On liu yuan's works


Photographing the Socialist Road

Na Risong


I first met Liu Yuan at the Pingyao Photography Festival in 2008. His pictures of North Korea left a deep impression on me. Later, I saw his images of Cuba, which gave me an idea: why not compare images of the world’s two most unique socialist countries? Not long after that, Pixel magazine published a feature entitled “Images from Red Nations” with images from Cuba and North Korea. These distant countries have entirely different geographies and peoples, but there are also some startling commonalities.

A few years later, Liu Yuan traveled to photograph a few other former socialist countries, including the Czech Republic, Albania, Romania, and Russia. Every time he came back from a trip, he would show me the pictures. In 2012, Liu Yuan sought me out to curate an exhibition for the Pingyao Photography Festival. By that time, he had photographed ten former socialist countries in addition to North Korea and Cuba. We originally named the show “Photographing the Socialist Road,” but the organizers of the festival didn’t like the name, so we used “Images from Red Nations.” The space we used for the show was very interesting, because it was a factory filled with old blast furnaces. We painted the walls red, and we had to paint three coats before we got the right color. To create an atmosphere, we brought in an old TV and played Walter Defends Sarajevo, a famous Yugoslav film, on a loop. We chose nearly 200 photographs from 12 countries, presented on red walls. The pictures, combined with the rusting machinery and the music from the film, made you feel as if you had magically traveled through time. Liu Yuan won Pingyao’s Outstanding Photographer Award that year.

We also decided to edit a catalog for “Images from Red Nations.” The editing process took a long time. Two years passed, and during this time Liu also photographed Georgia, Mongolia, and Vietnam. With these two countries, Liu Yuan had captured almost all of the world’s past and present socialist nations, leaving us with tens of thousands of pictures. How could we choose which were going to end up in the catalog? Even after a rigorous selection process, we have still ended up with a very thick book containing more than two hundred images. This volume carries all of Liu’s complex emotions. In China, people his age have a strong emotional reaction to socialist imagery. The soundtrack to their youth was Komsomol Song, Katyusha, Moscow Nights, Hawthorn Tree, and other Soviet songs. When Liu travels to these present and former socialist countries, he is actually realizing long-held dreams.

Liu Yuan was a part of the generation of Chinese people that once had socialist revolutionary ideals. 

Today, he has become an independent photographer who travels the world; he lives in a villa in a city in southern China and drives his own Jeep. However, he still remembers those former times with great fondness.