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June 9, 2011

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Catching the train of history

CHINA'S railways reflect Chinese society, and for more than 30 years Wang Fuchun, a train worker-turned-photographer, has documented them with fidelity and feeling in black and white. Qi Hongxin and Pan Lijun climb aboard.

For photographer Wang Fuchun, the fast development of China's high-speed railway marks not only a leap forward in transport, but also a new scene for him to shoot as he records the dreams and lives of train passengers.

"Trains are loaded with people's hopes and regrets," said 68-year-old Wang, a railway worker-turned-photographer. "I feel really lucky to have been able to take photos on trains."

From steam locomotives to bullet trains, the past three decades of changes for China's railway have been recorded in Wang's photos.

Close bond

Wang has published many photo books about trains, such as "Chinese on the Train" and "The Steam Locomotives of China." He has also published "Black Land" about coal mining and "Manchurian Tiger" about the endangered cat, also known as the Siberian or Amur tiger.

"Chinese on the Train" is his representative work. It has been exhibited at the Denmark IMAGE Festival and the Beijing Forbidden City International Photo Exhibition.

Wang's bond with trains first started several decades ago.

Influenced by his elder brother, who had an established career in rail, Wang also became a railway worker in 1970 after he finished his military service.

Due to his strong interest in the arts, Wang was asked to take photos as part of his job during the 1970s.

"I was required to take photos of workers in 1977, so I borrowed a camera," Wang says, "This is really how I started my career in photography."

In 1984, he became a professional photographer.

However, the sudden shift in career track didn't stop him working on the railroad.

Wang began to record the history of China's railways by taking photos on the trains.

"I love trains, the railway and railway passengers," says Wang.

"Whenever I get on a train, I get a comfortable feeling, like being at home."

Wang often takes several train trips a month and walks up and down the carriages taking photos. His works increasingly are drawing attention and he is making a name for himself as he shows a train as a microcosm of life itself.

"Photos themselves speak more loudly than anything else," he says.

Black and white

He uses a basic card camera and mostly takes black and white photos.

According to Wang, card cameras are the most convenient, while black and white conveys expressive images with high impact.

"Black and white is abstract and can express more of a sense of history and change," he says.

In the small, teeming train carriages, Chinese passengers quickly get to know each other. They may start by asking names and hometowns. They may even share food and they definitely share stories.

"Unlike in real society or other public occasions, people are more willing to help each other and share things in the carriages," says the author of "Chinese on the Train."

Roaming among the small makeshift communities on trains, Wang has captured moments of happiness and pain. Many small stories have become treasured memories for him.

Even today, he can still feel the anguish he felt when he took a photo of a 5-year-old girl sleeping standing up in an overcrowded train in 1993. He was distressed that he could not help the little girl.

"When I took this photo of her, it made my heart ache," Wang says.


Wang's works are of considerable documentary value since they record the changes in China's society.

Early photos show the miserable environment on the trains, all painted green in the 1980s and 90s. It was common to see carriages packed with more than 100 passengers over capacity. Trains used electric fans when it was 40 degrees Celsius in summer, the fans blew the smell of sweat and dirt.

Since then, the environment has changed a lot and so have activities.

"Now if you walk in the carriages, it's like you're walking into a hotel or on a plane," says Wang. "Everyone has one or two mobile phones, cameras and lap-tops.

"People are chatting, playing games and listening to music."

More than 30 years of China's railways are reflected in Wang's photos.

"People feel good after looking at his photos and reminisce about the past," says Yu Ling, a passenger.

Nowadays, Wang is inspired to focus on subways and other public transport, but trains are still his favorite and enduring subject.

"I have taken photos since the reform in China, and feel lucky that I have been on trains taking photos for so many years," he says.

When China launched the sixth speed-up of its railway in 2007, Wang paid close attention to the construction and development of China's high-speed rail.

His accomplishment in train photography has been widely recognized. This year, the Ministry of Railways in China has appointed him as a specially invited photographer to shoot photos on high-speed railways.


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