The Real Toy Story: A Look Inside a Chinese Factory

A post on Reddit by user mod83 this morning introduced me to Michael Wolf, a German-born, Hong Kong-based photographer. After a career in photojournalism, Wolf made the switch to fine arts in 2003, producing many works depicting life in urban China.

In 2004, Wolf created an art installation in called “The Real Toy Story.” For the project, Wolf took portrait and action shots of Chinese factory workers building children’s toys, then sought out those same items in stores across California. Combining the bright plastic toys with the gray factory shots, Wolf hoped to highlight the disconnect between the products we buy and the culture that produces them.

You can visit Michael Wolf’s site to see photos of the installation as well as all of the individual photographs used. While I appreciate what he was doing with the gallery showing, the photos are more powerful without all the splash. The portraits are staged and I assume the factories were on their best behavior during the shoots, but you still get a real look at what life is like for these workers. How they work, how they dress, what they eat and where they sleep.

What I found most interesting are all the chairs they use. When you go through the gallery, pay attention to what all the employees are sitting on during their portrait shots. The cobbled-together seats are apparently so common in China that Wolf’s first art project, “Bastard Chairs,” focused exclusive on them.

These photos are nearly 10 years old now, and a lot has happened in China, as well as in the U.S., that could impact the conditions you see in these photos. An increased focus on China as it becomes a more powerful world player, higher material costs that make mass production less profitable, and stronger regulations due to laws like CPSIA are all changing the picture of Chinese factory life. These factories don’t look nearly as bad as some I’ve seen, and maybe life for these workers is even better now than it was in 2004, but according to one report on Mattel released last week, that isn’t likely.

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