Natural and Unnatural Borders

I met Shen Xue Zhe (沈学哲) in Beijing in the spring of 2010. The first photographs he showed me were photographs of shops, streets and farms in his home region of the far North-East China, neighbouring North Korea. I very much liked him and many of the photographs, but felt that he had yet to produce a major body of work.

The next time I met him, I knew he had achieved something substantial with his photographs of the Tumen River. Like many inhabitants of the region, Mr Shen is ethnically Korean. Many Koreans fled during the Japanese occupation of the peninsula, to form a large ethnic population in North-East China. Mr Shen`s first language is Korean, and we usually communicate in Japanese rather than English or even via Chinese. Two major rivers form a natural border between China and North Korea - the Yalu to the South-West and the Tumen (or Dooman) to the North-East. Of the two rivers the Tumen is narrower and shallower, so appears to be preferred by those seeking to leave North Korea.

Mr Shen`s photographs are taken with medium and large format camera, standing in China, looking over the Tumen River into North Korea, a place where fellow Koreans live, including relatives, with a common culture and language, but a place he can never hope or dare to visit. But his camera takes him some way there.

We plan to hold an exhibition of this series at Zen Foto in 2012.


Hunchun Bridge, destroyed during the Korean War to prevent Koreans escaping into China.



On the far bank you may be able to make out a couple of North Korean soldiers. If not, you can always come and see the print.

From China you can walk halfway across the bridge. Better stop there, about face and return.

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