These Photos Have Nothing To Do With News
(Freezing Point - China Youth Daily) These Photos Have Nothing To Do With News. By Lin Tianhong. August 19, 2009.
In the countless number of clothing stores at the Taobao website, Liu Renyan's site is not especially eye-catching. Since starting business on May 12 this year, this clothing store titled <Beichuan Xiang girl> has only completed 98 business deals, less than one per day on the average. Sometimes, it does not even get a customer in two or three days.
But many of the visitors were attracted by the photos of the real-life model at this store. This is a unique set of pictures -- the location is a barren rooftop; the skies in the background are not clear; the store owner Liu Renyan is standing on a bright red chair and assuming certain unprofessional poses in order to exhibit the clothes that she wants to sell.
These "amateur" photos were taken by a professional photographer named Fu Yongjun. As the director of the Photography Department of the <Metro Express> newspaper in Zhejiang province, he has never taken anything like these photos. Most of the time, he uses his camera for suddenly breaking news. In 2009, this somewhat famous photographer in China even won the highest international photography award in Holland.
But this time, his camera was not there to record history. Instead, he wanted to take photos for a 22-year-old woman from the Xiang ethnic group in Beichuan. She had once been an office worker at a certain electronics factory in Xunde city, Guangdong province. During the May 12th earthquake, her 17-year-old sister Liu Renchun died. In order to stay with her lonely parents, she quit her job and returned to Sichuan, where she began her Internet career.
"These photos have nothing to do with news," said Fu Yongjun. "They only tell a simple story about how a simple girl is trying to stubborn find a way out for herself in the face of a vast and unfathomable fate. But I believe that some people will be able to find in these photos what I want to communicate -- strength, courage and love."
Everything that happened began with a bloodied notebook found in the rubble of Beichuan Middle School.
On the fifth day after the May 12th Wenchuan earthquake, Fu Yongjun arrived at the rubble that was the Beichuan Middle School. At the time, the rescue work was reaching an end. This photographer saw many large rescue vehicles still working busily at the scene. There were also a lot of debris scattered on the ground looking for their owners -- opened school bags, books and pens that were covered with dust, plus photos of young people.
Amidst the deafening sounds of the equipment, this 38-year-old man held back his tears as he rumbled through the objects at the site. After a while, a bloodied diary suddenly came into view.
On the front of the diary were two photos. The one in the middle were about a couple of lovers. The one in the lower right hand corner was about a young girl with a cute smile making a V-sign with two fingers. The formerly white cover was soaked through with dried blood.
Fu Yongjun carefully opened the diary to read. The inside page had the name of its owner: Liu Renjun. The end of the diary contained six telephone numbers, respectively for: Father, mother, elder sister, teacher and two fellow students.
The photographer wanted to take the diary with him, but then he felt "it may be best for the diary to be left at the spot." So he took his camera and filmed the six telephone numbers. Then he placed the diary back to the original spot.
This became the thing that this photographer is most sorry to have done in his eight year career.
That evening, Fu Yongjun returned to his hotel in Mianyang city. In processing the photos, "a sudden thought came to him." He picked up the telephone and dialed the six numbers. He could not get through on the first few. Then "with the last hope," he dialed the telephone number of "the elder sister." This time, the call got through and the voice of a girl came on.
Fu Yongjun asked very cautiously: "Are the elder sister of Liu Renchun?"
"Do you have news of my younger sister?" The voice on the other side of the line suddenly got anxious.
This was the first time that Liu Renyan heard anything about her younger sister since the earthquake hit.
Over the past few days, she kept calling her family members but could not get through. She hurriedly returned to Sichuan, but the roads leading into Beichuan were all blocked. Fortunately, a neighbor who was able to get out told her that her parents were safe.
But what about her younger sister?
They were a simple Xiang family living in Kaiping town, Beichuan county. The parents farmed and even ran a small restaurant in town. There were not enough people in town, so business was not good. Still, they can earn more than ten yuan a day, which was enough to feed the family.
When she was in junior middle school at the Beichuan Ethnic Middle School, Liu Renyuan was always able to be among the top five in her class. By her teacher's estimate, she should have no trouble getting into Beichuan Middle School for her senior middle school education. But the family was just too poor. If she continued to study, her younger sister would not be able to afford to attend school.
The sisters were always close to each other. The younger sister Liu Renchun had the personality of a young boy and she was physically stronger than her elder sister. Even today, Liu Renyan still remembers that when the two went up the mountains to gather firewood, the younger sister always carried the heavier tree trunks while making her elder sister carry the lighter tree branches. At home, the sisters sometimes "fight" over things. Liu Renchun was most unhappy about having to wear the old clothes of her elder sister.
But the elder sister ultimately made the sacrifice on the issue of which girl could attend middle school. After 16-year-old Liu Renyan graduated from junior middle school in 2003, she went to work at an American-capital electronics factory in Xunde city, Guangdong province. So there were three money-earners in the family who worked to let the youngest girl study.
When the elder sister was working away from home, the younger sister called her several times a week. Sometimes, she would share secrets with her elder sister. For example, she did not like a certain female student in class or a certain male student wrote a love letter to her. She liked to ask her elder sister: "A holiday festival is coming up. What gift are you going to buy for me?"
At just past 7pm on the evening of May 11, 2009, the younger sister who was boarding at the school called Liu Renyan. At the time, Liu Renyan was preparing for her self-paced course examination the next day, so she only chatted for less than five minutes. But Liu Renyan told her younger sister that she just mailed some new clothes home, including a dress for her.
"You describe to me what the dress looks like," the young girl asked happily.
"It's a secret. You will see it when you go home," Liu Renyan said with a laugh.
This was the last conversation between the sister. On the next day, the earthquake occurred. Liu Renchun was buried beneath the rubble of the school building. She would never get to see the dress that her elder sister bought for her.
But even as she spoke to Fu Yongjun by phone, Liu Renyan still held out great hopes for her younger sister to survive. She hurriedly asked him about what happened.
On the phone, Fu Yongjun described how he found the diary. He also told Liu Renyan that the surviving students of the Beichuan Middle School were all staying at the Changhong Cinema in Mianyang city. The two set up an appointment to meet the next morning to find Liu Renchun together.
At 830am the next day, Liu Renyan took a photo of her younger sister and met with Fu Yongjun in front of the Changhong Cinema. She read the list of survivors again and again. But the name Liu Renchun was not there. In the first year senior middle school class that her sister was in, there were only seven people on the survivors' list.
The teacher on duty summoned a male student who head was bandaged. He was a classmate of Liu Renchun. After the earthquake, he has not seen Liu Renchun. Next Liu Renyan heard the most unbearable news. A female student who was dragged out of the rubble by rescuers said that she and Liu Renchun fled together. The building collapsed on them. In the darkness she called out Liu Renchun's name, but received no reply. She touched the hands on the edge, and they had gone cold.
From the viewpoint of a professional photojournalists, the story of Lu Renyan looking for her young sister on the morning of May 18, 2009 would take a terrific news photo story. But as a human being, Fu Yongjun could not take any photos in the company of Liu Renyan. He even turned off his equipment and concentrated on helping Liu Renyan to find her younger sister.
Today, more than one year later, this 38-year-old man can still vividly replay the sight of Liu Renyan wandering among the crowd, holding the photo of her younger sister in her hand, tears coming down her eyes and anxiously asking everybody on any news.
"I have never regretted missing the opportunity to take those photos. As a human being, I have no regrets." He said. "But I am really sorry about not retrieving the diary. Ultimately, it would been a piece of last memory that Li Renchun could leave for her family."
It has been more than a year now. Liu Renyan and her parents do not even know where to commemorate Liu Renchun. The diary has disappeared. The original site of the Beichuan Middle School is a ruin that is surrounded by an iron wire fence. The school building where the 17-year-old girl was is now a pile of yellow soil that separates the dead from the living.
But life does not stop because there is sorrow.
If Liu Renyan were to remain in Guangdong, she would not doubt have a better career. This aspiring girl had spent two years working in the dull environment of the assembly department. For her diligence, the manager promoted her to become a clerk in the management department. For the past few years, she has been taken self-paced learning courses at Shenzhen University majoring in logistics management. Before the earthquake, she had already passed 15 of the 16 required courses.
At the end of 2008, this factory was prepared to promote her to become the assistant to the labor union. This mean that she would be promoted from an ordinary clerk to become part of the middle management at the factory. But most co-workers were shocked to learn that she decided to resign and return to Sichuan instead.
After the death of her young sister, her parents kept thinking about her and their health deteriorated. Her mother Liu Xiuqiong had bronchitis from before and now she also has a rhinitis which made her cough incessantly and causing her to lose the ability to taste the flavor of food.
"I was very much conflicted," Liu Renyan explained. "But I had no choice. My younger sister is dead and my parents are now the most important people in my life."
She tried to find work. But the financial crisis had just hit and many factories were laying off people. After many rejections, she became a buying guide at a clothing distributor. Each morning at around 3am, she had to get out of bed and greet the many customers who came early to get their wares. She had to work until seven or eight in the evening. Each month she made only around 1,000 yuan.
Meanwhile Fu Yongjun had returned home after gathering news at the earthquake location. Slowly he got back into his regular pattern -- go on a business trip, gather news, take photos. This photojournalist resumed his busy work.
But something was different. Periodically, he contacted Liu Renyan and asked how she is doing. Although they had not met for quite a while, he kept thinking about this Beichuan girl and her family. He wanted to do something for her.
The notion of helping Liu Renyan to start an online store sprung up suddenly in Fu Yongjun's head. In economically developed Zhejiang province, Fu Yongjun has met many young people who have done well with their online stores. Hangzhou is also the city with the best clothing industry in China. If he can find her a supply source, why couldn't she try too?
But Liu Renyan knew nothing about setting up an online store. Previously, all she knew about the Internet was QQ chat. She did not even know how to use email, never mind "something as professional" as setting up an online store.
So Fu Yongjun found a "guidance teacher" for her. This was a friend Wang Fang who has her own online clothing store. She is a kind woman who donated money at the time of the earthquake and also wants to help people in the disaster zone.
So Fu Yongjun bought a roundtrip airplane ticket for Liu Renyan to come to Hangzhou. This was the first time that this Xiang girl had traveled to this beautiful city. But she had no time to sightsee because she spent five whole days in Wang Fang's store to learn the whole process of setting up an online store.
In the eyes of Wang Fang, this quiet and polite girl always said "thank you." But she was also impressed by her intelligence. She picked up many complicated procedures at once. She was even better at certain operations than the trained workers in Wang Fang's store.
But over those five days, Wang Fang never saw her being "truly happny." Sometimes Liu Renyan would smile, but her brows were always knitted. When they had dinner, she was usually silent.
On the last day in Hangzhou, Fu Yongran and his <Metro Express> photography department colleagues took Liu Renyan out to a KTV. She was especially happy that day. After a few alcoholic drinks, she even did the traditional Xiang dance briefly.
In remembering that scene, Liu Renyan felt guilty. That Xiang dance piece was something that she and her younger sister used to dance when they were together.
"Frankly, I admire those families who were able to find the remnants of their loved ones. At least, they have a place where they can talk to." Sitting in front of the computer monitor, this 22-year-old sister said while tears came silently out of the corner of her eyes: "Many people tell me that I must live for my younger sister. But I only want to ask them: Please, can you tell me where my younger sister is?"
On the first anniversary of the death of her young sister (May 12, 2009), Liu Renyan's <Beichuan Xiang sister> Taobao clothing store began. Liu Renyan chose that date because she "wanted to use this special day because she wants to remember it as the moment at which she launched a new life."
At first, business was better than what most people expected. Because Fu Yongjun reported on this online store, more than 5,000 people visited the store on the first day. On that day, Liu Renyan had gone to Beichuan to commemorate her younger sister and was offline. But many people bought clothes. Even more left comments, encouraging her "to live well."
The sudden booming business caused Liu Renyan to be very optimistic. It may even have "gone to her head." On the next weekend, she dragged her boyfriend to the clothing distributor market and purchased more than 2,000 yuan worth of clothing. This was almost all their savings.
But the excitement started by the media was not sustainable. Liu Renyan quickly discovered that the business at the store was falling. Sometimes, several days go by without a single customer.
There are far too many clothing stores on Taobao. How many people will pay attention to this small store? Furthermore, supply was the biggest problem. "There was nothing special" about the clothes that she got from the distribution market. Although 2,000 yuan was everything that Liu Renyan had, this small sum was not enough to get a more favorable discount from the distributors.
On most days, Liu Renyan would sit in front of the computer promptly at 9am waiting for customers who can show up at any time. She would work until midnight. She does not want to miss any chance. Her computer is never turned off. Sometimes, she is sleeping at 3am or 4am and the music box rings to indicate an inquiry. She would immediately get up to check, but she is often disappointed because it is merely an advertisement.
She sometimes run into demanding customers. One customer bought a pair of pants from her. Liu Renyan mailed the pants according to the specified seize. But the customer got the pants, she said that they were too small and wanted to return the merchandise. Liu Renyan spent a whole afternoon negotiating with her back and forth. In the end, she gave up and acceded to the client. So she failed to complete the deal and even lost 10 yuan in postage, which was almost her income for a whole day.
Even though she was ready to cry, she still had to keep a friendly face. She is used to addressing these customers as "dear." Although this customer returned the merchandise and caused her to lose money, she still had to thank the "dear."
She has to face these setbacks spiritedly because this small online store represents her only dream now. This is a strong dream, given that her mother Li Xiuqiong has undergone two major operations this year. In April when Liu Renyan was still working at the distributor market, she brought her mother out from the mountain to have an operation for her rhinitis in Mianyang. Shortly afterwards, her mother was diagnosed with a cervical tumor and underwent a major operation in June.
"My greatest wish right now is that my parents should have good heath. I and my boyfriend will work hard to earn money so that my parents can leave the mountain and come here," said Liu Renyan.
When business is slow, Liu Renyan would open a file folder of photos on her computer to view. Those are the photos of her younger sister.
In the corner of her wardrobe, there is an unworn new dress. This is the white short-sleeved dress that she mailed to her young sister several days before the earthquake. The sleeve of the dress has refined white flower edges. There is a butterfly bow in front of the chest. Occasionally she takes this dress out to look at, as if her younger sister will come in at any time and put it on.
Fu Yongjun may be several thousand miles away but he was aware of the problem that Liu Renyan was facing. In July this year, he was on a business trip in Sichuan and he contacted a clothing manufacturer to lend him more than 20 new summer dresses. She wanted Liu Renyan to wear these clothes for him to take some live model photos in order to draw public attention.
From the view of a photojournalist, Liu Renyan could be said to be "beautiful": she is 1.65cm tall, her body is well-proportioned, she has a round face with large, lively eyes, she has clean white skin, and she has two lovely dimples when she smiles.
She also likes to be pretty, as can be seen by her immaculately tidy bedroom. She even saved the light blue foam plastic packing material to design a unique bookshelf next to the desk.
But she has not worn any new clothes since the online store opened. In this past summer, she just switched between two old t-shirts -- a black one which is a promotional item that her friend gave her and a light purple one which she bought for 40 yuan from a street vendor last summer.
Although she woke up every morning worried about the unsold clothes, she would not wear them.
But when Fu Yongjun showed up on that July afternoon, this girl finally had the chance to try on more than 20 different dresses.
The rented room of Liu Renyan was too small to film, so they decided to use the rooftop of the building in which she rented the room.
This was at the top of a 22 storey building. There were exhaust pipes from the kitchens downstairs everywhere on the roof, so there was no "clear" spot. Liu Renyan's boyfriend saw that Fu Yongjun was having a hard time lugging the heavy camera equipment around, so he went downstairs to bring a chair up so that he can sit and rest.
But this red chair gave Fu Yongjun an inspiration. He asked Liu Renyan to stand on the chair. With the skies behind her back, this became the "cleanest" background. Liu Renyan changed clothes at the far corner on the roof behind two exhaust pipes where nobody could see her.
Over almost two hours, Liu Renyan put on more than 20 different new dresses. She stood on the chair and made all sorts of somewhat professional poses. This was no photography studio, there was no lighting, there was no backdrop, there was no still life stand. Underneath the grey skies, this Xiang girl and the red chair provided the only bright spots in the photo.
While these photos are not as attractive as those with store model specialists, how much will they actually able to help Liu Renyan? Fu Yongjun was not sure himself.
When he posted the photos onto his own blog, many netizens criticized him. Some people felt that this was a gimmick that leveraged the sympathy of people to make money off the earthquake. Other people felt that Fu Yongjun was artificially manufacturing news in order to increase his own popularity.
If we go back in time a few years, Fu Yongjun could hardly approve of such "photographic works" himself. He had graduated from a professional driving school. He had been a truck driver, a traffic director, a militia police officer and a publicist for the Ministry of Culture at various times. At the time, he was an avid photographer and his favorite subjects are "various big events and incidents" or "creative works in places that are faraway and uninhabited."
But when he saw that famous "Big Eyes" photo for the Hope Project, the young Fu Yongjun "suddenly saw the light." He became increasingly aware that "those types of photos are about the essence of life." "Among even the most ordinary people at any day, there are many meaningful, significant and valuable things waiting for the photographer to capture," he said.
Therefore, this photographer suddenly felt a "sense of respect" in doing the photos for Liu Renyan.
"Other pretty girls wore clothes in order to highlight their own beauty. But when she put on those dresses, she wanted to sell them in exchange for a chance to realize her dreams. So isn't that red chair a stage on which Liu Renyan tries to find her dream?" This 38-year-old man sighed. "Life seeks its way out of these trivia and ordinariness. I feel honored to be the photographer for this female principal character."
This concept resonated with many netizens. One netizen commented in Fu Yongjun's blog after viewing the photos:
"Although these photos were taken in order to improve business at the online store, the story behind is just like an portrait that has flesh and blood. It seems quite plain, but it tells a story. This story may be related to a commercial activity, but we can also see many more serious things in it."