The Myriad Transformations comprises sixty-four images that I created using photographs taken between 2002 and 2010. These dates are arbitrary but not random, marking the purchase of my first digital camera (August 2002) and the decision to my rudimentary photoshop skills to create a project to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (during an artist residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, December 2008-January 2009). I finished the images in 2010. In the process of saving and transferring these files to smaller drives with larger storage capacity, many of the original photoshop files were lost. What remains as a complete set are the files I created to print photographs of the images in 2011 or 2012. I reopened one of these files in January 2019 and realized they were more interesting in retrospect than they had been when I made them precisely because over the past decade (2010-2020), Shenzhen has re-invented itself yet again, and suddenly, abruptly, we see the latent structure of today in images that once upon a time seemed definitive, eternal even.
I created these images from photos that were taken as I walked the city from 2000 through 2010, the decade when Shenzhen not only reinvented itself from a manufacturing to a creative city, but also integrated its disparate parts, enabling the cultivation of a solidly “Shenzhen” identity. In 2000, Shenzhen was still divided into the “Special Zone” and its peri-urban suburbs, there were still manufacturing zones downtown, and “downtown” still referred to Luohu sprawl from the train station to the Shanghai Hotel. In fact, before 2003-04, when the city stopped enforcing checkpoints between the Special Zone and “the interior,” many migrants to Shenzhen would say that although they worked in Bao’an or Longgang, nevertheless they “had never been to Shenzhen.” By 2010, however, the inner and outer districts had been integrated, manufacturing had been pushed beyond downtown’s respectable borders, and in there was no longer a well defined “downtown,” but rather a stretch of high rise urbanization that stretched from Luohu to Nanshan and a nascent CBD in Futian. As I write today, no one questions whether or not Bao’an and Longgang are part of Shenzhen—the city has, for better or worse, established a monolithic version of itself.
Each week for the next sixty-five weeks, I will publish one of the images along with commentary and supporting pictures. These entries should be understood as rough drafts in an ongoing project of coming to terms with the city. I have chronicled Shenzhen’s transformations first as a graduate student and then as foreign resident, reinventing myself as a “creative ethnographer.” Indeed, first approaching the city through photographic walks and then using these images to create ethnographic montages enabled me to imagine myself using anthropological research outside the academy.