Haunting portraits of China’s surviving war veterans

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and as the few remaining Chinese veterans reach their 80s and 90s, time is running out to record their personal experiences of history. Photographer Li Qiang, a former photojournalist at the Beijing News and vice photo director at China Newsweek wanted to celebrate their contributions without glossing over their often painful pasts. After locating more than 50 veterans through archives and non-governmental organizations, he spent a month traveling to remote villages and towns in four provinces to photograph them.

Though his use of flash isolates his subjects and creates a somber mood, Li thinks their faces are the best expressions of the darkness and violence they’ve witnessed. “I want to capture the intimacy and natural side of them, the moment that could bring the readers into their memories, through their wrinkles, their eyes, instead of obvious things like scars,” he said via e-mail.

Li’s portrait sessions tended to be emotional experiences, and the veterans he photographed often burst into tears as they recalled difficult memories from the war and its aftermath. While veterans tend to be lionized in television depictions of the war, Li said, the people he met spoke more of cruelties and injuries than victories. Li hopes his photographs shed light on these complex realities while highlighting the veterans’ service and dignity.

“On my way to a veteran’s home, he passed away. The people in my photos don’t have much time left. I am happy I could do something for them, let them feel the respect from the whole society,” he said.

Li Qian’s photography work can also be found through the break-out Chinese photo agency Yihe Image.