By Wang Fengjuan
On an early autumn afternoon, Wang Fuchun sits at his desk looking through a heavy picture album adorned with a dozen pale-green sticky notes. Titled The Chinese and Their Lives, it is another of Wang’s documentary photography albums almost ready for publication.
Wang Fuchun, now 77, was born in China’s far northeast in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province. Over the past four decades, he has shot hundreds of thousands of pictures and has published a photo album trilogy: The Chinese on Trains, The Chinese and their Lives and The Chinese on the Subway. Through capturing glimpses of everyday life, Wang managed to document much of the change and evolution of Chinese society. The collection The Chinese on Trains attracted major attention and won various awards including the Special Contribution Award of International Photographers Association of Los Angeles. Wang was also listed among the 30 most influential Asian photographers certified by Invisible Photographer Asia.
“Miniature societies form on trains, providing fleeting images that preserve the times through scenes that seemed mundane at the time,” Wang explains with a smile. “I have been lucky for the privilege of witnessing and recording such historical changes through documentary photography.”
Changes Through the Lens
Wang is always excited to talk about documentary photography. With a philosophy that documentary photos should deliver as much information as possible, Wang believes an excellent photographer needs extensive real-life experience in addition to abundant knowledge in literature and art. Wang’s own life experience inspired him to shoot stories on trains.
Wang attended a school for train conductors in Suihua in the 1970s and served in the military for five years after graduation. Then he returned to the Sankeshu train depot in Heilongjiang Province, where he was hired to work on publicity. In 1977, he was assigned to take photos of model workers. Wang borrowed a domestically produced Haiou (Seagull) camera and took the first photos of what would become a lifelong career as a photographer. He quickly fell in love with the entire process of photography. “I realized that photography was art and that taking a picture was much quicker than painting it,” Wang chuckles. “I made the right decision to change my life path.”
Wang never stopped observing life through a lens after his first black-and-white photos. “All of society began developing so rapidly that I found extensive opportunities to record the changes in photos.” The evolution of China’s railways over the past four decades left a deep impression on the photographer. “I’m amazed by the development speed of railways over the four decades,” Wang declares. “Train service was upgraded from the traditional slow “green trains” to faster models, express trains and then electrical multiple units and high speed bullet trains.” Wang has become an expert on the modern history of China’s railways. “The railway network branched out across the whole country as the speed of China Railway High speed [CRH] trains jumped from less than 100 km/ h to 350 km/h in the 21st Century. The people on trains also changed. They stopped wearing dull uniforms and began getting their hair permed and wearing jeans in the 1970s. Nowadays, it’s a trend to wear fashionable and unique clothes. The concept of travel shifted from images of heavy bags, huge crowds and extreme exhaust to a leisure activity featuring comprehensive service as people work on laptops, watch videos, shop, order meals online and use digital tickets.” Wang Fuchun also upgraded his camera from Haiou to Nikon, Canon and then Panasonic and Sony digital pocket cameras. “It was a dream come true,” he grins.
Wang’s photos compose a history book covering the development of China’s railways, and behind each picture is a story. Two of his most iconic photos were projected across an entire wall at “The Chinese on Trains” exhibition last year in the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The 1998 shot depicts several passengers sticking their heads out of the windows of a QJ Class steam locomotive as thick plumes of black smoke billow from the engine. The other photo from 2015 features a newlywed couple taking pictures in front of the Harmony CRH train with the Chinese character “ 囍 ”, which represents double happiness. “From primitive steam locomotives to the high-speed and energy-efficient CRH trains, you can track the changes of the times,” Wang illustrates. “That the newlyweds would take wedding pictures in front of the Harmony train connotes widespread harmony and hope.”
Always En Route
“I have been shooting people on trains for over 40 years, and I could have never captured so much without profound love for the railways.” Wang Fuchun lived near a train station as a child and developed a special bond with the rails. “Since picking up a camera, I have never stopped shooting stories of trains and the people on trains.”
Wang took his camera more than 100,000 kilometers on 1,000 trains across the four decades. From Mohe in the north to Guangzhou in the south, from Golmud in the west to Shanghai in the east, the photographer has traversed the furthest reaches of the country taking pictures all along the way to capture not just his journey, but the nation’s.
When asked to choose his favorite piece of work, Wang dodges, calling his various pictures apples and oranges because the unique stories behind them cause different feelings. One picture that moved Wang profoundly was of a girl sleeping in a crowded passenger car on a train heading to Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in 1995. The subject was only five or six years old and naked from the waist up. Covered in dirt and sweat on the floor, she still managed to sleep peacefully propped against the train door. “I hesitated to take that picture because I felt sorry and even guilty that I could not help,” he admits. “It was painful to click the shutter. Luckily, you don’t see such conditions any more as people’s lives and transportation methods have improved.”
He also snapped happy stories. Some are adorable, like newlyweds taking a train on their honeymoon and intimate lovers cuddled together under a blanket. Some are touching, like families saying goodbye through the train window, a monk in a robe treating a girl with traditional Chinese medical methods, and a guide dog helping people with visual impairments board. Some feature religion such as Muslims praying on trains, and some capture ethnic flair like Tibetans singing and dancing in passenger cars. However, he also witnessed precious scenes that he could not capture, like when a train attendant stopped him from taking pictures of a woman giving birth on a train.
Wang has devoted his life to this special undertaking. He has suffered headaches and severe loss of sleep because of altitude sickness, passed out in the sweltering heat of southern China and been reprimanded and even accused of theft due to carrying cameras all over the trains. “My heart still pounds when I look back at my most dire moment,” Wang declares. Once, a train started leaving a station before he got back on, so he grabbed onto the door, hoping to jump in. The train suddenly accelerated, flinging him into the air as he held onto the door for dear life. Luckily, the passengers and attendants pulled him in, but he was too scared to stand. When they chided him not to risk his life over missing a train, he noted that he had left his camera on the train.
Wang believes every precious experience has flavored his life.
Like the lace between stunning pearls, The Chinese on Trains connects historical moments together. It captures the memories of the nation and its people and the changes of the times in a way that will resonate with all humans. The photos have already been shown in multiple countries, and an exhibition titled “The Chinese on Trains in the Eyes of Wang Fuchun” started a three-year itinerant run in Britain, the birthplace of steam engines. The British National Railway Museum’s representative for exhibition affairs remarked that although the pictures were taken in China, Mr. Wang captured common scenes that connect to all lives. Trains connect people and make journeys worth remembering.