Walter Bosshard in China: Documenting Social Change in the 1930s

Friday, 27.04.2018 – Sunday, 05.08.2018


Bag being passed to a mother and child in a rickshaw, China, ca. 1937 © Walter Bosshard

The University Museum and Art Gallery (UMAG) of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) will present Bosshard in China: Documenting Social Change in the 1930s  from April 27 to August 5, 2018. Bosshard in China offers a comprehensive sweep of black and white photographs and documentary films produced by Swiss photo-journalist Walter Bosshard. Living and traveling extensively in China from 1933 to 1939, Bosshard was one of the earliest journalists to record this critical decade in Chinese and world history.

The exhibition is organised into thematic sections that give insight into the photographer’s mind as he traversed myriad landscapes and social conditions, from Beijing to Lake Qinghai in western China; from the bombing of Hankou to Mongolian shepherds on the steppe. Apart from filming daily life, Bosshard also photographed and interviewed key political figures, including Mao Zedong in Yan’an, Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling, Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

Following earlier exhibitions at UMAG of Magnum photographers and their oeuvres in the West, Bosshard in China documents China’s landscape and its people during a time when China was undergoing significant sociopolitical upheaval. During this same era, photojournalism was developing into a serious mass medium of information, and Bosshard’s work in the 1930s was one of the primary means by which the Far East came to life across living rooms in Europe and America.

As Bosshard’s journeys through China are well documented, his imagery offers valuable contextual information. He provides views into a society—and now past—that benefits from the objective view of the camera lens. Bosshard’s work is of historical significance, as most Western photographers only went to China for individual assignments, but did not live there for extended periods. Many of the Chinese photographers were politically engaged or had been commissioned, which resulted in a more selective subject matter and consistent narrative.

Bosshard’s documentary photography and film are neither colonialist nor otherwise politically motivated. Though he lived alongside the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion, he did not take sides but rather let his images—both still and moving—capture the scenes unfolding around him. This phenomenon is remarkable, as traditional reports of political and military campaigns, and especially images of warfare, often aimed to communicate either nationalist or anti-nationalist sentiments. Bosshard documented urban centres and rural regions, peaceful everyday as well as wartime activities, and throughout all of these moments he strived to remain a neutral observer. His oeuvre presents a more holistic view of a country that was perceived internationally as highly important but altogether remained little known.

As photography and film began to dominate modern visual culture, and provided information and an entree to far-away countries and cultures, the work done by Bosshard served, and continues to serve, as a cultural mediator that provides access to an historical period irreversibly marked by complex layers of social change.

Location: University Museum and Art Gallery, HKU