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February 17, 2012

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Global honors for photographers

A shocking photo seen around the world - a jilted, suicidal bride in white dangling out of a window - has been honored at the prestigious World Press Photo Awards.

The photo by Li Yang of the Changchun Real Estate Daily was one of Time magazine's 40 "Most Surprising Photos" of 2011. Li took third prize in the Spot News singles category for the photo taken in Changchun last May. In it a 22-year-old woman has jumped out of a seventh-floor window in a residential building but is rescued by a man inside who grabs her around her neck, while people lean out of a sixth floor window directly below and support her feet. Days before, with wedding plans well underway, her fiance broke up their four-year relationship and walked out.

Li was one of three Chinese photographers honored at a World Press Photo Awards ceremony in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on February 10.

Other winners were a photo of a man climbing a high-voltage tower to protest against housing demolition and a set of 12 photos showing how people commemorate late Chairman Mao Zedong in Hunan, his home province.

More than 5,000 photographers from 124 countries and regions competed in nine categories; all photos were published last year. The competition began more than 50 years ago in the Netherlands.

Freelancer Kuang Huimin from Xiangtan, Hunan, took third prize in the Arts and Entertainment category with a set of 12 photos featuring the various ways Chairman Mao was remembered in Shaoshan and other Hunan cities.

Xu Shaofeng with the Chengdu Business Daily won Honorable Mention in the singles category on contemporary issues. He photographed a man climbing a high-voltage tower in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, to demand the government pay fair compensation to residents for houses demolished for a development project. Unfair land seizure without just compensation is a major problem in China.

Shanghai Daily talks to Li and Kuang.

Kuang Huimin

Recording today's Mao moments

Documentary freelance photographer Kuang Huimin has spent 18 years capturing the scenes and moments in Chinese daily life related with Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China, who died 35 years ago.

First starting in 1993 in Shaoshan, Mao's hometown in Hunan Province, Kuang has taken more than 3,000 pictures, broadening his focus from the small "red" mountain city to the whole country. From the scenes at Mao's former residence to the memorial hall, from the sculptures made by folk craftsmen to various Mao artwork, Kuang's pictures take a thought-provoking look at how this controversial figure still affects China and its people.

The title of the award-winning series, "The Return of the Native," was inspired by his mother's sudden serious illness in early 2011.

"I went back home, exhausted. When I pushed open the door, the first thing that caught my eyes was a sculpture of Chairman Mao my parents have kept for more than 50 years; it was bathed in sunlight."

At that moment, he felt "The Return of the Native" was inevitable. "In fact, people always forge ahead in hope, pursuing dreams, and return to their native land in times of success, loss and distress," Kuang wrote on his weibo microblog.

Born in 1964 in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the engineering major picked up his camera and turned pro in 1989. He focuses on contemporary social issues and figures, such as environmental protection, urbanization and Chinese mine workers. His photos have been widely published and exhibited in China and overseas.

His subjects are simple, a figure, a village, a third-tier, rapidly changing city. He observes changes, gains and losses over time, sometimes decades, as in the case of China's reform and opening up.

One of his acclaimed works depicts two decades of social, economic and cultural changes in Basha, a Miao ethnic village in Guizhou Province, southeastern China. The remote mountain village became a popular tourist resort and the change had profound impact on people's lives.

His Mao series, "The Return of the Native," was exhibited in 2011 at the Toronto Chinese Photo Festival.

He won the Mid-Career Photographer Award for 2011 in the National Geographic All Roads Photography project with the photo essay "Changes During 20 years in the Old Miao Village - Basha."

Q: Please discuss the Mao series.

A: These 12 pictures are selected from a series called "Nostalgia - Mao Zedong, A Fellow Townsman" that I had been working on since 1993.

That year around December 26, Mao's birthday, I went on a business trip to Shaoshan, Hunan Province, Mao's hometown, and saw the various ways Mao's birth was commemorated. I was awed by the scenes. From midnight of the day before until noon on the 26th, the plaza in front of the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall was flooded with thousands of visitors, some even traveling from far away in northeast China. At around 12:30am on the 26th, people set off tons of fireworks and firecrackers to celebrate, loud enough to wake the dead.

I was deeply inspired by the scenes and since then, I have gone back to Shaoshan almost every year to record the commemoration activities. I also traveled frequently to Shaoshan to look for interesting moments concerning Mao in daily life. Starting from 2004, I expanded my coverage into other Hunan cities. So far I've taken more than 3,000 pictures for this series.

Q: Why did you select these 12 photos? What does "The Return of the Native" mean?

A: By selecting these 12 pictures I try to bring this broad topic into a sharper focus. The works are arranged progressively according to the changes in the images, from small, illusory images at the very beginning to the concrete mega-sized sculpture of Mao's head at the end.

You can also feel time passing when going through these pictures. The first one was taken in the morning, and the last one at dawn. You can hear the pulse of time.

Besides, people's notions and attitudes changed photo by photo, from nihilism to admiration to spiritual belief.

With fast economic development, people's values change greatly. No country in the world has ever experienced such a huge decline in spiritual belief. I hope this series will make people think, to look back and figure out the future.

Q: Why do you like documentary photography?

A: Because it is real and full of historical and social values. Everything changes with time except the history. The moments you record tell people's minds at that moment.

Q: What are you working on?

A: Currently I'm working on a project featuring urban change. This time I turn my lens on Xiangtan, a small third-tier city in Hunan Province where I've worked and lived for 25 years. I think the vast changes that have taken place in Xiangtan since the 1980s are a great example of how most cities in China have changed in the past decades.

I'm also thinking about adding fresh angles to the Mao series. I plan to visit Huaxi Village (once China's richest village in Jiangsu Province) some day, to see how Mao's theories, after being restudied and developed, affect the today's socio-economic development.

Xu Shaofeng

'Calm down, learn and don't rush'

The following is translated and abstracted from an online interview that Xu Shaofeng posted on his weibo microblog.

Q: Will the award change anything?

A: I will still stick to news photography. Hopefully nothing will change at all … I will continue to exert myself, after all, there's still a long way to go. I plan to buy a new water heater for my mother and get her an iPad.

Q: What's the story behind your winning photo?

A: It was a hotline interview task assigned while I was still a photo journalist at the Chengdu Business Daily. The man climbs up onto the electrical tower in the morning (to demand compensation from local government for home demolition). I went to the site and took pictures the whole morning, until the man was talked out of it by government officials. However, I got a tip that the man might do it again, so I returned to the site in the afternoon and decided to take something different from the photos I shot in the morning.

Q: Why did you submit this work for the World Press Photo prize?

A: It was the only photo I thought might be good enough to compete. Basically, this photo story tells the hardships and difficulties that ordinary Chinese people undergo while protecting their own perceived rights (legitimate or not). It's a reflection of life.

Q: Is this your most satisfactory work?

A: No, there is not my most satisfactory work. I have some sort of regrets about all photos.

Q: Everyone can take digital photos, so how far can a professional photographer go?

A: Specialists master their own fields. Because everyone can take a picture doesn't mean everyone can take a good picture.

If you just have a cold, you go to the pharmacist for some medicine; if there's something serious, you still need to see a doctor. The current situation places more demands on professionals than before. There's a strong sense of crisis.

Q: Any suggestions for amateur documentary photographers?

A: Calm down, keep learning steadily and do not rush.

Li Yang

'Being a news photographer broadens my vision'

"I know it is a good picture, but I never thought I would receive a prize. It's so surprising," Li Yang said of the heart-stopping moment she captured a jilted bride in her wedding gown literally dangling outside a window.

The prospective bridegroom had abruptly broke off the engagement. The woman later put on her wedding gown, as if for a ritual, and prepared to take her own life. She was saved by a local man, Guo Zhongfan, who reached out and grabbed her around her neck, while people below reached up and supported her feet. She was literally dangling and suspended.

The photo was published on the website of the East Asian Business News, where Li worked at the time.

Li, a 30-year-old native of Changchun, got the photo by chance, as well as skill. As the only woman photographer on her paper, she was assigned "easy" subjects, lifestyle and entertainment - not news. On the day of the attempted bridal suicide, all the male photographers were covering a major event elsewhere in the city, so Li was assigned to the jumper.

After she graduated from college as an English major, her mother wanted her to be a teacher, considered a safe and secure job for Chinese women.

She told her mother "no" and instead took a job as a photographer, which was more interesting and demanding.

"Being a teacher takes a lot of responsibility. I don't think I can be patient enough to teach children … It's my childhood dream to be a journalist, and I like to take pictures," she said. She has been a photographer for almost seven years

Q: Please describe how you took the picture.

A: When I arrived on the scene, I saw a girl in a white wedding gown sitting on a window sill and weeping. There was no ledge. People were trying to talk her back into the room. A crowd had gathered and a rescue air cushion was ready.

I first took pictures shooting upward from the crowd. Then I went over to a building opposite and found a seventh-floor window so I could better shoot the drama. The crowd let out a cry when she jumped. That was very frightening.

That was the moment Guo Zhongfan leaned out of the window and grabbed her around her neck. It was tense. People on the sixth floor below held her feet up.

Guo pulled her back in and the crowd cheered when the girl was saved and rushed to a hospital.

Q: Does a good spot news photo just happen or do you have to prepare?

A: You need a plan in advance. When you arrive at the site, you need to consider the environment, the timing and figure out the best position or angle to get the best picture.

Take this photo, for example. I looked around, saw the building opposite and figured there would be an ideal spot to stand. It takes some experience to make that decision.

Q: What do you like about news photography?

A: The unpredictability. Every day I go to different sites for different incidents and everything is fresh. Being a news photographer helps broaden my vision. I get to know a lot of people and their sorrows and happiness. Gradually I get a better attitude toward life.

Q: What makes good news photos?

A: Keen observation, especially of details. Quick judgment on the spot. Besides, you need to be able to identify with the figures.

When I took this picture, I warned myself not to provoke the girl or distract Guo just because I wanted to take the picture. You need to be highly alert since everything happens all of a sudden.

Q: Is there a message in the photo?

A: The sharp contrast between hope and desperation. The girl's body language and facial expression clearly show her determination to kill herself. But the strong arms of those who came to her rescue are like a beacon of hope for the despairing.


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