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November 29, 2013

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Crane worker shares beauty of his perch

Wei Gensheng works on the city’s tallest tower. But images he has taken as he awaits orders have won photographic honors. Wang Jie shares his uplifting story.

How high is the gap between an ordinary shutterbug and a professional photographer with a distinguished award under his belt? Wei Gensheng, a 59-year-old Shanghai construction crane operator, has come up with an answer — 632 meters.

That’s the planned height of Lujiazui’s Shanghai Tower where he works, which will be China’s tallest building when it opens next year. Perched atop his crane, day after day for many months, Wei has been able to capture the city’s skyline at just the right moments with his Canon 60D camera.

His pictures won him the silver award at the Shanghai International Photographic Art Exhibition.

“At the moment when I heard the news, tears immediately came to my eyes,” says Wei, a Shanghainese who has been a crane operator for 38 years. “I couldn’t believe my ears, because I am too ordinary.”

But the pictures taken by Wei are not ordinary at all.

A forest of highrises is cast in misty clouds, rendering a surrealistic view of the city — his compositions are unlike the typical view of a metropolis.

Shanghai’s skyline is too familiar a subject for many professional photographers whether the city is seen at dusk or as the sun rises. The impressive skyscrapers along the Huangpu River repeatedly appear in magazines, newspapers, postcards, movies and documents.

“That’s why I was amazed when I got my first look at Wei’s pictures,” says Guo Jinrong, curator of the Shanghai International Photographic Art Exhibition. “His pictures have a daunting beauty. Although he didn’t have any formal photographic training, he is gifted with creative ideas.”

In one case, Wei adjusted the angle of his crane to make it appear as if its hook is about to grab the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai International Financial Center, all landmark buildings in Lujiazui.

“Aha, this is just for fun, because staying in the crane for 12 hours sometimes is too boring, and I need something to kill time,” says Wei, who takes his job quite seriously.

“Sometimes I must wait for several hours for the next instructions. My job is quite critical, as all the building materials are transported by the crane to the top,” he says. “Not a minor mistake could be pardoned. I am high above in the air all alone.”

Wei says he was influenced early in life by his elder brother’s interest in photography. He still clearly remembers his first camera — a Pentax that cost him 420 yuan (about US$67.74 today), at a time in the 1980s when his monthly salary was only 36 yuan.

“This was the real luxury item for me,” he says. “I read a lot of photography magazines in my spare time.”

If it weren’t for his job in the crane’s cabin, Wei, like many local shutterbugs, might be sharing his pictures only with his family members and friends.

“This is the advantage of being a crane operator,” he says with a smile. “Most people look up or look horizontally at these skyscrapers, but I overlook them every day.”

Even though a few professional photographers have visited his cabin, they are unable to grasp the perfect moment. The reason is simple — no one stays longer than Wei to wait for that moment.

“I knew some professional photographers once climbed into his cabin, but they failed (in getting a perfect picture),” Guo says. “You can’t shoot a picture in haste. We all understand the importance of patience to a photographer. There are many factors behind a quality picture — the weather, the light, the angle and the clouds.”

Wei says based on his everyday observation high above the city, he knows there are not too many days suitable for a quality picture.

“I always listen to the weather forecast before work to decide whether I should take a camera up or not,” he says. “If there is wind from southeast, then I know the weather is good with high visibility.”

This past summer’s unrelenting high temperatures meant a fruitful “shooting season” for Wei.

“Extremely hot or extremely cold weather are perfect, especially during the seasonal changes,” he says.

It was during the summer that Wei captured the so-called “Jesus light” and “crimson clouds at sunrise” envied by photographers.

“Jesus light” is photographers’ shorthand for rays of light coming through a veil of clouds. It requires sufficient moisture, smoke or dust in the air to reflect the sunlight and make the rays visible.

“I once heard that a photographer was so excited to finally catch the ‘Jesus light’ that he cried,” Wei says. “Perhaps I have a bit of aesthetic fatigue, I am already accustomed to it.”

But he still regrets not going up in the crane during the National Day holiday (October 1-7).

“It was not my turn to work, so I let it go,” he says. “But there was a display of fireworks in the evening. I should have been in the crane to shoot the splendid view. What a regret! Once in a year!”

If it were not for his daughter, Wei and his pictures might have never come to light. His daughter helped him launch a blog with the pictures he has taken. He now has nearly 2,000 fans.

“Next year, I am going to retire and say goodbye to the crane,” Wei says. “But I have a lot of things to do after retirement. I will sort out the pictures that I have taken for the past several years. I also have decided to learn post-processing of photos. I am glad that many people like my pictures. This is the unexpected fun of being a crane operator.”



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