Albert Bonsfills found two blind girls living in a bunker beneath the streets of Beijing. They have a message for us all, he says.
Four years ago, in a bunker hidden beneath the streets of Beijing, two teenage girls, Lina and Mengchun, met for the first time. Now they share everything – even their sight.
After a chance encounter with a stranger outside a McDonald’s restaurant, the Spanish photographer Albert Bonsfills was invited to one of these underground homes. It was during this visit, while photographing in the vast, darkened corridors of the underground complex, that his attention was drawn to a blonde figure. “To see blonde hair after three months living in China was really strange. This girl was tall and wore a bright pink coat; her long blonde hair was flowing down her back. I had to run after her.”
The girl’s name is Mengchun Liu. She is an Albino, a congenital disorder which — along with a profound visual impairment — has singled her out since birth. Whereas Mengchun has retained 0.1 percent of her eyesight, her best friend Lina Dong, with whom she lives, works and shares everything, is completely blind.
“If you are blind in China, there are only two options,” says Bonsfills. “Stay at home, or become a masseuse.” Several hundred thousand blind Chinese work in massage parlours, and for a time, both girls did as well. Daughters of famers, from rural China, they eventually moved to Beijing in search of work, and founded a relationship as close as any. They spend 24 hours a day, every day, together.
“When I first saw the girls, I didn’t realise they were visually impaired until they started touching the frame of their apartment door, looking for the lock. I was bowled over when they invited me into their home for tea” says Bonsfills. “More surprising still was that they agreed to be photographed.”
Bonsfills spent five weeks photographing Lina and Mengchun; from dawn to dusk, from the intimate to the banal, he has recorded the unique manner in which they share almost every facet of their lives. “They eat at the same moment, they laugh at the same moment – it’s crazy,” he says. “And they do all of this while sharing only one set of eyes.”
Born in Barcelona in 1982, and currently living between Spain and China, Bonsfills became a photographer at an early age. At 19 he realised that “each photograph was a gift he could keep forever”, so he pursued a degree in photography at The Institute of Photographic Studies of Catalonia. Throughout his studies, he was drawn to China, inspired by a series The Analects — a collection of sayings primarily attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius — as well as the photography of Edward Burtynsky and Nadav Kander. He left for Beijing in 2011.
Defining himself against Kander’s epic, painterly landscapes of China, Bonsfills hoped to train his lens on life below ground, on the tens of thousands of Chinese people living in the windowless bunkers that lie below the country’s capital. Some 20,000 bunkers were constructed during the Cold War by Communist leader Mao Zedong, who feared that worsening relations between China and the USSR would lead to a Soviet attack. Transformed into low-rent apartments, these underground networks are the only financially viable housing option for many living in Beijing today.
Bonsfills plans to make Lina and Mengchun a long-term project and hopes to return China to photograph the girls over the next 10 to 15 years. “I think I will always return to China to make work,” he says. “The narrative of the Chinese people is so powerful. They work tirelessly and live through such hardships, yet they never stop fighting.
“When I asked Lina why she kept smiling in the face of such incredible challenges, her response is a lesson to us all. It’s the one sentence I consider to be the message of the entire series.”
“I am happy because I appreciate life, love and friendship – not through sight, but through the eyes of the heart,” she said.