The bond between a father and son is one that can never be broken, no matter how hard it seems like some of us try sometimes. In the case of one father from China, he wanted to document how his son was growing up before his very eyes by taking a nearly identical photo each year of his son, Tian Li, on his birthday.
For nearly 30 years now, the man named Tian Jun from China’s Guizhou Province has taken these photos and kept them until his son became a man and now he is sharing them with the world. The child has grown a lot while his father has also changed, and there was a lot that was going on in the world during the time he was growing up.
It’s a powerful series of images that show the aging process in an almost gut-wrenching way as you have to see the father get old while his son starts to look like he did toward the end of the pictures. Here is the amazing series of photos that the father and son took over the past three decades.
#29 – 1986
In the summer of 1986, Tian Li was born when Tian Jun was 27 years old at the time of his birth. This photo comes from the first birthday of Tian Li, starting the tremendous series of photos. During this time in China, Li Xiannian was the leader of the country as the Chairman of the People’s Republic.
1986 was also the year that the world paid attention when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch, and it was caught entirely on live television. Not too far from China was the Soviet nuclear power station of Chernobyl. It was the worst ever nuclear disaster to take place in the world and the radiation effects could be seen throughout much of the continent. Thankfully, this part of China (nearly all of it, for that matter) was not affected by the disaster.
#28 – 1987
Tian Jun said that he got the idea of taking the yearly photo in the exact same spot randomly, and did not have it planned before his birth. It’s a fitting project, as Tian Jun is an artist, and this is certainly a work of art. 1987 was a trying time for the world as there was major economic unrest as the stock market in Hong Kong dropped by nearly 50 percent. There were also a lot of international showdowns as the United States and Iraq started to get into a heated conflict when missiles killed 37 people in an attack on a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile in England, Margaret Thatcher was elected to a third time as the Prime Minister of Britain, which is a very rare feat to accomplish.
#27 – 1988
Even though he was very young, Tian Li can remember some of the photos, and he knew that they were taken outside of their apartment. In that apartment, the family lived for 20 years in the Guizhou Province. In China, as well as france, it was finally approved that the countries could use the drug RU486 (Mifepristone) which was also known as the morning after pill in what was a controversial decision at the time.
Unfortunately, 1988 was a time when terrorism was rearing its ugly head, as one attack saw nine tourists killed on an Aegean cruise. Another attack happened in the skies as a Pan-Am 747 airplane was exploded by a bomb over Scotland. Every person on board passed away from the attack, as well as 11 people on the ground that were struck by debris.
#26 – 1989
You might be wondering at this point why nobody is wearing a shirt throughout the photos so far. Tian Jun said that his son’s birthday was in the middle of the summer. Jun claimed that “The weather was so hot so we went bare chested. We’ve kept the ritual consistent deliberately.” It really adds to the fluidity of it all.
1989 was one of the most changing times in China in recent history. Thousands of students rallied inside of Tiananmen Square, wanting democracy. The rally spread across all of Beijing as more than one million people started to protest. Thousands were unfortunately killed during the rally that June day. Eventually, Deng Xiaoping resigned from his position as one of the leaders of the Chinese government. It was also the year that the Berlin Wall fell, making a large year of change in the world.
#25 – 1990
Just like any child when asked to take photos, Tian Li didn’t really want to do it because he didn’t quite grasp the artistic value of it all. “It has become a habit a long time ago that we took the same picture every year when I visited my parents, as naturally as going home for the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner every year,” Tian Li said. Yang Shangkun was now the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China in 1990 after Tiananmen Square’s rally.
Communism took a huge hit in 1990 as the U.S.S.R. ended the Cold War, marking a major change in the region’s politics. During this time, the United States was getting ready for the Persian Gulf War as Iraqi troops made their way to Kuwait to take it over.
#24 – 1991
Now five years, old, you can see that Tian Li is starting to grow up very fast. He no longer resembles the baby that he once was as he becomes a boy ready to take on the world. China was feeling the effects of the Cold War’s end as they accepted a nuclear nonproliferation treaty while countries such as France agreed to ban the spread of atomic weapons. The Cold War ending also saw Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia all become independent from the U.S.S.R. and Boris Yeltsin became the first elected President of Russia.
Far away, the apartheid laws in South Africa came to an end shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison after nearly three decades. The Persian Gulf War came to an end in April of 1991 as a ceasefire was finally called.
#23 – 1992
The scenery has changed a bit over the years starting in 1992 when they took their yearly birthday photo on the beach, meaning that they were able to get away from the apartment for a day and snap a great holiday photo instead. Relations cooled in 1992 between China and the United States, as America lifted trade sanctions against the country. One of the most headline grabbing results of that act was the first McDonald’s in China, which would then become massively popular.
Speaking of the United States, the military had finally left the Philippines after being stationed there for almost 100 years, while also signing the North American Free Trade Act. However, it was also the year that the Los Angeles race riots would break out, starting civil unrest that would again be relevant more than two decades later.
#22 – 1993
Back at the apartment now for Tian Li’s birthday, the son has a look of being annoyed, which is normal for a child that age. Tian Li has now said that the sees these photos more as a performance than just a gallery of images. After a period of what appeared to be peace, China made headlines in 1993 when they broke the nuclear test moratorium in October of this year.
It was a scary time after what should have been a cooling down period for the world as the World Trade Center was bombed for the first time, and a tsunami in Japan killed more than 200 people. Bill Clinton was inaugurated as the President of the United States while Jiang Zemin was the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China and Boris Yeltsin of Russia stopped a revolt against democracy.
#21 – 1994
Tian Li looks much older now in this photo as he has a full head of hair and broader figure. Tian Jun is also starting to show signs of aging as he gets farther into his 30’s, sporting a few extra pounds and some lines on his face. There were not many headlines coming out of China in 1994 as it was a quiet year, and was actually quiet around the globe compared to the previous year’s international standoffs.
South Africa held an interracial election for the first time in the country’s history, as Nelson Mandela was elected President. Sadly, there was another story coming out of Africa that was much more tragic as thousands were killed in a massacre in the country of Rwanda. It also marked the first attacks on Chechnya from Russia.
#20 – 1995
It was in July that Tian Li shared these photos on a social media site in China and people have been highly praising the art ever since. Tian Li is getting to the age where he doesn’t want to take the photo, but appreciates it at this point. It was again a quiet year for China in 1995, but the rest of the world could not say the same thing. The massacre in Rwanda reached a death toll of more than 2,000 as countries started to wonder if they should intervene.
Bosnia and Croatia were fighting for months before finally signing a peace treaty and France detonated a nuclear device in the Pacific Ocean, causing protests around all of Europe. There was also an attack on the subway system of Tokyo, which injured thousands of people in the process and killed eight while the O.J. Simpson trial was capturing the attention of Americans who wanted a break from the Oklahoma City bombing coverage.
#19 – 1996
Now at 10 years old, Tian Li is starting to look a lot more grown up while his father appears to be just tired. It might be getting hard to hold him, but he still has a few more years to go. The biggest news from the world that year wasn’t from a war or from international conflict, but instead an internal affair as Princess Diana and Prince Charles of the United Kingdom went through a divorce while Mad Cow Disease was spreading throughout the country.
Early in the year, France agreed that they would end their nuclear testing after getting a lot of criticism from 1995’s test, and Russia and Chechnya were in a heated struggle as 2,000 Russians were captured before a peace treaty was finally signed a few months later in May of that year.
#18 – 1997
There isn’t a world of difference between the 1997 photo and the 1996 photo, as the difference between 10 and 11 years old and 37 and 38 years old is not a drastic one. At least you can see that their hairstyles are a bit different. China was back in the news in 1997 as the United Kingdom turned over rule of Hong Kong back to the Chinese. China also suffered from a bird flu epidemic during this year, and it made its mark on humans for the first time as Hong Kong and China would have to kill more than one million chickens to stop the disease from spreading.
Meanwhile, the Middle East was starting to go through some trying times as the West Bank was given to Israel, and it would be a battling point for many years (and still is).
#17 – 1998
Now as a pre-teen, Tian Li was getting a bit difficult to hold for Tian Jun which would interrupt the consistency, but at least they are still outside of the apartment wall. Tian Li said that Tian Jun had many different jobs during this time before heading back to art school to teach once again. Tragedy struck China in 1998 as the Yangtze River broke through the main bank. The result of the break was the death of 12,000 Chinese, and there were thousands more that were injured in the incident.
More countries that year also entered the list of countries with nuclear capability as India conducted three tests that many countries were upset about, and Pakistan had five tests of their own as a response. Meanwhile in Europe, the continent adopted the Euro as one single form of currency.
#16 – 1999
There is a drastic difference in this photo as it has become clear that Tian Li is too big to hold in 1999 as he becomes a teenager. He is sporting visible facial hair now and is almost as tall as Tian Jun. The population in China began to really swell during this time, as it was expected that the world population would surpass six billion in 1999 as a result of China’s increased population and economic growth.
We still had our differences between countries in 1999, but a lot of us were too focused on trying to make all of our electronics Y2K compatible that we didn’t seem to notice how many problems were going on. It was thought by some that computers wouldn’t be compatible with the year 2000, and that it would result in armageddon while others feared that it would be the second coming of their selected deity.
#15 – 2000
A new addition to the family was added in 2000 as Tian Jun and Tian Li adopted a puppy. The stress from having the pup might have taken an effect on Tian Jun, who put on quite a bit of weight in the first year of his 40’s. The turn of the new millennium didn’t bring a lot of change in China, but there were plenty of other headlines happening around the world. North Korea and South Korea had actually reached a peace agreement (if you can believe that) after 50 years of going back and forth.
Palestine and Israel continued their squabbles as the middle east battles continued to rage on. The United States had their attention grabbed by a young Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez as Fidel Castro and the U.S. Government battled for control of the boy that escaped via a raft across the water to Florida.
#14 – 2001
Tian Li is starting to look less like a teenager and more like a young man in this photo as he starts to get more casual in the photos and still isn’t smiling (although that might have been intended). A spy plane from the United States collided with a Chinese jet as the countries started to have a standoff. America apologized for the situation, but they would set aside their differences in September.
On September 11th, the United States was attacked as terrorists hijacked four different commercial jets, flying two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center while another struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and a fourth one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. 9/11 changed the policies for a lot of international relations and how we travel from one place to another.
#13 – 2002
Now old enough to get a driver’s license, Tian Li is taller than his father now and is looking incredibly thin but also much older. It’s stressful enough for any father to see his son turn 16, and Tian Jun was 43 years old at the time. There was a big change in China in 2002 as Jiang Zemin retired as the General Secretary of the country in November. Hu Jintao would become the new leader of China, and would hold that position for a decade.
The middle east and the United States would start to have a drawn out conflict as American troops made their way into Afghanistan in an effort to combat terrorist groups. The conflict between Chechnya and Russia also continued to rage on as Chechen rebels held nearly 800 hostages in a theater. The Russian troops launched tear gas into the theater, killing more than 100 of the hostages and saving the rest.
#12 – 2003
2003 must have been the year that people really started to post bills on walls as they cover the apartment building. Tian Li looks fully grown in this year’s photo, much taller than his father and sporting very mature facial features. China was going through a state of panic in 2003 as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was starting to spread, prompting many of the country’s residents to wear surgical masks after nearly 9,000 people contracted the disease and hundreds died as a result.
The rest of the world was just as worried about the spread, but it fortunately became a thing of the past. North Korea would once again become a global enemy as well, as they pulled out of the treaty to stop the development of nuclear weapons. In the same year, Baghdad was taken over by American troops and Ariel Sharon was elected as the Israeli Prime Minister.
#11 – 2004
This was the year that Tian Li turned 18 years old, and it was also one of the biggest years of his life as he was accepted into the Beijing Film Academy. It was also the year that Tian Li left home, making the photos from here on out even more impressive as they were harder to coordinate. There was a lot happening in the world in 2004, but it seems like none of it had to do with the Chinese government.
Spain was under attack by Al Qaeda, as the terrorist group took the responsibility for more than 200 deaths. The war between the United States and the middle east continued as Fallujah was the site of an American offensive. The Olympics returned to their original home as the Summer games were held in Athens, Greece. A Tsunami struck Asia right at the end of the year, killing nearly a quarter million people in the process.
#10 – 2005
At this point, Tian Li was away from home and had to come home during his summer break at school to continue the photo ritual. You can see that after one year in college, Tian Li isn’t as wafer thin and has grown his hair out a bit (that was the style back then, and it appears to have come back). Nearly a dozen Asian countries were affected by the Tsunami in late 2004 and relief started to pour in from around the globe to help them rebuild.
Iraq went through a time of change as they held their first democratic election since the United States intervened. Also, Pope John Paul II passed away in April, and it took three weeks for a new Pope, Benedict XVI to be named to the position. Tony Blair also held power in Great Britain as he became the first member of his Labour Party to win three consecutive elections.
#9 – 2006
Tian Li turns 20 years old in 2006 while his father is 47 years old. Tian Li looks like your average college student at this point, but is also starting to look more and more like his father with each passing year. North Korea grabbed the undivided attention of China that year when they tested missiles over the Sea of Japan on the Fourth of July. China, along with Russia, the United States and South Korea all met with North Korean officials to discuss weapons reductions talks.
In the middle east, Saddam Hussein was convicted of his many crimes against humanity in the autumn of that year, and was hanged in Baghdad. Cell phone technology allowed a person that was present for the hanging to capture the video and leak it to the world, making it one of the first leaked videos to go viral.
#8 – 2007
The family takes a break from taking photos outside of the apartment wall as they go inside of the home after Tian Li graduated from college. Tian Li got his degree in filmmaking and this photo was taken in the winter instead of the summer for once. 2007 saw two more countries join the European Union: Romania and Bulgaria. The American troops were ready to put more boots on the ground in Iraq as more than 30,000 troops were sent to combat the insurgents and the Iraqi militants.
Vladimir Putin started to turn the tide in Russia back to its Cold War times, as he lifted several treaties that limited the amount of weapons that the country could have. It made people pretty nervous that there would be another Cold War coming soon, a concern that many people still share today.
#7 – 2008
Now back outside of the apartment, Tian Li returns home during the summer while he is 22 years old and ready to begin his career as a filmmaker and is definitely looking like his father did in his 20’s at this point. In 2008, a massive earthquake shook China as nearly 70,000 people were killed in the 7.9 magnitude quake. It was the worst natural disaster that China had seen in more than 30 years as many important buildings were destroyed, including many schools.
China was also involved with a conflict against Tibet citizens as the country wanted their independence from China. There was some good news coming out of Tian Li’s country that year, however, as it marked the first year that a man became first Chinese astronaut to complete a spacewalk.
#6 – 2009
Tian Li is only 23 years old in 2009, and it was a milestone birthday for Tian Jun as well, who had turned 50 years old in this photo. The scenery has also changed a bit. In July, China was the site of a conflict between the Muslim Uighurs and the Han Chinese in Urumqi as the two groups rioted against each other, resulting in the deaths of more than 150 people as tensions grew against Muslims throughout the past few years.
During 2009, a lot of us were also worried about the H1N1 virus more commonly known as swine flu that threatened to spread around the world. More than 100 people died from the virus in Mexico where it seemed to have originated, but it was eventually stopped before it could become too deadly.
#5 – 2010
Now looking very grown up, Tian Li made this the year that he went to grad school for filmmaking as he hopes to become one of the biggest film directors in all of China. China worked with the United States and Russia in 2010 to put forth sanctions against Iran and their nuclear weapons program to stop them from developing uranium based weapons. China also saw that year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo for his non-violent demonstrations for human rights in the country.
Elsewhere in the world, a January earthquake nearly leveled the country of Haiti, bringing in a massive swell of support and aid as the death toll is thought to be nearly a quarter million people in the small island country. An earthquake also hit Chile that year, and it was a massive one with a magnitude of 8.8, but it didn’t have the effects in terms of deaths as the Haiti earthquake as less than 1,000 people lost their lives.
#4 – 2011
The family keeps the tradition going as the scenery continues to change as Tian Li hits the quarter century mark and his father is 52 years old. The entire world, even China, turned their attention one day to the United Kingdom as the royal wedding between Kate Middleton and Prince William was one of the most watched television broadcasts of all-time.
It was also the year that the world took a moment to pause and celebrate the fact that Osama bin Laden was finally caught and killed by American forces after decades of being wanted by many of the countries on the globe. American troops started to leave Iraq as a result in a conflict that lasted for just about 10 years. It seemed like it was marking a change in the world, but it feels like there hasn’t been a massive difference these days.
#3 – 2012
2012 was a big year for Tian Li, as he got married. Despite grad school and planning a wedding, Tian Li was able to return home for his birthday and get another photo with his father. Relations between China and the United States once again started to get heated as President Barack Obama made a briefing in the Pentagon about the War in Iraq as well as the threats that were posed by China and Iran.
Iran became a target for the European Union, as well, as a trade embargo was imposed to stop Iran from getting the parts they need to develop their nuclear weapons. Things in Syria also started to turn south as Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in an uprising, and many of the refugees as a result are still looking to find shelter in 2015.
#2 – 2013
Now at nearly the same age his father was when he was born, Tian Li is able to carry Tian Jun around just like he did when he was a child. China surprised a lot of people in 2013 when they were the ones that came up with the sanctions against North Korea after their nuclear test in February. Later in the month, Xi Jingping became the new President of China after all but one of the 2,956 delegates voted for him. Previously, he was named as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and General Secretary of the Communist Party.
2013 also had its share of sadder stories as Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95, Hugo Chavez passed away at age 58 and Margaret Thatcher passed away at age 87. China suffered from massive tidal waves on the Qiantang River that swept away some of the tourists that were trying to capture photos of the event.
#1 – 2015
Now we get to see the most important photo in the entire series. This was the year that Tian Li and his wife had a son named Timothy at the same age his father was when he was born. There was no photo from 2014 because Timothy was born in the United States and wasn’t able to make it home in time for his birthday.
Still, Tian Li is not too distraught over breaking the ritual as it was a milestone that was perfect to end on. Tian Li said that “What was missed has been missed, but we’ll keep taking the three-generation pictures for sure.” Hopefully this is the new start of yet another series of photos where you see the growth not between just two people, but three generations of men that seem to share a very close bond.