Jonathan Browning is a Hassocks, England-based photographer who recently turned a personal project of his into a published book. Between 2014 and 2016, Jonathan traveled around China and photographed the growing social elite in the country – the young, rich, and cosmopolitan. His published book, Glorious! In Search of China’s New Elites, is a series of more than 70 images featuring the young and affluent subjects at home, at work, and out on the town.
As the publisher, 3030Press writes:
What emerges is a snapshot of a social class caught in the process of defining itself. In its choice of fashions, its taste in interior design and its social habits, it is a community whose self-image is still a highly variegated mix of traditional Chinese and international designer brands, reconfigured in a country still coming to terms with its status as a 21st-century superpower.
First off, where did the idea to undertake this project begin?
I approached the publisher 3030 press with a book proposal on a project I had been working on following the Huangpu River in Shanghai, they took a look at my portfolio and saw a small photo essay on China’s young elites and it kind of sprung from that. The idea was to make a much more involved and comprehensive series of images on this theme to then be made into a book.
What was your goal in photographing China’s evolving upper class?
I wanted to learn more about this young demographic – the first of its kind in Modern China. The idea of an upper and middle class in China has emerged only in the past 20 years or so, and it’s something that is still evolving. On the one hand these people are a part of a global elite, but they are also fiercely proud of their Chinese identity, and so it’s interesting to see how they balance these ideas.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
The vast majority of the work was preproduction – this essentially meant finding and identifying suitable subjects, getting their contact details, introducing myself and the project and then scheduling a time to make a portrait. Out of every subject who said yes there would probably be three who said no, or worse still, said yes but then never committed. A lot of time was spent on Wechat (China’s version of Whatsapp).
How did you go about gaining access to these social spaces?
That was hit and miss – The majority was through official channels as a media request but I did get good at walking straight through VIP entrances while on the phone or assimilating myself into a group of young affluent fashionistas. There were also plenty of embarrassing moments when I was asked to leave.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share?
There is one very famous young rich personality known as Wang Sicong. He’s the only son of Wang Jianlin, one of the richest men in China. He is notorious for his lavish spending, which includes buying gold Apple watches for his famous dog. He would have been perfect for the book, but despite all attempts, it never worked out. I did come close, however. One afternoon I was cycling in Shanghai when a Lamborghini pulled up beside me at a set of traffic lights with a dog in the front passenger seat! When the lights turned green I began to chase and kept up with him for about four or five blocks but unsurprisingly lost him on my rusty wheels. Later that day it emerged he’d thrown a luxury birthday party for his dog. The local news was filled with photos and annoyingly it was only a block away from where I lost him.
Publisher: 3030 Press
Editors: John Millichap and Jonathan Browning
Design and layout: UNITAG
Copy Editor: Ann Williams
Writer: Dan Levin