App Unlocks Xu Yong’s Never-Before-Seen Tiananmen Square Photos

The negative images in Xu Yong's Negatives can be seen in their true colors using a smartphone camera set to
The negative images in Xu Yong's Negatives can be seen in their true colors using a smartphone camera set to "inverted colors." Photo: Gilles Sabrie, courtesy the New York Times.

In his latest book, Chinese photographer Xu Yong shares never-before-seen images taken during the 1989 Beijing protests in Tiananmen Square, reports the New York Times. Titled Negatives, the book reprints the artist’s original film, presenting an eerie vision of the demonstration in dark, unnatural colors.

Over the years, the government has done its best to suppress the memory of the 1989 protests against the communist government, censoring history books, newspapers, and images that would make mention of the demonstrations and the violent response from the Chinese military. Even today, sharing these photos comes with a risk: several prominent artist and activists have been detained by the government over the past year.

Civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who represents dissident artist Ai Weiwei (see Ai Weiwei’s Lawyer Detained By Chinese Government), was arrested this past May after attending a Beijing meeting honoring the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests’ anniversary, while artist Guo Jian was arrested and deported for his piece recreating the square using ground pork (see Deported Chinese Artist Guo Jian Brings Meat Work to New York and Artist Arrested in Beijing Over Tiananmen Square Homage).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Xu is unwilling to publicly consider the political significance of his latest project. “This is an art book,” he told the Times. “I have no interest in discussing what they mean.”

Nevertheless, the photos, which can be seen in their true colors through a smartphone camera (simply change the setting to “invert colors”) speak volumes. The photos, which illustrate the peaceful, uplifting nature of the demonstrations, starkly contradict the official tales of threatening rebels.

The book will not be sold in mainland China, and even the photographer is having trouble getting his hands on a copy: a box of books sent to Xu’s home last week didn’t make it through customs, and was destroyed.


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