Photographer Zhang Lei wins WPP award for smog project

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-26 5:03:02

Zhang Lei's work Haze in China that won him the 59th WPP prize Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Lei

Zhang Lei was not prepared to become famous. On February 18, he went from being an ordinary photographer at the Tianjin Daily, to seeing online that his name had made headlines in media reports about the World Press Photo (WPP) contest.

The 35-year-old photographer had won first prize in the "contemporary issues" category of the 59th WPP contest, securing his place in the annals of Chinese photography history.

A week on, Zhang says that he has recovered from the pleasant shock, but his excitement is obvious when he talks about it. "It is totally beyond my expectation," said Zhang.

In journalist circles, the WPP prize is regarded as the highest press photo accolade, and people joke that winning the WPP contest is like winning the lottery. Zhang admitted that he felt the same way, but insisted that winning the prize will not change his life that much.

"I'm glad, but it won't affect my life and work much. I will continue to record as before," said Zhang, "The prize is more for Chinese photographers as a whole by showing them more recognition."

Issues of concern

The photo that won Zhang the prize was one of the smog that has shrouded cities in China in recent years. Titled Haze in China, the photo is a sprawling view of a city covered by grey smog, with the blue sky visible above the haze. 

"It shows the environment people live in under the haze. I included the blue on the top, with the haze in the middle, and below the haze are the buildings where ordinary people live," Zhang said of his work. "I feel that the blue sky is not far away. I tried to show people some hope, whether the haze is caused by human beings or nature."

At first glance, the photo seems to have been taken from a plane, but Zhang explained that it was not. One day in December 2015, Zhang took an elevator to near the top of the tallest building in Tianjin, which is over 500 meters tall and was still under construction at that time.

"For this year's contest, I handed in several sets of photos. One of them was a group dealing with the subject of the haze. I sent photos about haze last year also but failed to win a prize, so this time the prize came as a big surprise," Zhang told the Global Times.

The group included eight photos about smog, some also taken from a great height and others showing the polluted conditions pedestrians have to face.

"It affects people's lives greatly. I hope I don't need to pay attention to it any more, which will mean that the problem has disappeared. But if it is still there, I will have to continue recording it," said Zhang.

From hobby to profession

Photographer Zhang Lei at work Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Lei

While he now works as a professional photographer, Zhang is a science and engineering graduate. After graduation, his first job was as a white-collar worker in a foreign enterprise. But he eventually made photography his living eight years ago, working as a photojournalist.

"I've always loved taking photos, though it was just a hobby before," said Zhang.

During the past few years, besides the smog, Zhang has also taken an interest in other social issues, such as the plight faced by children suffering from cerebral palsy. Currently, he is focusing on how the Internet is changing people's lives.

"Everyone is looking down at their mobile phones. The Internet has brought people closer, but meanwhile the feeling of distance has increased psychologically," said Zhang.

The photos he has taken, which are of various subjects, also cover impoverished people in the Daliang Mountain of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, and the explosion in Tianjin on August 12 last year.

As a photographer, Zhang said he usually has strong feelings about what people experience in their lives.

"Take the haze, for example. I feel very bad observing how people live in the haze. Standing on the ground, the haze has become a normal thing that people have become used to. But when you reach a certain height and look at it, you will find the haze is just several hundred or even dozens of meters thick, and above the layer of smog is the blue sky," said Zhang.

"It is not far, but we cannot enjoy it. And living below it, people have no way of knowing it [is within reach]," Zhang said.

He had particularly strong feelings when taking photos at the site of the recent explosion in Tianjin. "Everyone was busy rushing to the rescue. Human beings appear so small in front of disasters," Zhang said.

"But as a photographer, it is not enough to simply record what happens," he said, using his winning photo as an example, "Though it's just a single photo, I hope to tell the audience that it has greatly affected our lives, and at the same time, there is hope. There is a solution."

Group effort

As well as Zhang, another Chinese photographer named Chen Jie, who works for The Beijing News, won third prize in the WPP contest for his group of photos covering the explosion in Tianjin.

Every year, the results of the contest generate excitement in journalist circles, and people have grown used to seeing Chinese names appear on the winning list. From 2002 to now, there have been Chinese winners every year.

Zhang likes to see it as a sign of increasing recognition for Chinese photographers. "First of all, Chinese photographers have been improving technically, and more and more are meeting international quality and standards," noted Zhang, "Besides, generally speaking, China is playing a bigger and bigger role in the world and attracting increasing attention."

To him, Chinese photographers have a great advantage. China is huge geographically and rich in content so there is a wide range of subjects to choose from.

Zhang's work is closely related to social news. Next, he plans to focus on change in the countryside amid the country's rapid economic development, the development of the manufacturing industry and the environment in rural areas.

He believes that as a press photographer, it is essential that he discover and dig up news from people's daily lives.

"First of all, I'm a reporter. And photography is just one method of expression," Zhang said.

Newspaper headline: Lens on the prize

Posted in: Profile

blog comments powered by Disqus