China in color or black and white?

September 25, 2012

By Carlos Barria

I have heard this question asked a million times: would this picture be better in color, or in black and white? I grew up in the color era, but I do remember seeing television programs in black and white. That was before 1990, when my parents bought a color television to watch Argentina’s national soccer team play in the World Cup in Italy. (We won the Cup in 1986… in black and white.)

I find myself wondering sometimes whether a particular story, or a particular picture, would be stronger or clearer in black and white, or in color. To some degree, the answer is imposed. I work for a media organization that provides clients with color pictures, so I photograph in color.

But sometimes I like to experiment with converting pictures to black and white, just to see how they look. Recently I visited two Communist Party schools in China where trainees attended courses to reaffirm their foundation as Communist Party members. During the trip I went first to Jianggangshan in Jiangxi province, a historical area where former Chinese leader Mao Zedong fought the Nationalists, as a leader of the newly created Red Army. Then I visited a modern school in Pudong, in the cosmopolitan hub of Shanghai.



These were two different scenarios. In the first, mid-level government officials dressed in Red Army uniforms and attended five days of courses where they reviewed communist material, sang red songs and visited historical places — all in a beautiful countryside setting. In the second, there was a more pragmatic focus. Members of the Party dove into economic theory, crisis control, and studied the new challenges that the Party has to face after more that six decades in power.

Both visits produced strong and colorful picture packages, and while one was set in a historical location, both schools were created in 2005 — to reinforce the core principles of the officials who attended. But I took a group of pictures that I thought would be stronger in black and white, so I started editing and trying to see them in groups. I found that the meaning changed.

In the color pictures, the strong red and blue colors of the uniforms gave me a feeling of nostalgia. And at the same time, they highlighted contradictions in China — a country dominated politically by communism and economically by capitalism. I had pictures of people in old-style uniforms with Nike sneakers. ‬

In the black and white group, this gave way to a sense of a rigid structure, gravity, and uniformity.

‬Both groups of photos worked for me, but for different reasons. They brought to mind the famous phrase by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during the economic opening of the 80s: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.” ‪


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Great comparison of black and white vs color. The only thing not at all black and white in your blog is Argentina’s victory in 1986, with Maradona’s hand-of-god goal making the outcome very gray…

Posted by gringoviejo | Report as abusive

Love the B&W conversions. I think black and white draws you into the story much more. I always try to tell the story using some black and white images in my wedding photography.
Nick Rose |

Posted by nickrosephoto | Report as abusive

Hi, following on from Nick’s comment as another professional photographer (and apologies for being late in the discussion). My belief is that a QUALITY black and white image can strip away distractions leaving a certain “honesty” to a scene – in my photography (weddings and portraits) if you care to view I used B&W more for close-ups – to capture the emotion and feeling of a person or couple.

Posted by ANewberry | Report as abusive

Its interesting to see the colour conversions but I still feel if you had to choose one I would go with the black and white it really tells the story well. Some times I shoot with my camera in black and white. when imported later they are all back in colour but on the screen on the camera it teaches you not to be distracted by colour instead seeing emotion and composition etc.
Daniel Baker |

Posted by DanielBaker | Report as abusive