These photographs were taken in Beijing during a month-long residency. Prior to visiting China I had no real sense of this vast country. China had never formed part of my long-term plans or interests. When I was invited to participate in the residency, I decided to go almost as a challenge to my lack of intrigue. I treated it as an experiment. I loved Beijing: its people, its cuisine, its scale. It is huge and frenetic in a way I have never encountered before. Its massive crowds have a way of amplifying one’s sense of being an outsider – making it the most existential place I have ever experienced, especially since no one speaks English.

I started the project by discreetly spreading the news that I wanted to make family portraits. Through this process I met someone who became my access point into Beijing’s younger, brasher side. My photographs focused on the contrasts or juxtapositions that animate present-day China. They include portraits of an older generation of people who grew up under the revolution and made incredible sacrifices for the country, alongside portraits of a younger generation – most of them art students – who have grown up in a post-revolutionary consumer society which is highly constrained and mediated by the state. Consumerism has become a religion for the youth, as well as a way of directing their alienation. In a way, Beijing now is similar to what I imagine the US must have been like before AIDS in the early 1970s. I was struck by the remarkable decadence compared to what I am used to.

The project includes a variety of still lifes. There is something melancholic about them, partly because they suggest the 17th-century Dutch genre of the vanitas painting. There are also elements of small-scale urban decay. They allude to the fractures and social façade of a country that is slowly emerging into political and social openness. Beijing reminded me of Musina, not in any physical way, but because of the superimposition of two competing or contested realities onto a single space. I see it as on a par with all my other projects. Here, in Africa and elsewhere, I want to photograph evidence of the fragility and vulnerability of the inhabitants.