Picturing smiling China

By Fu Jing (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-22 07:00
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Picturing smiling China
Zhao Hui, a teacher-turned photographer, says his mission is to show China's brighter side from the faces of ordinary photo. [Liu Zhe/For China Daily]

Related video: Interview with Zhao Hui


BRUSSELS - In the searching eyes of Zhao Hui, there is nothing ordinary in the ordinary.

In fact, the ordinary has become his specialty as the renowned photographer has devoted himself to snapping the smiling and beautiful faces of everyday Chinese.

"Their lives, their gestures, their faces and their surroundings represent a very important and real part of a diverse China," said Zhao, adding that nearly six out of 10 Chinese still live in the countryside.

Zhao said every time he prepares to take a photo, the ideal image is already in his mind. All he really needs to do is inspire the people in front of his camera.

"I am a director," he said.

Several years ago, as he was passing a paddy field in a poor village in Southwest China's Guizhou province, Zhao saw a young woman planting rice with a baby on her back. Zhao was deeply moved by the woman's toil and decided to take her photo.

She didn't notice Zhao, who was taking the lens cap off his camera and waiting for a good shot. But her neighbors did and joyfully shouted at her: "Someone is taking your photo!" She lifted her head with a broad smile of unfeigned delight.

"At that split second I pressed the shutter," Zhao said.

"That smiling moment has become the photo I like most," he said, adding that he never gives a photo a caption. "The image itself has said thousands of words."

Together with 63 other photos, the picture was on display from Feb 24 to March 10 in the office building of the European Commission.

"These photos are alive, moving and extremely human," said James Moran, director of Asia for the European External Action Service, the European Union's diplomatic body, at the opening of the exhibit.

This is the first time the service has hosted such an exhibit for a Chinese photographer.

During the two weeks it ran, European Union officials and even heads of state had the chance to see China from Zhao's perspective.

Visiting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was among the first to see the exhibit when he held talks with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, and gave the photos high praise.

Zhao's works have long served as windows on China. Before landing in Brussels, his China Story exhibit traveled to the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Russia and Japan, among other countries.

According to Zhao, the exhibit will journey to Germany and Austria, "to show Europe a real and beautiful China".

"I hope the exhibit will help create mutual aspirations and appreciation between Chinese and European citizens," said Zhao, who described his mission as showing the brighter side of China through the faces of ordinary people.

Like many of his generation, Zhao remembers hardship and poverty. He grew up in a household in Jiangsu province that never spoke of cameras, not to mention satisfying his desires and dreams of photography.

After graduating from Nanjing Normal University in 1985, Zhao worked as a physics teacher for two years.

But his life changed course when he moved to New York with $60 in his pocket in 1987. On his second day in the United States, Zhao fed himself by delivering Chinese food on a bicycle.

But he insisted on studying photography and became a student at the photography department of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

After graduation, Zhao decided to stay in the US and through persistent phone calls badgered US photographer Peter Levy into a five-minute interview in 1988.

Though skeptical, Levy started Zhao on fixing cameras and lights and later on photography. Zhao spent four years with Levy as his first assistant and studio manager.

He immersed himself in the experience, and in photographing people, fashion, lifestyle and scenery.

Despite big names on his client list such as Sony, Pepsi and Kodak, he realized his focus should not be on fashion and commercial photography.

In search of his roots, Zhao returned to China in 1994. Born out of a desire to show the beautiful side of his homeland and to see photos of his countrymen smiling, Zhao accepted the government's invitation to launch the China Story project in 1997 and set out to capture his country on film.

Zhao said after years in the US, he has his own vision of China.

"I want people to know that I see a beautiful China with an important future," Zhao said.