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When Yuan Xiangqiu, a repairman living in Tiantai County in China’s Zhejiang province, built his first airplane on his own, practically his entire village came to watch the takeoff. The trial was a failure — as were the following two — but Yuan persisted in constructing flying machines, even as his neighbors started to consider him the local “aero-lunatic.” In fact, he’s far from alone in wanting to overcome a lack of training and proper resources to fulfill his aviation aspirations; many men who also earn low incomes and live in rural Chinese villages have huge dreams of flight and are building their own aircrafts.
The Netherlands-based photographer Xiaoxiao Xu came across many of these self-employed farmers and unexpected aeronautical engineers while visiting her home nation in early 2015. She interviewed and photographed eight of them, traveling to three major provinces. She has now compiled their stories in Aeronautics in the Backyard, a new photo book published by the Eriskay Connection.
“They proudly call themselves ‘aeronauts,’ literally meaning ‘being born into air,’” Gover Meit writes in the book’s introduction. “They are not looking for fame, riches, or recognition. All they care about is following their passion and contributing to the bigger picture. By actively seeking alternatives, always attempting to do things cheaper, faster, easier, craftier, step by step they are conceiving a whole new way of moving forward.”
Aeronautics in the Backyard is divided into sections dedicated to each aeronaut. Accompanying Xu’s photographs of them, tinkering on contraptions in all stages of completion, are first-person narratives as well as detailed pencil drawings of airplane and helicopter designs that speak further to the men’s visions.
Their stories are candid and touching. Each vignette relays how much they’ve invested in these side passions; what they’ve lost and gained; how their families disapprove of their interests. Some have achieved flight many times over; others have suffered accidents with severe, lasting consequences. We learn how they use their available resources to the best of their advantage: one construction worker built his first airplane on his balcony, while Yuan recalls how he bought a pigeon from a market and based a machine on its anatomy.
Xu’s straightforward photographs of their workshops, homes, and neighborhoods complement these accounts. Her images reveal how the aeronauts rely on simple scrap metal, household items, and other materials such as bamboo to realize their flying machines. She captures the isolation of their settings, from a tight dirt road unsuitable for takeoffs to a colorful world map on a wall decorated with cutouts of metal birds. Portraits of the men themselves largely depict them in their small airplanes or holding up models, alluding to the flights in mind. The only things missing are photographs that show the planes from afar, soaring through the air; we get no sense of engines humming or pilots whooping. These are quiet photos, but they remain triumphant, pregnant with homemade possibility.
Xiaoxiao Xu’s Aeronautics in the Backyard is available from the Eriskay Connection.