One day, while surfing the Web, Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde stumbled upon a posed photograph of people in a dwarf theme park. Intrigued, she researched the image further and found out it was taken during a visit to the Dwarf Empire, or Kingdom of the Little People as it is also known, a theme park in the Yunnan province of China where dwarfs perform song and dance numbers, and other novelty acts, for tourists.
De Wilde felt compelled to visit. Through Belgian television contacts in Beijing, she connected with the park manager who invited her to come for a visit and gave her permission to take photographs. Upon arrival, she quickly realized the line between fiction and reality was blurred. Were the performers happy? Were tourists there for the entertainment or simply to gawk at the novelty of the performers? The owner of the Dwarf Empire, Chen Mingjing, contends that the park was built to provide employment for the roughly 80 dwarfs employed by the park; opponents argue they are being put on display as a freak show. “For me, it’s about how this kind of place can exist,” De Wilde said. “What does it tell you about a person who starts this and creates it? What are his intentions?”
Because she was traveling on a tourist visa, De Wilde was only able to spend a couple of weeks taking photographs. She documented what she saw both behind and in front of the curtains. “I didn’t want to totally interfere with the illusion they were creating,” De Wilde said. “I wanted to step into this fairy tale but show it from different perspectives so you do get a reflection of the place and not only the commercial idea they carried out.” She took photographs of the employees in their living quarters, where tourists weren’t allowed to visit, and also documented the dwarfs while they were entertaining and interacting with visitors. “With photography you can pretty much project your own emotion or identify on the photos you make,” De Wilde said.
Although making the images during the daily performances was straightforward, she said trying to convey the boredom that permeated throughout the park during the downtime was another matter. “A lot of time the people are just hanging around in their room or on their beds lying around,” she said.
De Wilde, who is tall and blond, found herself to be part of the attraction as well. Many tourists approached her because of her physical differences and asked to take pictures both of and with her, something that she found exhausting. “I became a character in the show they created there,” she said. “I would also hide with the little people to be free of the claws of the tourists … they want to touch you and have a part of you.”
Once she returned home, De Wilde said it took her about a year to sort through all of her images; she also received photos and letters from the performers who said they were thankful to be employed by the park. De Wilde said reading those letters also brought into question if they were genuine or if they wrote them while under pressure from the management.
De Wilde created a book (she’s currently looking for a publisher) titled The Dwarf Empire that includes an edit of everything she experienced both while there and from her communications before and after her visit. She doesn’t include captions with the images because she would rather have the viewer imagine his or her own stories associated with the park. Earlier this year she exhibited the work in Amsterdam and said people came away asking themselves some of the same questions that led her to the park. “The work tricks people into thinking about it and asking a lot of questions,” she said. “It continues to be mysterious.”