there was something unexpectedly harsh about the 70-odd, black and white photos with their disproportionate number of go-go girls, drug addicts, and Chinese godfathers, the rows of small color images that punctuated them like so many snapshots were perfectly garish, alternating picture-postcard views of night life and public ceremonies with equally oversaturated and artificial family portraits.

Whatever the register, from the epic of Tiananmen Square to the melodrama of the Golden Triangle to the kitsch of a San Francisco beauty pageant, the Chinese themselves, the diaspora experience, the particularities of one community or another remained singularly, frustratingly elusive. But Zachmann does not pretend otherwise. As his title makes clear, these photographs record what the “eye of a long-nose” (referring to the Chinese name for Westerners) was able to see in the “almost impenetrable universe of the Chinese.” And by way of visual demonstration, the very first photograph that greeted the visitor (and appears on the cover of the book) shows the bemused reactions elicited by the “long-nose” in Peking during his initial visit to China in 1982. “At the beginning,” he insists, “I had the best intentions in the world. But I didn’t find the intimacy I was looking for. The reception, the exchanges I had were very painful.”

This personal experience, which certainly haunted the exhibit but remained just as elusive as the Chinese diaspora, is developed more fully in the book, where the black and white images are complemented with handwritten commentaries in the form of a travel diary, plus a long first-person narrative that is literally bracketed by the color photos. The “W.” of the title, it turns out, is Zachmann’s true-false guide, a Cambodian-Chinese shopkeeper living in Paris who “initiated” the photographer in the early days of the project, sometimes accompanied him in his travels, then disappeared. W. is also missing from the photographs, but according to Zachmann, it was W.’s “very self-destructive, self-flagellating” vision of the Chinese diaspora that shaped his own.

For Zachmann, who came to the Chinese diaspora from another long and soul-searching project on Jewish identity in France (including his own), W. ou L’oeil d’un longnez “is above-all a reflection on the foreigner, on foreignness, the ability of each person to accept the other, and ultimately to accept himself.” But it is also a remarkable document on the limits of the photographic image. These visual traces of what Zachmann himself concedes was a largely failed encounter (“after seven years I don’t have one Chinese friend”) have the power to disturb, but they cannot in themselves explain. Any more than they can show the point of view of those who stand, reluctantly sometimes, in front of the camera. The story of the Chinese diaspora remains to be told, but as Zachmann’s experience suggests, there is a good chance that from the eye of a “long-nose” at least, it never will be.

Miriam Rosen