Book gives China’s rural photographers their due






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Book gives China’s 

rural photographers 

their due



By Wen Chihua  |  CHINA FEATUES



Without Wang Yong’s efforts, these photographers in rural central China may fade away quietly, thus becoming an oral legend.

Over the last half century, rural photographers have been taking pictures of peasants and people in rural Chinese towns and villages. Despite this work, these photographers have long been ignored, going unrecognized by official photography institutes.

In 2014, they suddenly emerged as though from nowhere, thanks to Wang Yong (王勇)who brings them out in his newly published book Photographer Coming to Village (《村里来了照相的》), ” an oral history of rural photographers.


The 38-year-old Wang Yong spent three years, 2011 through 2014, interviewing photographers scattered in the small towns situated in juncture of central China’s four eastern provinces: Henan, Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu.

In his book, their faces become clear to us, showing them to be humble, brave and reserved. In their photography their sorrows and glories become concrete.

Their range of education is wide. Some are self-taught or learned from family, some learned photography from West missionaries, others from Japanese businessmen.

Zhao Xiuting, 60, a photographer in Minquan of Henan, recalls that his father learned photography at a Japanese photo studio. He started there around 1930 at age of 12 and “six years later, he opened his own studio.”

But, Zhao says, the years of working with the Japanese led his father to be sentenced to 7 years in prison in 1958, charged with maintaining illicit relations with a foreign country. When his father was freed in 1965, he was soon caught up in the Cultural Revolution where he suffered dearly.

Li Jianxing in Bozhou, Anhui province, is 85 years old. He recalls the hardest days in his life were when he was denounced as a rightist in 1957. “Before that (the anti-rightist campaign), I was a deputy manager in a state-run photo studio, with a month salary of 45 yuan. After I was denounced, my salary was cut to 23 yuan. Life became so difficult that I had to give away one of my children. After I was rehabilitated by the government in the late 1970s, I wrote to the family who adopted my child, I wanted my child back, because I could afford to feed him. Eventually, he returned to me.”

After 1956, when China initiated the joint state-private ownership policy —— the principal form of state capitalism adopted during the socialist transformation of capitalist enterprises in China —— most of the photographers in the book worked for state-owned photo studios in their hometowns.

This is an aging population. Wang says, “it means I am in a race against time to collect their stories. They are old. Some are passing away. In fact, death has taken a few shortly after I interviewed them.”

Individually, each of Wang’s narratives features a piece of a private life. Together they project a larger picture about the political and economic landscape of rural China in those years.

Presented in the book along with the photographers’ narratives are 370 pictures, including the hand-painted scenario backdrops, props and photography lights which the rural photo studios used to use.

Wang Huaiming, a 75 year old photographer from Anhui, can never forget the heartbreaking scene he saw in Lixin county during the famine of early 1960s.

One day in 1961, he went to take pictures of 6th graders in Zhuzhai village. He had arranged to stay with the production brigade instead in the peasants’ house. But he still noticed that these houses held “many bodies of the starved without anyone to carry them away. In some households, whole families perished from hunger.”

Despite their grave circumstances, he recalls, people wanted their picture taken. “Most photos were for certificates or meetings. Not for enjoyment. So, being a photographer, I had work every day.”

When Dong Biwu, then country’s acting president came to look into the famine situation in Linquan county, Wang Huaiming was immediately assigned to take pictures as a political task . “Why me? Because I’m a party member, and was young.”

In central rural China, it is not customary to keep photographs of strangers. In addition, rural families would burn the photos of deceased family members. “The surviving photos in the book, some black and white, some hand colored, were obtained from closed-down studios and at flea markets,” Wang Yong said.

Those are precious treasures which open an unexpected window for people today to peek into rural lives of the past, noted Jin Yongquan, a well-established photography critique.

Jin, who is also the editor of the book notes, “in these pictures, one can easily see the traces of imitation of the way official portraits taken in terms of light use, and how to pose and smile for camera. Yet,alongside the imitation of official propaganda pictures, rural photographers also developed and left their own touch in Chinese photography.”

Wang Yong said his first photography work was a pure imitation of official People’s Daily. Pointing at a photo taken in 1998, he said, “that picture shows an electric team leader posing like a state leader, with his left hand rested on his hips, while the right hand stretching out. At the time, even me, a photographer with the state power bureau had no way to know what a good picture should look like. I thought those came out in official newspapers must be good.”

However, rural photographers in China are not merely picture-taking men, providing photographic services for peasants. Most significantly, Jin says, “they are rural images’ creators, and the mainstay of culture environment of rural photography. They are the men who have educated peasants as to how to appreciate beauty, how to pose for the camera, and an appreciation of imagery of backdrop scenarios.”

“Through the images they made, they established the core of China’s rural photographic culture,” says Jin Yongquan.

Ying Zhaoyun, aged 73, a photographer from Suixi of Anhui, remembers old days when he took photos for peasants. “They didn’t appreciate a picture with layers of light, believing that only a ghost’s face has shades. They wanted their faces like immortals in Chinese painting, white and smooth, with no shades. So, I normally use flat lightening on their faces. ”

In those days, have your picture taken was a big deal for rural people, a family reunion photography in particular. The whole family would discuss the event. They would put on their Sunday-best and pick a good day to go to a studio.

“It’ s like a great ritual,” a commentator named “Hand-to-Hand” writes on the web after reading Wang’s book. “I remember back in 1978. I was a first grader. One afternoon, my mom rushed to school to take me home for a family photograph. A photographer had arrived in our village. His camera was big, and had a wood stand and a black cloth in front of it. The photographer was hiding in the cloth, with one hand holding a rubber air ball, directing us ‘hold still and look at here’. Then I heard “kata”, he pushed the shutter. The whole process was so great that it felt like a grand ceremony or something. I miss those times.”

To a great extent, without rural photographers, many rural families might not otherwise have any family portraits.

But, the sense of mysterious ritual that photography once obtained is more of an archeology-like legend in rural China today. The ubiquity of smart phones dilutes the ritual power. People can take photos of themselves anytime anywhere with smart phones that all have a built-in camera. You hardly feel anything any more,” says Jin Yongquan.

In the history of Chinese photography, there are blank pages where the story of rural photographer should be. Wang’s book has filled that blank with its narrative details about how and why the photographers stepped into this field in the first place, and how they witnessed photography flourishing and fading away, says Wu Peng, a noted photography theorist.

In an effort to promote rural photography, Wang Yong recently set up the “Central China Photo Studio Club” on the outskirts of Yongcheng city. The club will regularly display photos by rural people and hold photography workshops and training. Of the project, Wang says, “I want to maintain images from the perspective of folk society. It’s important for our children to understand how we’ve reached where we are today.”






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*1 –  A family reunion photo taken during the Spring Festival in the year of 1980. 


*2*3*4*5*6*7*8 – Photos colored by hand.


*9*10*11 – Old photos.


*12 – Hand-painted scenario backdrop.  


*13  -  An old-fashioned camera of a state-run photo studio.  


* Photos 1-13 provided by Wang Yong


















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