“Subtitles”: Eric Leleu’s 3-Part Project on Chinese Propaganda Banners and Mass Manipulation


(“The earlier you sign the contract, the earlier you will get benefit and the living environment will be changed right away”)


(“Rely on the government, follow its policies, seek truth from the facts”)

文明的城市 美好的生活

(“Better city, better life”)

Puzzled and disturbed by sentences such as these appearing on red banners in Shanghai’s poor neighborhoods, Eric Leleu (born 1979) began photographing them at night as a spy to learn more. To a foreigner, these words were big and violent and strong but oddly seductive. They were part of the setting, addressed to the locals, meant to programme them so that they’d yield to the developmental, nation-building plans of their government without resistance.

Eric, who’d moved to China in 2004 after a hectic 9-to-5 career in Paris, captured around one hundred shots of these banners in Shanghai and Beijing between 2008 and 2011. At first, his objective was research and plain documentation. Gradually, the effort took on a form. It turned into “Subtitles” – a 3-chapter project about propaganda, mass-manipulation and individual perception.

Eric Leleu


Chapter 1 is called “Authority”, Chapter 2 “Vox Populi” and Chapter 3 “Silent Protest”. The first consists of original official commands and statements left by the government in dark alleys near crumbling houses. The second is made up of unofficial copycat banners containing popular Chinese wisdom and personal thoughts that Eric has himself printed and set up in both urban and rural areas. This is a playfully satirical lot. By substituting bureaucratic Communist slogans with proverbs and harmless announcements on gadgets or landmarks, the photographs turn the practice in on itself. The strangeness of them might actually make a local pause. Finally, the third chapter shows blank red pieces of cloth in natural environments – in the middle of fields, by streams. There is no script here but through the colour and the shape of the banners, one can very well feel the absolute hold of the political elite on all of China – its people, every bit of its soil.

Through “Subtitles”, Eric isn’t advancing any specific social or political message. He just hopes it will help the viewer develop a way of thinking that is skeptical and suspicious in a healthy way. He explains: “My aim would be to foster esprit critique. Propaganda is everywhere, we are all continuously manipulated by governments, companies and even relatives, consciously or not. Being aware of it is a first step to freedom.”

Eric has a background in economics and entrepreneurship but photography, for him, is a more suitable tool to understand the world than academic reports or news stories. He began playing with negatives in darkrooms when he was little but started shooting only at 20 when his mother gave him a camera before he took a trip to India (Calcutta). Eric’s identity as a creative professional has been greatly informed by his childhood in the French countryside with a farmer father and a mother who was fond of Impressionism.

Regarding his artistic influences, Eric says: “There are many. But here is a spontaneous list: Mahatma Gandhi is one of them, the title of the third chapter of this project – ‘Silent Protest’ – is a reference to him. I have used a quote from him on one of the banners – ‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do, are in harmony’. Herman Hesse’s book Siddhartha is a life guideline for me. David Henry Thoreau. Van Gogh and Neo-impressionists like Signac and Seurat shaped my eyes. I like Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), the movement Nouvelle vague. Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen movie and the Dogme 95. The Belgian TV series ‘Strip Tease’ from RTBF. Exiles by Josef Koudelka. Most works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, for the greatness of their composition. Eggleston, of course. Today, Harry Gruyaert’s work and colours are on my mind. As you can see, that is a broad mix of various media but I believe there is a link between them. A kind of avant-garde and independant spirit, humanistic values and bold shapes and colours…”

Eric is currently busy working out a project based in his home village of Guesnain back in France. He is buying over a café which went bankrupt two years ago in the hope of converting it into an art centre – “La Musette”. This will be a place where different social classes and generations can mix. A campaign to support the project has been launched on the website lafabrique-france.aviva.com. Eric Leleu mostly lives between Shanghai and Lille and works for a number for corporate clients in addition to pursuing his personal projects.

Below you will find six photos each from the three chapters of “Subtitles”. The featured photograph is from Chapter 2. It displays a Chinese proverb: 站得越高看得越远 (“The further you stand, the further you see”).

Links: Website (www.ericleleu.com) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/eric.leleu1) | LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/ericleleu) | Twitter (@ericleleu) | Instagram (instagram.com/ericleleu) | Vimeo (vimeo.com/ericleleu)

Images used with permission.



A topographic research on official propaganda banners in China.



文明的城市 美好的生活 (“Better city, better life”)




A remake of unofficial propaganda banners featuring a mix of popular wisdom and personal thoughts.



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