Xiaoxiao Xu’ s “Aeronauts” are eight Chinese farmers who build aircrafts in their backyards for a primordial need to ride the sky. The young Chinese-Dutch photographer presents in this series her in-depth research on the lives and aspirations of these tireless dreamers.

In the depths of the Chinese countryside, farmers recycle scrap metal and build their ladders to the sky using household tools. These self-trained craftsmen spend all their energies and savings on designing and creating homemade aircrafts. Stumbling upon a short story on this phenomenon in a newspaper, the photographer Xiaoxiao Xu was immediately gripped. “I was fascinated by the rich imagination of these people and their romantic pursuit in contrast to their poor existence”, she tells us. “I am deeply touched by the simpleness, playfulness and inventiveness of the aeronauts”.

Money and success are not the aeronauts’ primary interest. While some of them have succeeded, and have got their planes to fly, others evoke a path of endless failure. Some of them have lost money, others have been injured in accidents. Their stubborn persistence is counterintuitive, and it is also what shapes the magic of this series. “For them it’s not about working 20 years to fly 20 meters high, it is about turning the impossible into something possible”, Xiaoxiao says. She captures the aeronauts’ endeavors with her typical low-contrast and pastel colors, emphasizing the grace and dream-like nature of the story.

“Turning the impossible into something possible”

From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu

Chao, one of the aeronauts, is 75, and his ultimate dream is to fly over a yellow field of canola flowers. His plane, made of children’s bicycle wheels and recycled aluminum, never took off. Chao is illiterate, and can’t find the source of the problem, but has no intention of giving up. Yuan, 70, named his grandson Chen Xiang, “morning flight”. The photographer spent months living with the aeronauts in each of the eight villages scattered through China. She gathered their drawings, noted down their stories and, in the end, flew with one of them.

The first picture of the series is an empty birdcage. The aeronauts’ cage is gravity, which binds them to the ground. Xiaoxiao says she empathizes with their obstinate dreaming because photography is to her what building planes is to the aeronauts. She chose her path following a vital need, but most of the people find her blind commitment absurd. Like the aeronauts though, she doesn’t have the choice: photography is for her the only way out of the cage.

From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu
From Aeronautics in the Backyard © Xiaoxiao Xu

Images by © Xiaoxiao Xu