LENSMAN’S TRACK RECORD
Photographer Wang Fuchun found fame decades ago with his book Chinese People on Trains, a project that is still ongoing.
Ayoung woman looks deep into her lover’s eyes as they scrunch together in a narrow bed, sharing one blanket, in a sleeping carriage of a train heading from Guangzhou to Chengdu.
The moment was captured in 1996 by Wang Fuchun, a photographer who’s renowned for his book Chinese People on Trains, which features photographs capturing such moments in the lives of people traveling on trains.
Since 1978, Wang has devoted himself to photographing passengers on trains for nearly 40 years, and the 74-year-old photographer still sticks to this theme.
As time has passed, his collections of black-and-white images have formed a record of the changes in Chinese society and charted the transformation of China’s railways as they have progressed the age of steam locomotives to diesel to the current era of electric bullet trains.
“His works show a strong sense of the times and display the spirit of the people,” Yuan Zi, an author known for his young-adult fictions, said at a recent book event in Beijing to promote the release of the latest edition of Wang’s Chinese People on Trains.
The book was first published in 2001. The latest edition includes 37 new photographs.
For Wang, the 1990s was a decade with rapid development and the country experienced great changes thanks to the reform and opening-up policy. It was also the period when his works became mature exhibiting aesthetic and historical value.
In one photo taken in 1995, a dog, standing on a table, stares hungrily at a young woman who’s eating instant noodles in a sleeping carriage. Now that pets are transported separately from their owners when traveling by train, scenes like this can no longer be seen, says Wang.
Wang also outlines the fashions of the time through such pictures as a woman wearing a T-shirt with images of the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, which were popular after the film Titanic was screened in China, a man using a prototype mobile phone, and two people listening together to a Walkman.
“Russian author Maxim Gorky said the subject of literature was humans. I think that is also true of photography,” Wang says.
Guided by such a philosophy, Wang gave up landscape and wildlife photography to put all his energy into documentary photography.
“I would like to call myself the photographer nearest to people,” Wang says.
According to Wang, the carriages in the 1990s could be crowded, muggy and smelly, yet the interactions between passengers neutralized the bitterness.
He wandered back and forth along the aisles of the trains observing the passengers, seeking to capture attractive and warmhearted moments: Men sharing cigarettes and alcohol, people playing cards, and parents trying to keep their kids amused were all framed in his viewfinder from a humane and humorous perspective.
“One thing I appreciate in his works is that by focusing on ordinary people, he presents a more positive perspective than merely showing the hardships,” says Yuan Zi.
That optimism is rooted in Wang’s childhood.
After losing both of his parents at a very young age, Wang was raised by his brother, who was working in the railway system, and his sister-in-law.
Although poor and with five children of their own to raise, they insisted on sponsoring Wang through a railway driver’s school.
After five years’ service in the military, Wang became a railway worker. Soon after the “cultural revolution” (196676), he started photographing the railways and trains.
With the privilege of free train travel as a railway employee, Wang traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and preserved tens of thousands of negative films through the 1990s. He might have traveled more than 100 times a year.
Wang’s long-lasting attachment and deep affection for China’s railways form the constant and primary motive for his 39 years’ persistence.
During the mid-1990s, four or five diazepam tablets couldn’t get him into sleep. However, the rhythmic rumble of the old-style trains was able to cure his chronic insomnia, he says.
Yet, Wang’s devotion sometimes led to misunderstandings.
“When I wander along the aisle and look around, people will sometimes become defensive. Once a passenger mistook me for a thief and turned me over to the police. I had to show my work credentials and explain what I was doing over and over again before they would release me,” he recalls.
As the Chinese people pay more attention to privacy nowadays, taking photos of strangers has become even harder. Wang was even punched in the face in 2015 when taking pictures of a passenger in a high-speed train.
Another challenge Wang faces is that people rarely talk to strangers nowadays. Instead, they appear in his photos concentrating on their cellphones.
“However, there are still interesting moments, interactions and stories on bullet trains and I’m trying hard to discover and capture them. For example, nobody talking and everyone staring at cellphones is a new story to tell.”
Now in his seventies, Wang still grabs every opportunity to get on trains and photograph passengers in carriages.
His efforts for Chinese People on Trains will continue. Now he’s working on a new edition of the book, which will be released next year.
“One can only focus on one thing in one’s life. I’m so lucky to have my interest as my career.”
I would like to call myself the photographer nearest to people.”
Contact the writer at fangaiqing@ chinadaily.com.cn.
The latest edition of Wang’s book is released by Post Wave Publishing Consulting (Beijing).