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G2: Inside the Dwarf Empire: In the mountains of southern China, there is a dwarf-themed amusement park where 100 little people sing and dance for gawping tourists twice a day. Photographer Sanne De Wilde tells Sean O'Hagan what happened when she went behind the scenes at this extraordinary fantasy world

September 3, 2014

Sean O'Hagan



The Dwarf Empire - or, to give it its full name, The World Eco Garden of Butterflies and the Dwarf Empire - is situated in the mountains of southern China near the new city of Kunming. Created in 2009, it is a tourist attraction boasting two daily performances by 100 dwarves, who live and work in an elaborate fantasy world ruled by an emperor and empress. To western eyes, it looks like a remnant of the Victorian freak show.

"In 2011, I accidentally found an image online of Chinese tourists posing with little people," says Sanne De Wilde, a young Belgian-born, Amsterdam-based photographer. "It was a bit shocking, but it made me curious." Shortly afterwards, having spent several weeks liaising with the owners, De Wilde travelled to China to visit the Dwarf Empire. "Nothing quite prepared me for the unreality of the place," she says. "In the brochures, it looks colourful and a little fantastic, like a modern theme park, but the reality is much greyer and a little sad. People pay to come here, to see a song-and-dance performance, and to have their pictures taken with the little people. To westerners, it may seem voyeuristic and immoral, but this is China and - for the people who come here with their children, and for many of the performers - this is simply not an issue."

De Wilde knew immediately that she had found an amazing subject, but one that was loaded with all kinds of issues, from complex problems of representation to accusations of voyeurism. "Essentially, I did not want, as a photographer, to become part of the problem I was trying to highlight. I wanted to go deeper, into the contradictions and paradoxes of the place, the creation of a fantasy that was paper thin and yet one that visitors bought into."

Four years in the making, the end result, a photobook called The Dwarf Empire that she plans to publish soon, deftly negotiates these issues, while allowing the viewer to witness the often dull and mundane world behind the fantasy. "I had no interest in photographing the actual performances," she says. "Instead, I was interested in how the performers lived in between the two daily shows, in this enclosed world behind the fake wooden walls and ornate facades. To do that, I needed to get to know the people I was photographing."

Initially, De Wilde hired a translator, but there was a problem. "I realised she simply wasn't asking the questions I was giving her. She kept saying, 'No, we don't need to go there.' For her, it was all about maintaining the facade. Then I had to think about the images in a very practical way. For instance, I didn't want a series where people were looking upwards all the time at the camera, or where everything - furniture, beds, rooms - looked miniature. So I started shooting while crouched down. Practically as well as conceptually, it was an incredibly difficult project mainly because I was questioning myself all the time."

The most difficult part of all, though, was her own interaction with the tourists, many of whom treated her as another novelty within the theme park. "It was as if I was becoming this tall, white, blond-haired Snow White figure that they also wanted to photograph constantly. People would grab me and push me into a picture, force me into a frame. At one point, I couldn't breathe so I ran around the back, behind the facade, and hid with some people I had become friendly with."

De Wilde also decided to include photographs taken by her subjects, "to give them a space to articulate what they felt and what their everyday lives were like". Many took photographs of her; others recorded their daily routine, much of which consists of waiting, bored and listless, between shows. Nevertheless, when De Wilde interviewed several of her subjects, including a couple who had left the Dwarf Empire, they regarded it as "a wonderful place and even a kind of paradise". For them, she says, it provided "not just a community, but a sense of belonging". When she asked people if they were happy, they tended not to understand the question. "In the west, we obsess about happiness, but for them, as for most people in China, happiness does not come into it - it's about survival."

De Wilde's book will be divided into three main sections: her photographs of the little people, their photographs of her, and two foldout posters featuring individual portraits of the performers alongside biographical information - names, dates, places of birth, heights. "Their height is the thing that most informs their lives," she says, "so it seemed incredibly important to include it." Likewise, she has included what she calls "anti-postcards" (her images of "the daily reality of life in the park"), as well as an insert of images created by her subjects in response to the question: how would you ideally like to be seen? "One woman Photoshopped herself into a frame held up by two western women," says De Wilde. "It's a complex image on so many levels."

How does she feel about the Dwarf Empire now? "It's complicated and contradictory. For instance, I included a photograph in which two security guards hold up one of the smallest women in the palm of their hands. It's an image that newspapers and magazines tend to want to print, and it is perhaps the most dramatic, but it is not the most representative. The Dwarf Empire is a commercial business that is not very respectful to the people it puts on show. But, by Chinese standards, they are paid and treated well. It is voyeuristic, but so is reality TV and a lot of the internet. These are the areas I am interested in - how we look at otherness and what that says about us."

On the web

See more of Sanne

De Wilde's images from China's Dwarf Empire

theguardian.com/culture

Captions:

'Nothing quite prepared me for the unreality of the place' . . . De Wilde's shots of the theme park's performers and their audience

'I was questioning myself all the time' . . . De Wilde found that, comparatively, the performers were treated and paid well



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Source: Guardian (UK)


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