Wen Li, a music teacher from Shenzhen of Guangdong Province, never expected that photography would play a significant role in her life, until she won the special prize at the National Photo Competition held by the China Photographers' Association in 2005.
And she never expected that her award-winning photo would link her with a Tibetan girl.
Shot during a trip to Sichuan Province, her winning photo titled Huo (meaning puzzlement in Chinese) of a Tibetan girl in close-up wowed both professionals and the masses. They were even more surprised to learn that she knew little about photography when she took that picture.
But Wen did not get carried away with the excitement of the reward. She flew to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, the day after the award ceremony in Beijing on January 16. She wanted to find the girl in the photo, and to "give the award of 5,000 yuan ($640) back to her".
The National Photo Competition's award-winning picture of six-year-old Tibetan Nordron Wangmo.
Wen traveled with friends to Sichuan's Aba Tibet and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in July of 2004.
Since it was her first visit to the plateau, she bought a digital camera the day before setting off. She spent merely half an hour learning how to handle the camera from a workmate. And she kept reading the instructions during the trip.
On the way to Hongyuan County, the team saw several local children walking horses and playing on a vast grassland. They stopped to take photos as they tried to talk to the children.
The place was named Hongyuan by late Premier Zhou Enlai, which literally means the grassland that the Red Army passed by during the Long March in the 1930s.
When they were about to leave, Wen caught sight of a child walking toward them on the horizon on the other side of the grassland.
She could only picture a profile at first. As the child came nearer, she recognized that it was a Tibetan girl, her hair floating in the air. "She had dirt and mud on her face. The clothes she wore were clearly donations," she recollected. "She seemed so tiny, helpless and lonely on the vast barren land," she said. "She wore a bewildered, cautious but interested look. Her big, bright eyes reflected the typical restrained will of a Tibetan."
Wen failed to communicate with the girl, but she took five pictures of her.
She published all her photos at a local photographers' club after returning to Shenzhen. Among them, the ones with the girl in close-up were highly praised by many photographers and strongly recommended for the National Photo Competition.
"I became enthusiastic for photography after that trip and kept practising with other amateurs. But I was not prepared for such a competitive activity, because the organizers were offering an award of 5,000 yuan, considered high for a photo competition," she said.
The committee received 30,000 entries falling into three categories emotion, scenery and nature. Her photo was ranked first by both the jury and netizens, and was the only to win the special prize.
Amateur photographer and music teacher Wen Li with her subject Nordron Wangmo (3rd from left) and four other children whose education she now sponsors.
Photos courtesy of Wen Li
Wen called Yang Fang, an official of Hongyuan County, as soon as she was informed of having won the prize in early January. She asked Yang to help her find the girl, which sounded like a mission impossible to Yang. They knew nothing about the girl, including her name, her age, the village she lived in or the school she attended.
But Yang promised to try her best. She and her colleagues published dozens of copies of the photo and distributed them to villagers. All responses proved to be wrong calls. Wen Li decided to look for the girl herself, despite the harsh climate of Hongyuan.
"I had never been to the grassland in winter. Every one disagreed with my plan. Yet, it was a strong impulse to share the joy of winning with the girl that put me there. And most importantly, I felt she should have the money. I felt, it would definitely change her life," said Wen, who was impressed by the grassland schools during her last trip to Hongyuan.
She said on a good day, students of varying ages and grade levels would have classes at an appointed place. But a lot of children did not have access to a good education.
Her quest for the girl proved to be much more dangerous than she had thought, when her car struggled every inch on the snowy and windy grassland. The snow was so thick and heavy that even the experienced local driver couldn't distinguish the road from the grassland. The car got stuck several times.
"I was exhausted in the freezing cold. I felt I would pass out from the altitude sickness," she said.
They came upon a wooden cottage on a hill slope and found a Tibetan woman living there with her three children.
After Wen had some food and milk tea and warmed herself up, she showed the photo to the woman, who looked astonished at the girl on it.
"She said it was her niece, Nordron Wangmo. It turned out it was her sixth birthday the day I took the photo."
The woman went on to say that the girl had moved to the neighboring pasture with her parents. She was to move back to town in March to attend a pre-school class. However, said the aunt, the girl was likely to drop out because of poverty.
Wen returned in spring and finally met the girl. "She recognized me at once. She was quiet, and always held my hand tightly wherever I went."
Wen then set up a foundation for the girl. She also helps another four local students and maintains contact with them by letters.
"It is the girl and the plateau that led me into the world of photography. We've helped each other to realize a dream we dared not imagine before."
(China Daily 03/26/2007 page8)