China is often depicted as a 1.3 billion-person industrial army, marching around the world stealing jobs. If this is a gross, inaccurate caricature—and it is—what does China truly look like? Or more precisely, whom? Swiss photographers Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer traversed the nation to find the faces of this resurgent economic giant. Their portraits capture the old establishment and the new, rich and poor, tycoon and laborer. Together, they form a picture of a complex, diverse country wrestling with confounding growth—and unprecedented change.
We had never been to China before. We saw this as an advantage, to go see with fresh eyes—and we wanted to portray China by showing its people. So we bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Beijing, packed our equipment, and hired a local assistant. Every day, we traveled on—in nearly eight months, 20,000 miles.
Some days, it was like time travel. In the countryside, we met people who lived life as it was hundreds of years ago—no power, no water, traditional family structures. There's still a lot of poverty. In the cities, you can feel the wealth. Arriving in the city was like arriving in the future.
We were arrested three times. The first time was shocking: We took a picture of a mechanic, young and in dirty clothes. People were watching us because it looked like a movie set, with our large-format camera and lights. Suddenly they had the impression that this may not be good for the image of China. They called the police, who came and confiscated our equipment and asked: Why did you take the picture? What is this equipment? They wanted us to give up our digital files, to delete the pictures. But we shoot large-format film, and they had no idea how that worked.
Before we went, we had the stereotype of the Chinese as all the same. A huge mass. The gray Chinese. But it was the total opposite. The people in the north are as different from those in the south as in Europe—like Scandinavia and Italy. There's also a stereotype that the Chinese think en masse. But we were told that everybody fights for themselves—or at maximum, for their family, their business partner, their next of kin. We heard it over and over again: We are too many. We have to be egotistical. One day, we saw a Tibetan mother with two little children. Their car was stuck in the mud. We told our assistant to stop. He refused. We had to order him: "You stop, we help. Now." He said, "Why? I don't even know that woman."
There was a big generational difference. People over 60 lived through the Cultural Revolution, and the middle-aged people we met were more critical and more analytical of what is happening. The young—those in their twenties, the one-child-policy babies—are focused on consuming. They have such a different lifestyle. We were surprised how much more nationalistic they were, without being very critical. It was such a journey of contrasts.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.