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All China’s Fast Food Dreams

Beijing, April 2013. A drunk man sleeps over in a fast food nearby Guijie.
All China’s Fast Food Dreams – a mobile photo project,  photo essay by Sabrina Merolla

There are plenty of well-known foreign franchising fast-foods in every Chinese mega-city. McDonalds, KFC, Burger King – they all arrived in the late 90s and their restaurants bloomed everywhere.

Only thirty years ago McDonald’s was almost unknown in Mainland China. But then ‘Market Socialism’ started up a throughly capitalistic revolution named ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, whose ideals of general economic wealthiness born with Deng Xiaoping founded today’s newborn ‘China Dream’.

During the last decades fast-food restaurants have been witnessing to a revolution of contemporary Chinese families’ structure and life. Proposing cheap American foods and dreams (a different life-style model for the new consumers) they have become part of urban spaces for an innumerable mass of people. Moreover, they have become recognizable familiar simulacra for both, the local and the outsider. But hidden in every anonymous compound of skyscrapers, they have also surged up to an unspoken new role, they have become shelters.

Fast food sleepers are a common presence in every fast-food chain in China. Young jobless migrants looking for luck in the megalopolis, homeless grannies left apart from the new society, young students going to the big city for university admission tests, drunk men and women who just do not want to go back home tonight, lunatics and, in general, anybody who cannot afford the price of a cheap hotel room and is looking for a warm night refuge. They are all here, poignantly showing the tale of to Chinas, hidden behind the curtain of every and any new development plan. They are all here, quietly wrapped in the surreal atmosphere of anonymous non-places, for a silent night of a day as the others, which slips away again.

Beijing, March 2013. A student sleeps in a Western fast-food chain in Wangfujing night market, not far from a long-distance bus station.
Beijing, March 2014. A man is reading the news in a foreign fast-food at 4 a.m., then he falls asleep.
Beijing, February 2014. Some young boys sleep over a fast food in downtown Beijing.
Beijing, January 2013. A young man sleeps for six hours in a fast food near Beixinqiao, then goes to work to the office.
Beijing, October 2013. Two farmers sleep in a fast-food inside the Central Station, while waiting for tomorrow’s train back to Henan Province. They have to wait for more than 24 hours but have no money to waste.
Beijing, October 2013. Commuters, farmers and workers sleep over a fast-food inside Beijing West Train Station.
Beijing, March 2014, in a fast food near Anding Men. A young woman talks, laughs and cries to herself for more than one hour, then takes a sit and falls asleep.
Beijing, March 2013. An old homeless lady sleeps over in a fast food nearby Gulou for more than three months. Waiters say she possibly used to live in the nearby hutongs (Beijing’s little alleys) that are being “renovated” lately.
Beijing, January 2014. In Guijie Food Street a migrant waiter of a Western styled 24hours hot-pot fast-food is exhausted and falls asleep with her head on the table.

Q&A with Sabrina Merolla

Photography is…

Well, there is not only one answer to your question…

Now as now, to me, photography is life. It is part of the person I have become. It is the way I see the world and depict it. But I have not always dedicated to photography, to be sincere.

Possibly photography has always been a spell to me, as when I was a little girl and my father locked the door of his studio, to play with acids and photographic rolls. Actually I still do believe it is all about the mystery of light and the magic chance to preserve a scene, drawing it with lights and shadows -this thought always astonishes me. I remember that the first time I entered into a darkroom I felt like becoming smaller and smaller -as Alice in Wonderland. I felt like getting inside an enormous photo camera, having the chance to observe what happened in that magic box. It was astonishing and brilliant at the mean time!

But, as I have just said, I have not always been a photographer. Instead, I have been a researcher and a translator for years and photography was just a hobby, coming years later than music, writing, drawing and painting. I basically became many friends’ rock bands’ official photographer and got published, on times to times. But never thought about it as a future job or my destiny.

Then I moved to Shanghai in 2005 (I am a sinologist) and something changed. I did not shoot any picture for almost one year and got almost depressed, for many personal and intellectual reasons. But one day I was offered a very cheap second-hand digital Fuji camera and soon started to shoot rough black and white street pictures, only for myself. It was the first time I was shooting exclusively for my own self and my own pleasure and it was releasing and addictive! I guess it was my way to keep in touch with the real world around me. It was both, a way out of my alienation and a way to keep memory of the incredible country and people around me.

The camera followed me everywhere. Then some collaborations with local music zines and bands came over again. But I kept shooting on my own street pictures and finally started to exhibit those personal projects only in 2010, in Italy.

When, at the end of the same year, I decided to quit almost completely with research and move back to China again, the only thing I wanted to keep from my past was photography.

Photography and writing…

Photography already is writing -with the light- and as writing it can be pure art. It is the bless of a moment, a snapshot out of time and space. Moreover, photography and writing also have the privilege to choose to preserve a specific event in the time and space. They give us the chance to narrate stories, which can be completely invented, but also real. The power to keep memories, to document and denounce reality, is characteristic of the both of them. A series of photos can always be a chronicle and being a photographer is always being a story-teller to me.

Nowadays I am personally paying much more attention to this aspect of my job. The very reason why I quit with research was that it sounded nonsense, as an anthropologist, to study the world, never really communicating to the people of that very world the results of my researches. Since I was tired of ivory towers, I decided to quit and devote myself to documentaries. This happened slowly, only few years ago.

I basically believe that what touches and compels me, as a human being, needs to be told and repeated, many times and in many different ways, to bring attention and, possibly, change. By the end, it is not completely different from what I dreamed to do before.

Who left the biggest impression on you?

It is difficult to answer. There are hundreds of photographers I deeply admire.

Talking about street and black and white photography, Daido Moriyama and Lu Yuanmin deeply impressed me since the very start. But Michael Ackerman and Jacob Aue Sobol are among the ones I can deeply feel under my skin.

By the way, talking about myself, the woman I am today and the way I would like to use my photo and multimedia skills for the future, Sim Chi-Yin, Ami Vitale and Linsey Addario are the perfect examples to be followed. I would like to add that the very persons who left the deepest impression on my ethic, during these last years, are Sharron Lovell, D.J. Clark and Dave Campbell -my quite unique teachers at Bolton University Master in International Multi Media Journalism, in Beijing; as well as the Neapolitan photographer Luca Anzani, who educated me during my transition and, above all, is a very good and patient friend.

Tell us a little about yourself

Well, I think I have already talked a lot about myself!

What I was possibly hiding from you is that I have just restarted to edit previously unpublished projects and to shoot pictures, now, after a pause due to health problems. In Beijing I manifested fibromyalgia and multiple chemical sensitivity (because of pollution, it seems). I am living in Naples, Italy, now. Photography -actually mobile photography- lately saved me from hell again and led me to exorcise my last two years through the build of a personal visual diary about my own experience with fibromyalgia. Now I am editing it. Meanwhile the project and my personal story proceed on.

I am also slowly shooting a documentary about an amazing group of refugees I met here in Naples. As it usually happens to photographers, I am not always sure of the real contribution I will give to their condition, while I am still shooting. But what I am quite sure about is that they all are helping me a lot. They are slowly taking me back on my feet again. So there, finally, what I would like to say about photography is that, if done with humbleness and humanity, it is always extremely rewarding. Our subjects are not objects and they generously share and blow their lives to us, through our lens. The spell of photography is all in this binding genuine exchange.

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Sabrina Merolla

Sabrina Merolla 1977, Italy. Free-lance photographer, sinologist and multimedia story-teller living between China and Italy. Her personal projects have mainly focused on contemporary China… More »

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