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NIE ZHENG Photographer, Beijing
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"Like most people, the young people in China are mostly interested in their own lives, and politics doesn't enter into it," says Sue Williams, producer of "China in the Red. "They can do whatever they want -- Nie Zheng can take his photos, ... they can talk with their friends about whatever they want. And they are pretty well-informed about what is going on in the rest of the world."

FRONTLINE's cameras first follow Nie Zheng in 1999. He is a 32-year-old photographer immersed in Beijing's music scene. "Rock and roll, it's about what you want to say, what you want to do, and what you want to admit to," Nie says. "It liberates you."

Nie's other passion, however, is work that doesn't pay: making portraits of ordinary people. "Many of my friends are making money," says Nie. "They are buying houses, cars. But I think life is simpler because there is no end to making money but there is an end to living and life." Nie, meanwhile, lives with his parents, senior officials in the Communist Party who see his love of photography as self-indulgent. They disapprove of his laid-back lifestyle on the fringes of Beijing society.

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It's the year 2000 and China's economic reforms continue to reshape its society. Some of the younger generation, like Nie Zheng, choose to opt out from both the old communist system and the new, money-driven world.

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"My parents are always telling me, 'You're not stable.' And I wonder, 'What does stable mean?' Getting a monthly salary, that's one kind of stability, isn't it? But are your heart and mind stable?" Nie asks.

taking photographs

Nie Zheng taking photographs.

By 2001, however, things are different for Nie. On his 34th birthday, he visits his mother's ashes. She died just over a year earlier. In his mother's last months, he says he tried hard to reconcile their differences.

"There is one thing in which I didn't satisfy her: I haven't married," Nie says. "What is unacceptable is that, since her death, I think of her constantly. It's really troubling and extremely upsetting."

In his grief, he has decided to change his priorities. Now Nie only does commercial work, photographing album covers, magazine spreads, and elaborate video shoots. "I have to make some money, for my father and then for myself," Nie says. "I feel that if I have some savings, I'll be more stable. I think growing old and getting sick is pretty brutal."

For the moment, his artistic dreams are on hold.


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