Alum Alexander F. Yuan in PBS Newshour

These collages, made from hundreds of news photos, reflect on the ‘Chinese Dream’ (Text by Andi Wang)

Alexander F. Yuan, a former photographer for the Associated Press in Beijing, has long felt unsatisfied with the way people consume news. “Most people see news photos from newspapers on a day-by-day, piece-by-piece basis,” Yuan said, “It’s very separated. It doesn’t really tell the grand story or the big picture.” To try to tell a bigger story — Yuan spent much of the last year and a half looking through the thousands of photos he took between 2004 and 2014 in China.

The result of his effort was three collages comprised of hundreds of layers of elements drawn from Yuan’s news photos, each arranged around a different theme. He named the three-piece series “The Chinese Dream” in a reference to a political phrase coined by the current Chinese president Xi Jinping, who defined it as “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But Yuan’s collage work is quite a departure from the Chinese government’s interpretation of the slogan. In the collages, symbols that carry conflicting messages are placed side by side, evoking a surreal sense of irony. Top leaders of the Communist Party and political dissidents appear alongside scenes of air pollution and the logo of Google, whose service is banned in China.

In one collage, paramilitary officers drag a female protester. A few inches away, another officer rides on a two-wheeled scooter, a new vehicle employed by police officers to patrolin the capital’s Tiananmen Square.The image of the female protester was drawn from a photo that Yuan took in Beijing on March 5, 2014.

In another collage, a giant gate of the Forbidden City — the imperial palace of ancient China — dominates the center of the piece while showing visible cracks. Next to the cracks are photos of students who died in the the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, China’s worst earthquake in recent years, in which more than 5,000 students were crushed by collapsed school buildings.

After the disaster, parents who lost their children questioned why school buildings crumbled so easily. Many blamed mismanagement and corruption for low-quality construction and therefore their children’s death.

To Yuan, who taught himself photography during college, making the three collages was a deeply personal process.

The artistry involved tracing back his ten years working as a professional photojournalist in China, during which time he saw great economic changes taking place but also felt frustrated by China’s sluggish political reform.

After he graduated from college, Yuan covered a protest for a local newspaper in Beijing. While photographing protesters, who held knives and threatened self-harm outside a court, he was beaten to the ground by the police and dragged inside. “I learned from my professional work of photojournalism how to protect yourself, be smart, while getting the job done,” Yuan said.

He covered a number of major events as a photojournalist, including the search for missing Malaysian Airline MH370, devastating earthquakes in Sichuan and Qinghai, as well as a mass knife attack in China’s railway station.

Having worked in both foreign and Chinese media outlets in China, Yuan said there was tighter control on the latter by the government. “Photojournalists in China probably face more restrictions from the government, retaliation even, for the work they’ve done,” Yuan said.

Yuan said he has seen Chinese photographers try to push the limits on censorship, but more often than not, they succumb to pressure to refrain from publishing politically sensitive content.

“This is the sad truth,” he said.

See the first collage of the three-piece series on Yuan’s website: Click on different parts of the collage to learn more about the stories behind each component.

Collage I, “Harmonious Society,”

Collage I, “Harmonious Society,”