A young photographer's Shangri-La

Updated: 2012-03-12 13:29

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

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A young photographer's Shangri-La

In this award-winning photo entitled Mother and Son, shutterbug Zou Subin snaps a backstage scene of a Ganju Opera performer knitting while rocking her baby. Photos provided to China Daily

A young photographer's Shangri-La

Children in the Summer Rush features a mother on a train with a flock of girls, who were using the summer vacation for family reunions.

A young photographer's Shangri-La

Zou Subin uses his camera to tel ordinary people's stories.

A youthful shutterbug discovers divine bliss in ordinary pursuits and routine activities. Raymond Zhou reports in Beijing.

The mention of Shangri-La conjures conceptions of a paradise shrouded in mist and beyond human reach. But for Zou Subin, the ethereal beauty of the mythical place, which represents "peace, harmony and everything that is good about humanity", is replaced with something more concrete or even mundane. In this context, a middle-aged mother nodding off on a train with her flock of girls does the trick. On a July day in 2010, Zou was returning to his home in Jiangxi province after graduating from Yunnan University in the hinterland province. When he was transferring at Yingtan Station, the public announcement loudspeaker was blasting a missing person's notice. Soon, the young girl was located and joined her aunt - and four other girls of similar age.

Zou happened to sit near them on the continuing leg of his journey and started to chat with them.

Two of the girls were the woman's own daughters - the one on her left and with her back to the camera, and the one reclining sideways on the seat across who was in her second year in elementary school and helped her mother to the best she could. The rest were from the same village, including the one briefly missing on the platform, who sits to her right.

"I did not ask her name, but I did find out some details," Zou says.

The woman was traveling to join her husband in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, where he was a mason and made about 50,000 yuan ($7,940) a year.

They had used this money to build a new house in their hometown. The other kids also have parents who are migrant workers and were using the summer vacation for family reunions.

"I spent only two hours with them before I had to disembark, but my impression was that they were happy and anxious to see their fathers soon," Zou recalls.

This photo, entitled Children in the Summer Rush, recently won the Gold Award of the 2011 My Shangri-La Photo Competition. The jury, led by renowned filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, wrote: "We imagine that they are on their way to Shangri-La. They are not there yet, but their souls have already arrived in this dreamy place."

In other words, this photo is in accord with the traditional Chinese aesthetic principle that a target for literary or artistic description is more effectively suggested than portrayed outright.

One can also interpret that the moment of relaxation in the noisiest and most crowded of environments epitomizes a state of mind that is close to Shangri-La.

It is not spiritual in the conventional sense of the word, but it captures and displays the splendor of the worldly pursuits that we all take for granted - "the beautiful stories that lie behind the glamorous facade", in Zou's words.

The 24-year-old is an art student who currently freelances in Shanghai. His mother has been without a job for many years, and his father makes slightly more than 1,000 yuan a month. To help raise the funds for his college education, his mother had to work as a maid.

However, when he enrolled in a photography class in his sophomore year, his father, who is also a shutterbug, turned to relatives and friends and raised 4,000 yuan to buy a Pentax K200D for him.

"That was the best entry-level camera we could afford," the son says.

Since then, he has been putting what he learned in class into practice. During sojourns at home, he would participate in events organized by the local photographers association and learn from the professionals.

One of Zou's passions is to chronicle the folk opera scene.

Jiangxi's Leping city is home to Ganju Opera.

Almost every village has an elevated platform that serves as a public stage. "When performing troupes tour around, they do not need to rent a venue," Zou says.

Among all the groups is one that consists of professional artists.

That ensemble, the Leping Ganju Opera Troupe, has about 40 staff members, and they spend about half the year touring rural areas.

"They usually have a run of three to five days in one village and make some 3,000 yuan per day - for the whole company," Zou says.

So, not only does this local opera not command as much glitz and glamour as the pop scene, but also, it falls far below the radar of public attention compared with the prestigious Peking Opera.

However, the performers are the envy of many village youths, with whom they often interact with in costume and full makeup.

Mother and Son is one of many pictures that Zou has snapped of these village stars. Unlike the train travelers, these subjects are on familiar terms with Zou and the performers rarely pay any heed while he clicks away.

According to Zou, the young actress in the photo had to tour with her husband, also an actor with the company, not long after she gave birth to their son because it was the busy season. The backstage scene of her knitting and rocking the baby, surrounded by prop trunks, is her way of winding down and keeping herself occupied between operatic appearances.

That moment touched Zou, and the photo he took, in turn, touched the competition's jurors, who gave it the Moving Moment Award, making Zou a multiple-award winner in the same season.

"Shangri-La does not actually exist," Zou says. "It's a journey through the inner world. And I want to use my camera to tell the stories that are happening around us and that reflect that world."