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Timeless black-and-white chronicles

ANN/CHINA DAILY – For photographer Zhang Qi, time may pass swiftly, but not so quickly that he cannot capture precious moments with his keenly focused lens. 

For the past 14 years, the 46-year-old Beijing native has dedicated himself to a nostalgic project, documenting the lives of ordinary people on black-and-white film. He plans to hold an exhibition every decade to showcase how time has influenced his subjects’ lives.

“Jiaopian Fengcun” (“memory storage on photographic film”) is a chronicle of love, friendship, hope, loss, and kindness. Zhang’s subjects are people he has encountered in various ways—whether meeting them on the street, through introductions by friends, or online.

“For me, the project is more like a question with no standard answer. Some people may reflect on the power of time, and some may ponder on their choices in life. It is personal,” Zhang says.

He thinks of the project as a seed, which gives birth to unpredictable results. When it is time for the seed to flower, you enjoy what emerges, whether it’s to your liking or not. 

These “flowering seasons” are the three exhibitions he has planned, the first of which was held in 2022, with the next in 2032, and then 2042.

The first exhibition was held in Beijing in 2022 as promised, with dozens of participants of Zhang’s project showed up and some sharing their stories. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY SOURCE

When the first exhibition was held in Beijing in 2022, some of the people in the photos turned up, while others didn’t.

One white-collar worker, nicknamed Qiuqiu, couldn’t make it as a result of the pandemic travel ban. 

Working in a State-owned company in Tianjin, Qiuqiu and her husband had their photo taken in a coffee shop in Beijing in 2015 shortly after getting married, and they gave Zhang permission to show their photos as a way of marking their seventh anniversary.

Now 36, Qiuqiu weighs slightly more than she did in the photo and enjoys married life. Over the past few years, she has been promoted from secretary to manager and while she used to be a perfectionist, she now takes a more relaxed attitude to work.

“It’s like opening a time capsule, which takes you on a trip down memory lane. The photos have taken on a different perspective to when they were shot,” Qiuqiu says, adding that this unpredictability is also what makes the project fun.

Once Zhang took the photos of the people, he stored the film for years until his first exhibition in 2022. He still remembers the excitement he felt the moment the faces in the photos were revealed in his darkroom.

He hopes to hold exhibitions 10 years after the shots were taken to highlight how lives changed in the interim. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY SOURCE

Inspiration

In 2010, he had a well-paid job in the sales department of an internet company, but had also just been diagnosed with depression and had begun to avoid enclosed spaces like elevators, as well as lose his appetite.

He decided to quit and took up photography as a hobby, and also started searching for information about vintage cameras online. 

While browsing a bulletin board system, he came across a series of photos, including a photo of a foreign family, that had been on the film left inside a Rollei 35 S compact camera that the netizen who had uploaded the photos had bought secondhand.

“Although it wasn’t a good photo, the family photo fascinated me for no obvious reason. It made me cry; I didn’t know why,” Zhang says, adding that he later downloaded the photos to his computer.

Two years later, Zhang decided to search for the people in the photo, and reposted the images on micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo. Through a licence plate number, the photo was identified as having been taken in Braunschweig in Germany.

With the help of a translator, Zhang emailed media outlets in Braunschweig. A local radio station got interested in the story and a newspaper followed up with a report. 

Within hours it had made headlines, and soon after, the newsroom received a phone call from someone who claimed to be the child in the photo.

Confirming that the family photo had been taken in 1984, Zhang asked the person if they could send him a new family photo. When he got it, he immediately sensed the power of time — the photo contained some new people, while some from the original were missing.

“The old family photo helped me to find motivation, which inspired me to start my project capturing moments from the lives of strangers on film,” Zhang says.

Zhang with his camera. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY SOURCE

With dozens of followers on Sina Weibo, Zhang posted a call for participants on the social media platform in 2012. Opening a small photo studio in Wudaoying Hutong, Beijing’s Dongcheng district, he handed out handbills to introduce the project to passersby.

It had three questions. Who are you? When do you want your photo to be exhibited? What moment (with who and where) do you want to capture?

Most people were sceptical and asked Zhang questions like what would happen to the project if he died.

This led him to question the meaning of what he was doing. His answer came in the form of a woman in her 80s he met on the street. After hearing about his project, she told him with a glint of curiosity in her eyes that she wanted to be photographed and to see herself a decade later.

“I still remember that moment. The silver-haired lady didn’t question whether she would (live to) see the photo or not. It was the answer I had been looking for,” Zhang says with a smile.

Reflection

For Zhang, photography is an intimate art, which can help people open up and share their stories through visual language. His photos include a pregnant woman cradling her belly in a well-decorated nursery, an owner inside her 6-year-old store which she was about to close, a subway driver and his wife at their wedding ceremony, and a woman holding a stick of candied haws, laughing with her friends.

When the time came, Zhang hesitated before finally dialling the first number to invite all those he had photographed 10 years before to the exhibition.

“It was not only a call to the person I’d photographed, but also a call to the 10-year-ago me, who had been uncertain and confused about life. You didn’t know what would happen at the other end of the line,” Zhang explains.

Initiated by photographer Zhang Qi, Jiaopian Fengcun (memory storage on photographic film) is a nostalgic project capturing people’s lives on black-and-white film. PHOTO: ANN/CHINA DAILY SOURCE

Some people didn’t remember the project, and some didn’t answer. There was also difficult feedback, such as the man who asked Zhang not to show the photo of him with his ex-girlfriend, and other reasons people didn’t want their photos to be displayed.

When the subway driver answered, he said that he would take his child to the exhibition, without mentioning his wife, but he didn’t show up, either.

The woman laughing with her friends answered saying she couldn’t come, because she was undergoing chemotherapy.

Then, there was the couple who had tired of Beijing’s fast pace of life and dreamed of living in Lijiang, Yunnan province. In their photo, taken in 2012, they are holding a blackboard with the words”Have you started your happy life in Lijiang?” written on it. Ten years later, the wife, now a 45-year-old mother, hadn’t been able to realise that dream for a number of reasons, including work, needing to educate her child and healthcare matters.

As the exhibition unfolded, old faces reappeared, memories resurfaced, and emotions ran deep. Each participant’s journey mirrored the complexities of life — regrets, aspirations and the enduring power of love and family.

In the midst of it all, Zhang discovered that he had found solace in the stories he had captured, and in the faces that had weathered the storms of time, solace that has since kept the once uncertain photographer on the hunt for fresh faces to photograph for exhibitions in the years to come.

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