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Changing rural lifestyles captured on film

By Huo Yan and Ma Lie in Xi'an | China Daily | Updated: 2017-01-23 07:44

 Changing rural lifestyles captured on film

Xie Wanqing with one of the more than 20,000 pictures he took over the years at his home in Longxian county, Shaanxi province.Photos By Huo Yan / China Daily

Farmer, turned photographer, draws on decades of experience to record pastoral scenes, customs and country life

It's a chilly winter's day in Northwest China's Shaanxi province and Xie Wanqing is preparing to feed his cattle. But unlike most farmers, Xie does the job with a camera slung around his neck.

The 61-year-old from Xiejiagou, Longxian county, is known for his photography, which has been his obsession for 47 years.

"Planting trees helped me to finally rid myself of poverty in 2015, but I have long lacked a poverty of spirit thanks to my photography. It's my spiritual pillar," he said.

Xie first learned to operate a camera in 1969, age 14, when he spotted a high-school graduate sketching on a hillside near where he had taken the cattle to graze.

"The man asked me to take a photograph for him and taught me how to operate the camera he brought with him. It was the first time I had seen a camera, let alone focused a lens or taken a picture," he said.

With one click of the camera shutter, Xie was smitten, and dreamed of owning a camera of his own one day.

So he worked hard to save money and finally realized his dream nine years later, age 23.

During all that time he never forgot what it felt like to hold a camera and would visualize every day the pictures he might take with it.

"I bought a Hongmei 120 camera for 70 yuan ($10) in the end, which used up all my savings," he said.

After getting the camera, Xie's next problem was finding some film, which cost about 1 yuan for the cheapest roll at the time. As this was more than 10 times the price of a bowl of noodles, most of his fellow villagers thought he was crazy for wanting to buy some.

Even today he faces similar challenges.

"I have a wife and three children to support - I have to save money both for them and for my photography," he said.

The county seat where Xie buys his film is 17 kilometers away from his village and the bus there costs 1.6 yuan. He saves money by walking to town whenever he wants to buy some film.

Xie only received four years of formal education and taught himself how to take pictures from a book called Introduction to Photography, which he bought from a second hand book stall.

After getting married in 1980, he had to work harder to support both his family and his photography.

But his wife, An Guiqin, said she supported Xie's dedication to his hobby, which was better than him drinking or gambling.

Over the years, he met a number of fellow photographers, who taught him more about shooting techniques, film development, printing and enlarging.

He has taken more than 20,000 photographs so far, each depicting scenes of life in the countryside such as farmers at work or the local customs and practices of rural folk.

At the end of the 1970s, a local newspaper began to publish some of Xie's work and he became a well-known photographer in the area.

Soon afterward, a fellow photographer told him his pictures were helping to record and preserve history, and as such were uniquely valuable.

"His words moved me and ever since, I have considered photography to be my career and lifelong pursuit," Xie said.

In 2015, with help from friends, Xie held his first exhibition called Fellow Country-men in Xi'an, capital of the province. It showcased 150 of his works, which told a story of the changes to rural folk culture in western Shaanxi over the past 30 years.

He said he wanted to hold such an exhibition because he thinks of his pictures as "telling a story about the lives of farmers and the countryside".

"I want to tell the story of rural lives that urban people do not know," he said.

Xie now plans to take a new series of photographs, contrasting the old with the new in the province's rural areas.

 Changing rural lifestyles captured on film

Xie always carries his camera while on the way to graze his cattle.

 Changing rural lifestyles captured on film

Xie shows his collection of cameras at his home.

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