The TheSoldiers by Liang-I Chang

1 – 10 November 2019

Introduction: At the end of 1949, the ROC government retreated to Taiwan from the mainland after the defeat of the civil war against the Communists. Once ensconced in Taiwan, the ROC government instituted the national mandatory conscription system on 28 December of the same year. According to the laws of the ROC, all male citizens between 18 and 40 years of age are obligated to render mandatory military service for two years. Later, in 2008, the conscription period was reduced to one year, but it was not until 2018 that the Defense Ministry announced the last group of mandatory conscripts were to be discharged in December of that year. The system of mandatory conscription was practiced for 68 years, a period in which nearly all adult males had been required to serve the armed forces. But has anyone seen any interesting and authentic image series of this kind? The answer? Probably “none”. One of the reasons has been the military’s prohibition against the taking of photos. In the 1990s, however, three college grads, who were photo enthusiasts, got drafted and found a way around this stricture. Each one was assigned to a different military barracks, but because of their positions and no small amount of luck, they found opportunities to practice their hobby, taking photos that provide firsthand accounts of their experiences as military conscripts. 

The photographs of military life on Nangan Island (one of the Matsu Islands) by Tien Yu-Hua are direct and uncomplicated, documenting the bitter-sweet life of serving the military on the outer islands. The collections of his images tell multiple stories from diverse points of view, one of which is the depressing dreariness depicted in “counting buns” on an outer island post. These narratives imply a perspective of documentary photography. 

With precise compositions and moment-capturing clicks, the photographs of Chenggongling Base by Hang Dah-Perng portray the ridicule endured by each college kid that had to go through boot camp. Behind a knowing smile, we also sense unspoken bitterness. The huge billboards with slogans, such as “Doctrine! Leader!” (apart from Honor! Duty! Country!) or “Against Communism We Shall Win!” now bear witness to the apparent absurdity and fabrications of that time period. From images of recruit training and marching practice to those showing blankets folded into “tofu-blocks” for a taste of housekeeping rules in the barracks and split squats as a record of punishments meted out, the viewer can gain a sense for how youthful energy and dreams got worn down by the meaningless repetitions of physical exercises and mundane tasks. Under such rigor the brain and body tire and submit as resilience and vitality dissipate. 

The series by Chang Liang-I represents portrait photography done for his comrades during the drudgery of military life. Shooting photos was his only distraction from the misery of military life, helping him to forget the suffering and fill the void while waiting for the day of his discharge. He observed the different personalities of his comrades, capturing images of the effacing shy-guys, smooth operators, or rustic country boys. Though they were all in drab uniform, their young faces shine with candor and innocence, and their eyes still sparkle with youthful optimism. The photographs give a feel of warm-hearted naivete, but also biting satire. The golden age of youth for generation after generation of young men had been thrown away in the name of the patriotic nation-building. What benefit did nation or individual gain?

Many people have regarded the soldier-years in Taiwan as a coming of age ritual, as a quest for manhood. For more than half a century this ritual went on and if everyone to merely consider the trading away of these two years (for those of a certain age it was even three years) as a rite of passage, then this country would truly be pathetic. After all, for many the experience of military service brought only misery, despair, distress and melancholy. Given a choice, they would have skipped conscription. The training of body and will is not wrong, but forced service in the state’s army means all those without an authorized excuse had to submit to the coercive menace of bureaucratic culture, its abuse of power, fraud, self-deception, and political hypnosis. Youthful energy was drained and ambition worn down before even getting the chance to go out into the world.

Some might claim military service as having promoted a collective youth memory for generations of men. Others, however, might voice their suspicions of its being a “rite of passage,” claiming it to have been a “waste of time”? The Soldiers series serves as a great reminder in images, giving impetus to reflections on the mystification and mythologizing  of the glories of military service. Three different cameras presenting three different perspectives provide a record of a vanishing era and place of subjectivity, expressing the mindsets of soldiers as they observe and submit to the military code. In retrospect, these military images give us the means for imagining and probing bygone history. 


The Soldiers 

1949년 말, 중화민국 정부는 공산주의와의 내전에서 패배한 후 대륙에서 대만으로 피신했다. 한때 대만에 자리 잡았던 중화민국 정부는 같은 해 12월 28일 의무 징병제를 선포했다. 정부가 발표한 법안에 따르면 18세에서 40세 남성 시민에게는 2년 동안 병역 의무가 주어진다. 2008년 1년으로 기간이 줄어들었으나 국방부가 징병제로 모집한 마지막 군사 부대를 제대시킨 것은 2018년 12월에 이르러서였다. 모든 남자 성인 시민이 병역 의무를 졌던 징병제는 68년간 지속되었다. 하지만 이에 관련한 재미있고 진실된 사진을 본 적이 있는가? 그에 대한 대답은? 아마 없을 것이다. 이유 중 하나는 군대 내 사진 촬영이 금지되었기 때문이다. 하지만 1990년대, 사진에 열광하던 세 명의 대학 졸업생들은 입영한 뒤 이 제한을 넘어설 수 있는 방도를 찾았다. 셋은 모두 막사가 달랐지만 계급과 운이 좋았던 덕분에 취미생활을 이어갈 기회를 찾았고, 징집병으로서 직접적인 경험이 담긴 사진을 찍을 수 있었다.

많은 사람들은 대만의 징병제를 성인식, 남자가 되기 위한 절차라고 생각했다. 반세기가 넘는 기간 동안 징병제가 유지됐는데, 만약 모든 사람들이 2년(특정한 나이인 경우 3년이었다)을 바치는 일이 의식 절차라고 생각했다면 이 국가는 정말 암담했을 것이다. 병역 의무는 우울하고 좌절스러우며 힘들고 슬픈 경험이기 때문이다. 선택지가 주어졌다면 입영하지 않을 것이다. 몸과 의지 단련이 잘못된 것은 아니지만 허가될 만한 이유가 없다면 강제되는 병역 의무는 강압적이고 성가시는 관료주의적 문화, 권력 남용, 부패, 자기기만, 정치적 최면에 굴복함을 의미하기 때문이다. 청춘들은 사회에 나서기도 전에 진을 다 빼고 포부를 잃어버린다.

일각에서는 군 복무 덕분에 여러 세대의 남성들이 공통된 젊은 시절을 공유한다고 말한다. 그러나 군 복무는 사실상 “시간 낭비”라며, 의식 절차로 보기에는 어렵다고 주장하는 사람들도 있다. ‘군인들’ 시리즈는 이미지를 통해 군 복무의 영광을 신비화, 신화화하는 사람들에게 자각심을 깨워준다. 세 가지 관점을 담은 세 대의 카메라는 주관성이 사라진 시공간과 군 내 규정을 알아보고 따르는 군인들의 태도를 기록했다. 다시 보면, 징병제를 담은 이 사진들은 지나간 역사를 상상하고 탐색할 수 있는 수단이다.

About The Artist:

Liang-I Chang, born in 1968, an experienced photojournalist based in Taipei, Taiwan. He has been worked for the Central News Agency, the China Times and Appledaily in Taiwan. He also has hold solo and joined photo exhibitions and  has published 2 photo books , “Love Deeply” and “The Soldiers” in the past 25 years. He is a freelance photographer now. Link of his facebook and instagram are as below.