During a visit to her hometown of Yueyang, China, while buying fish with her mother, Amy Luo spoke to the fisherman selling it. It turned out that he was a member of the Dongting Lake people, a community of Chinese who live in boats on China’s second-largest lake, home to 10,000 people from six Chinese provinces. They eke out a living by fishing in the vast, polluted body of water. Although her hometown is near the lake, Luo had never heard of the Dongting Lake people, and when the elderly fisherman invited her to visit his family, she eagerly accepted.
Luo is drawn to marginal communities: in a previous series, for instance, she photographed Chinese sex workers in Flushing, Queens. The Dongting Lake people are battered by their circumstances: they are generally uneducated; the population is aging; the lake is polluted from factory waste; and fishing is forbidden for part of the year to protect the fish population. Life is hard. When Luo spent time with them, though, she discovered their sense of community, the way they bonded with shared rituals, their belief in mystical river gods – in short, she discovered their spiritual lives.
Ambiguity fascinates Luo, but as she lingers on her subjects, her portraits gain depth – they are subjective, reflecting her interpretation of her subjects, and I suspect that her portraits are as much about herself and her own search for her roots. Luo left China when she was 20, after studying literature in Beijing. She studied in Europe and the United States and returns to her country regularly. For her generation, born in the eighties, industrialization and globalization have brought rapid changes, which are both frustrating and exhilarating. In some ways, Dongting Lake and its people are a microcosm of what is happening in China generally. They are in a state of flux, and rapid urbanization has created serious problems, but the lake is also steeped in folklore and myth. Like China, it is both utopia and dystopia.