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The air in China will kill you. The air in China sucks.  My wife and I get sick. Often we feel ill. I get strange ear infections, headaches, dizziness, and a general feeling of disgust.  Occasionally we wear masks. Occasionally it helps. But it is hard to blame China for this.

The air is thick with a complicated relationship between Western consumption and  the demand for the industrialization of China. When I left for China I knew what most of what western society understands of China.  Chinese take out, bad air, cheap goods, and a huge population.  I was never prepared for the amount of pollution that we live with.  It comes in the form of raw sewage, untreated water, and brown air. Like a late fall evening with a dense fog and 10 feet of visibility.  Fog, while annoying is just water vapor. The dense fog here translates to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and VOC’s (volatile organic compounds). All are bad, but the VOC’s are measured at 2.5mm(micrometers) PPM and 10mm PPM and reach insanely high levels. Generally all can be attributed to burning “dirty coal” which is another story.

30-40% of pollution in China can be directly attributed to overseas export of manufactured goods.  A perfect example is what Monsanto did to East St. Louis (Monsanto-Sauget-Illinois). This is how Western Manufacturing treats China and the dying landscape.

Wal-Mart along with Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and McDonald’s  all have store fronts in major cities. Walmart and hundreds of U.S. based company’s have their goods manufactured in China. The manufacturing and export of those good accounts for 30-40% of the pollution in China. Every foreign consumer and business that consumes China is liable for the pollution here. The blinders on the American and European consumer project China as solely responsible. When in fact it is how we purchase that ultimately makes a difference. While environmental laws and regulations are lacking in China, that reason is what brought manufacturing to China.

Portrait photos included in this post are from an on-going project. Face-masks are the most recognizable affect of air pollution in China. The air is thick and visibly polluted with ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other toxins in the air. These pollutants cause respiratory failure, illness, and death. Portraits of China is an ongoing photo project documenting daily life in China as a result of this pollution.

One of the most common ways to prevent inhaling harmful pollutants is by filtering the air with a mask. As a visiting artist from the United States living in China this site is unlike my normal daily observations. There are cities in the United States that struggle with air quality, most noticeably Los Angeles. But it is rare to see someone wearing a mask on a daily basis because they believe the air they breathe is dangerous. I am also interested in the duality of their purpose. Masks not only protect a person, but also shield their identity. Masks inevitably provide a sense of security from pollution, but they also provide an element of anonymity and mystery.