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Pictures of a Chinese coolie in San Francisco

"Ground," of the project "Mistletoe." (Yunfei Ren)
“Land”, from the “Gui” project. (Yunfei Ren)

Photographer Yunfei Ren came to the United States in 2020. He settled in San Francisco, a city with a long history of Chinese immigration. Soon after, the United States experienced a hideous wave of hate crimes against people of Asian descent.

To try to figure out where his own part in the city’s history might lie, Ren looked for a way to connect the dots. He settled on a project called “Gui” – the Chinese word for “ghost” – on the appearance of a Chinese laborer who worked on the transcontinental railroad.

In Ren’s project, the ghost appears at night in San Francisco’s Chinatown, appearing in places that tell the story and experience of the Chinese diaspora. The anti-Asian sentiments Ren observed fueled his desire to “present this series not only as a protest against racism, but also as a reminder of how immigrants have been treated throughout American history and until our days”.

Unfortunately, Ren’s project remains relevant.

While I know the world has never been an easy place, the past few years, if not weeks, seem to have reinforced it in unmistakably bold letters.

For a while, I felt like we were making progress towards tolerance – towards uplifting people when they needed it. But then it was almost as if a switch had been flipped and horrific current events began to dominate our daily reality.

I would say it has been more or less a worldwide phenomenon. In 2016, when I was at the international desk here at The Post, one of the series we started working on was the rise of the far right, nationalism and intolerance in Europe.

This series was propelled in part by the feeling that the same thing was happening here in the United States. And six years later, that doesn’t seem to have changed. In fact, in some ways it seems to have intensified.

You don’t have to look very far to find examples of violence and hatred. Last week we had one of the most horrific school shootings in US history when an 18-year-old gunman entered a school in Uvalde, Texas and wiped out the life of 19 children and two adults. And just days before that, a gunman erased the lives of 10 people from a Buffalo grocery store.

Something in the world seems irreparably broken. Words, and even photos, cannot begin to convey the utter grief and despair that these shootings have left on the families, friends and others connected with the victims.

Ren’s project is just one of many that force us to recognize that the world continues to produce disparity and destruction.

Some believe that history is cyclical and if we forget it we are doomed to repeat it. We seem to have very short memories, don’t we?

You can see more of Ren’s work on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog dedicated to visual storytelling. This platform features captivating and diverse images from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you would like to submit a story to In Sight, please complete this form.