When Forbes ranked Chinese actress Fan Bingbing the fourth highest-paid actress in the world last year, the Western media went berserk trying to figure out who she was. But in China, Fan has been a megastar for years, first as the star in the costume drama My Fair Princess and then as one of the country’s biggest movie actresses. As such, she’s a perpetual subject of tabloid fodder, often portrayed as stiltedly perfect and aloof.
Oakland-based photographer Rian Dundon sees her differently. “She gets a lot of flak in the tabloids but it’s mostly all fluff,” he says. “She’s actually very dedicated to acting and producing films, and she’s very concerned about the people around her.” Dundon is speaking from personal experience: In 2008, he spent nine months as Fan’s English tutor, traveling as part of her entourage to movie sets and press events. During that time, he not only got to know her, he also got to photograph her. His book FAN offers both an intimate look at the picture-perfect actress and the mechanisms at play behind creating one of China’s biggest public personalities.
Dundon, a photojournalist whose work has appeared in Time and The New York Times, had been in Beijing freelancing and working on a personal project for three years when he was approached by a friend about the tutoring job. His friend, a set photographer, was working on one of Fan’s movies when he heard that she was looking for a tutor to help improve her English so she would have a better chance of landing Hollywood roles. Dundon took the job under the pretext that he would have full access to photograph her.
“All the other imaging of her is very controlled,” Dundon says. “Her management thought it would be interesting to have an unobscured foreign journalistic eye on her quote-unquote real life.”
Dundon is careful to point out the ambiguity around what of Fan’s life can be considered “real” or truly candid. “I think that’s what’s interesting about the project and celebrity in general–you have someone whose image is created, so the line between fact and fiction is not always evident,” he says. Though Dundon was given unfettered access to photograph Fan–and, while traveling, was around her nearly every waking moment–there was always some element of a highly manipulated celebrity campaign at play. Being so close to his subject, Dundon was aware that every part of Fan’s life was carefully crafted to align with her public persona.
In the book, Dundon chose to not include captions, leaving the viewer to wonder whether the scenes the photos depict are real or staged, on-set or off. In many instances, his black-and-white documentary photos are actually capturing someone in the process of creating fiction. A photo of the celebrity twirling alone in the woods, for example, could pass as an intimate moment caught on film; in fact, Dundon says, there was a film crew of 100 people just out of view of the lens. “That moment was real in the sense that it’s between takes,” Dundon says. “She’s being playful, but it’s still in front of an audience. She’s still entertaining.”
All Photos: courtesy Rian Dundon