The incredible likeness of being

Beijing -- As odd as it may sound, I love photographing the annual National People’s Congress, the gathering of China’s huge legislature in the heart of Beijing. It not only gives me a chance to take pictures that to me capture the spirit  of the nation, it’s also one of the most unrestrictive places for a photographer to work in the People’s Republic.

The annual congress is actually what’s become known as “two meetings” -- a gathering of the National People’s Congress which is the nation’s parliament and also of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Together, they count for some 5,000 members, including politicians, the military, ethnic minorities. Their meetings last for 10 days and are held in the colossal Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in front of Tiananmen Square. Even with four of us covering it -- me with my photographer colleagues Greg Baker, Nicolas Asfouri and Wang Zhao -- there is plenty of work for all.

Security guards march before a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10, 2017. (AFP / Greg Baker)

When I think of China, there are a bunch of symbolic images that come to mind. The first thing that jumps to my mind, after three years of living here, is military-related -- a guard or a soldier. Apparently I’m not the only one, for these types of images also work well with clients, they’re the ones that tend to get downloaded the most. Obviously I take all kinds of images, but especially for an event like the annual People’s Congress, it’s important to have images that clients expect.

For a photographer, this annual gathering brings a special treat -- it’s the only time of the year when you can take pictures of soldiers and police at will, getting as close as you like. And they don’t say anything. Usually, they don’t like to have their pictures taken. A few days before this year’s gathering, I tried to photograph one, who was very clear what he thought about it...

A paramilitary guard gestures not to be photographed at the gate of the Forbidden City ahead of upcoming opening sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 1, 201A paramilitary guard gestures not to be photographed at the gate of the Forbidden City ahead of upcoming opening sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 1, 201 (AFP / Fred Dufour)

A huge gathering of bureaucrats may not sound like the best photo assignment. But this is China. The event is so well orchestrated that at times it seems like a scripted dance. The coordination of the smallest details is truly awesome to behold and makes for some impressive pictures, almost geometric in scope.

From the way the waitresses prepare the hall:

Chinese hostesses prepare for the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2017. (AFP / Wang Zhao)

To the way the waiters serve the tea:

 Chinese hostesses serve tea to delegates during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3, 2017. (AFP / Wang Zhao)


The staff are well aware of our presence -- every once in awhile they’ll relax but as soon as they realize that we’re shooting, they are back on their guard. Sometimes you get lucky and catch a contrast of ‘normal’ against this discipline:

 Security guards take a break as a man (L) sleeps during the second plenary session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2017. Security guards take a break as a man (L) sleeps during the second plenary session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2017. (AFP / Nicolas Asfouri)

And that’s another incredible thing about this gathering -- the freedom that we have as photographers. Once past security, we are basically left to our own devices. It’s a breath of fresh air in a place like China, where there are often restrictions put on the media.

The whole affair is such rich fodder for pictures. From the obvious, like the enormous red star on the ceiling, to the more subtle, like the pulling back of one of the curtains. For ten days, seemingly all of China’s symbols are gathered in one place and it’s a real pleasure to photograph.

(AFP / Greg Baker)
A delegate pulls the curtain to go to the second plenary session of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 8, 2017. (AFP / Fred Dufour)

 

The show of strength permeates the gathering. The delegates, for example, all arrive at the same time, hundreds of them in cars. And generally they leave at the same time as well. It really gives a sense of strength and force.

 

 Military delegates leave the Great Hall of the People at the end of the opening of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5, 2017.Leaving after a session. (AFP / Fred Dufour)

It’s the third time that I’m covering the gathering. You get more relaxed with each one. During my first one, in 2015, I basically just observed how things worked. During my second one, I could try some things. This time, I experimented some more, especially taking pictures of the exterior, to take advantage of the rare light. Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world, but during the annual gathering, the authorities order the city’s factories to cut down on their working hours, so that the sky can be a bit bluer. So it’s a rare chance to catch some good light outside.

Hostesses pose for a picture in front of the Great Hall of the People during the opening of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5, 2017. (AFP / Fred Dufour)
Hostesses jump as they pose for a picture during the opening of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5, 2017. China's rubber-stamp congress opened on March 5 in an annual pageant of Communist-controlled democracy. (AFP / Fred Dufour)

 

You are less stressed each time you cover the meeting, since you know what to expect. The first time, it was a bit much, since everything happens all at once -- the arrival of the busses and the military, for example. Now I know the schedule and the setting. So I know for example that the sun will be out at such and such a moment, so I can calculate my position and timing to try and get the best shot.

 

A security guard sits below a stairwell in the Great Hall of the People near the venue where Hong Kong delegates were meeting during the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 7, 2017. (AFP / Greg Baker)
 A security guard sits in a corridor leading to the Hong Kong Hall during the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 7, 2017. (AFP / Greg Baker)

 

When I look at our production from this year, I think that it really captures the heart and soul of the country in many ways. At least I hope so.

 

This blog was written with Pierre Celerier and Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Security guards sit on a balcony above delegates during a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10, 2017. (AFP / Greg Baker)

 

Fred Dufour