In the 1930s, the young photographer ZHUANG Xueben leaves Shanghai to explore unchartered regions of Western China, absent from geographic maps and filled with an air of mystery. In the collective imagination they were inhabited by“barbarian cannibals”. He spent 10 years of his life in these remote parts, rarely visited before.
Thus, ZHUANG was a pioneer of visual anthropology, at a time when photography in China was practised exclusively in studio and not in the field. His works represent a real human and artistic journey into completely unknown lands and reveals unexpected truths about its inhabitants.
However, in the 1960s his work was banned in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and was soon after forgotten. Only forty years later, thanks to the relentless efforts of his son, these precious treasures of photography and anthropology are rediscovered and occupy today the respectable place they deserve.With the help of his pictures and his recently found diary, this documentary is first of all a journey into the unknown lands explored by ZHUANG Xueben. But it is also a present journey into those same lands, allowing us to see what remains unchanged and what has changed over a huge period of 80 years.
Through interviews with his son, a historian and a photographic publisher, we are able to rediscover the works of this long forgotten, audacious photographer as well as the people he dedicated much of his life to.