Camera activism in contemporary People's Republic of China: provocative documentation, first person confrontation, and collective force in Ai Weiwei's Lao

Tianqi Yu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

4 Citations (Scopus)


) is one of the most influential activist documentaries that emerged during the aftermath of Sichuan earthquake in 2009. The film relates to Ai's ‘Public Citizen Investigation Project’, which gathers many volunteers to explore the substandard ‘tofu construction’ of school buildings that took thousands of children's lives when they collapsed in the earthquake. In August 2009, Ai's group went to Chengdu court to support another independent investigator, writer, and environmentalist Tan Zuoren who was prosecuted for subversion of state power. The night before the trial, Ai was beaten by secret security agents and the group was stopped from going to the court. The film subsequently records the group searching for an official explanation from the authorities. Whilst acknowledging the power of the film in constructing a collective political subjectivity, and the discursive effect through screenings and discussions raised, this paper focuses on the very action of proactive, activist documentation of one's witness to engage with fellow participants as well as viewer followers through digital camera. Under the theoretical framework of participatory culture, I propose the term camera activism to understand the camera-enabled individual participation into activism as a form of socio-political intervention. The paper also analyses some of Ai's problematic actions as a charismatic celebrity, which sometimes overshadow and obscure the complexity of resistance by Chinese individuals within China, thereby neglecting full recognition of the complex collective forces which support Ai. Nevertheless, ‘camera activism’ demonstrated in the making of Lao Ma Ti Hua reflects, and has the potential to reshape, the political landscape in twenty-first century China. The cinematic highlight of ‘I’, confronting and eye-witnessing what happens through the utilization of digital technologies positions ‘camera activism’ as an important part of China's iGeneration cinema culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)55-68
JournalStudies in Documentary Film
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes



  • activist
  • Chinese documentary

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