Lu Nan’s insights into China – and life

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“In 15 years, not a day went by when I didn’t question my own work,” says Chinese photographer Lu Nan, in an interview included in his new book Trilogy. “That’s why I scrutinise what I was doing by means of reading. This mode of assessing action through thought and assessing thought through action helped me to complete these projects. 

“The trilogy is concerned with human beings. I hope that by looking into real life, I’ll find something fundamentally and enduringly human.”

Lu Nan isn’t well known outside China but this book, his first in English, should change all that. It collects together three projects he shot over 15 years – The Forgotten People, a look at the lives of Chinese psychiatric patients, shot from 1989-1990; On the Road, a look at the lives of Catholics in China, shot from 1992-96; and Four Seasons, a look at the lives of rural Tibetans, shot from 1996-2004.

These microcosms are apparently very different and yet, to Lu Nan, they’re intimately interrelated. Inspired by image-makers such as Josef Sudek and Sebastiao Salgado and extremely well-read, Lu Nan says the three projects represent the three states of life – The Forgotten People is about suffering and adversity, On the Road purification, and Four Seasons about a blessed, serene state. “As life unfolds, we all get a taste of these three life states to a greater or lesser extent,” he explains. “The soul’s paramount wish is to get away from suffering and, through purification, find its way to a blessed state of peace at heart. This wish is what connects the three parts together.”

“Goethe said that as long as we’re on the right path, there will be an intangible hand helping us,” he adds. “In 15 years of shooting for this trilogy, everything I experienced proves the truth of his statement.”

Trilogy by Lu Nan is published by GOST Books, priced £100 Lu Nan is a correspondent of Magnum Photos

Psychiatric hospital, Beijing, 1989. From The Forgotten People © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
The grounds of a psychiatric hospital, Shanxi, 1990. From The Forgotten People © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Psychiatric hospital, Guizhou, 1990. From The Forgotten People © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Old woman with lamb, holding a cross. Shaanxi, 1992. From On the Road © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Tibetan church members on the Lord’s Day, Yunnan, 1993. From On the Road © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Old couple at evening prayers, Shandong, 1993. From On the Road © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Girl with her grandmother, Tibet, 2001. From The Four Seasons © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Two men at harvest time, Tibet, 2002. From The Four Seasons © Lu Nan/Magnum Photos
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy