Photographer Chin-pao Chen (陳敬寶) will become the first Taiwanese artist to be featured by the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film's annual summer exhibition in Arles, France this July.
Chen, 49, is an elementary school teacher and a professional photographer. He is an alumnus of New York's School of Visual Arts and first rose to fame with a series of documentary portraiture titled "A Moment of Beauty: Betel Nut Girls," in which he sought to capture candid moments in the lives of scantily clad saleswomen working in Taiwanese roadside kiosks.
He was born on the outlying island of Matsu and saw photography as a medium for documenting and sharing his growing urban experience and reflections on a rapidly modernizing Taiwan society.
For the Arles exhibition, the Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation has chosen his "Dengkong Project," a campus series that drew from Chen's experiences both as a teacher and a photographer. The title is derived from Dengkong Elementary School in New Taipei City's Tamsui District, where Chen has taught art for over a decade.
Interestingly, all the classroom scenarios are staged by willing participants in a theater-like reenactment where elementary students "act out" the most memorable and dreariest moments of their school lives.
"I keep watching daily life of students in campus," Chen explained. "I then re-stage them by choosing 'better' locations, and more 'suitable' students or characters. I might change the gestures slightly. I could add some properties if necessary."
This is because the "Dengkong Project" aims to challenge the reality represented by photography. Because if a photograph is just an image on paper, how can it be anything else but a message, an illusion, or someone's ideology?
"I don’t think I have to be faithful to the things themselves," he stated. "Artificial light is one of the elements I use to remind viewers the falseness or the drama in my pictures."
"By doing this, I believe I am partially dealing with memories toward my own childhood as well as the collective memories of my generation who were born here in Taiwan," Chen concluded.