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Journey of discovery

Updated: 2012-09-27 08:00
By Xu Jingxi ( China Daily)

Journey of discovery

Photographer Ma Liang waves a toy chicken to make clients smile while shooting pictures for them. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 Journey of discovery

Ma Liang's photos feature a mother with her son (left) and a whole family (right).

Since February, Ma Liang, aka Maleonn, and his team have been touring China's cities and offering free portrait photos. Xu Jingxi reports in Guangzhou.

Dressed in an olive green army uniform, a middle-aged man jumps about with a toy gun in his hand, relishing his childhood memory of pretending to be a soldier. His female friends search around in a wardrobe of 60 costumes for something suitable to be photographed in.

Ma Liang, a Chinese photographer and painter who is better known as Maleonn, is providing whimsical settings for his subjects to let loose their imaginations and strike creative poses.

The 40-year-old photographer has a fierce look, with a clean shaven head, big eyes, a goatee braided into a plait, two heavy silver chains hanging over his neck and a big tattoo carved on his right arm.

However, he puts on a funny face and waves around a toy chicken to make clients smile, and when they ask for his signature on a photo he smiles broadly.

He has been traveling across China since Feb 17 to offer a photo shoot service, free of charge. He calls it a gift to his fans and a world that "needs more positive energy".

"I embarked on the journey to prove that interpersonal interactions can be simple and warm, without money or doubt involved," Ma says.

"I take a photo to thank you for loving my works, and you give me a bottle of water to thank me for traveling so far away to deliver the gift. Both of us are happy."

He is upset that people nowadays will hesitate to help an old man falling on the road because of the fear of being blackmailed.

Ma and his six-member team carry all the props and costumes in a truck on their tour of 35 Chinese cities.

They set up a temporary photo studio at places suggested by friends who are locals. An old bus, the backyard of a villa and an exhibition hall have all been transformed into studios to welcome people who found out about the activity on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

After finishing the photo shoot in Guangzhou on Sept 22, Ma has taken photos of more than 1,300 people. He selected the best of 100 shots, printed them out and carefully put them into frames he designed.

Having been on the road for eight months, Ma and his team are on course to visit five cities until the end of October.

Though the world-renowned photographer's works can cost more than 100,000 yuan ($15,900) each, he is on the verge of bankruptcy after investing about 1 million yuan in a mobile photo studio.

Even so, he doesn't ask for money from clients at the photo studio and has also turned down donations.

"We need complete, clean romanticism. I want to prove that we can give without asking for a reward because we care for and trust a person," Ma says.

However, Ma is upset when people are not grateful.For example, the first two customers visiting his studio on the second day of the photo shoot in Guangzhou just stood and watched as Ma and his team carried the props and costumes into the studio.

They didn't even say thank you, Ma says.

Most people, though, understand Ma's message of mutual care and trust.

An Yunnong and her friend, both 20-year-old college students, helped classify the props and put them away after the photo shoot.

"Compared to what Ma has done for us, our help is nothing to speak of," says An.

"Nowadays, many people in China think that it takes money to do what they want to. I'm thankful that Ma makes me believe again that this is not true. I can also have a dream photo even though I could not afford it," says the fan of Ma's photography.

Ma says he has rediscovered the meaning of art during the journey.

"Art shouldn't be only about exhibits in the museum or expensive items under the auctioneer's gavel. The ultimate goal of art is to bring comfort and joy to the audience," Ma says.

"I hope to present really useful art by sharing the comfort and joy with ordinary people," he adds, giving examples.

In Nantong, Jiangsu province, a college campus couple sat shoulder-to-shoulder, reading books in silence. They didn't know whether they would separate after graduation and wanted Ma to take what might be their last photo together.

In Chengdu, Sichuan province, a young woman and her boyfriend, who had been disfigured in a car accident, turned up. The woman said she hoped her boyfriend could become confident again after seeing the photo Ma took of them.

"Life is tough but art can protect people from being torn down by the cruel reality. My photos cannot change their lives, but the photos can provide warmth," says Ma.

The versatile artist believes that, "A photo is related to time. A photo will become more precious as time goes by. It captures those moments that are written in water and helps us remember our lives and people important to us."

Ma is a zealous collector of antique photos and has purchased thousands from second-hand markets over the past decade.

He is also obsessed with the old-fashioned way of taking a photo in a studio against a well-designed background, in the age of digital cameras.

"I believe that the instant emotional exchange between the photographer and the subject in the old-fashioned photo studio is irreplaceable."

Xu Jing went to Ma's mobile photo studio for a photo with her 20-month-old daughter.

Journey of discovery

"When I was a child, my family would go to the studio to take a photo every year. Although the background was simple, I was excited about going through the 'ceremony' of taking a beautiful photo together with my parents. I want my daughter to have such experiences too," says the 31-year-old.

Xu admits that she seldom goes to a photo studio now. "There are fewer and fewer photo studios. And many of them are promoting expensive unnatural artistic photo packages," Xu says.

Ma has no plans for another mobile photo studio project in the future.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime journey. I'm not sure whether I can still afford the time and energy to do it again, but I'm sure that when people look at the 'old' photo I took for them years later, they will recall how our mobile photo studio traveled into their life and warmed them with good will."

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(China Daily 09/27/2012 page20)