Wu Jialin: Yunnan Mountain Folk

Wu Jialin: Yunnan Mountain Folk

Wu Jialin’s trajectory is a microcosm for the Chinese contemporary photographers who rose to fame in the 1980s and 90s. Their photography began in the Cultural Revolution, and they were at first dedicated to formulaic, staged photography, before turning to scenic landscape photography. But a few of them stood out from the rest, and as their peers happily continued down those two paths, these photographers quietly turned their lenses onto the real people around them and the state of their existence. Wu Jialin is an outstanding representative of this group, which blazed an entirely different trail.

Wu has said that many of the key turning points in his photographic career were the result of providence, from the random chance that led him to first pick up the camera and begin down this path, to a nearly fatal misadventure in scenic photography that led him to turn to documentary photography, and finally his chance encounter with Marc Riboud on a trip to Shenzhen, his life has been full of coincidences, but behind all of them is destiny, aided by his obsession and tireless efforts in photography. To take his encounter with Marc Riboud as an example, it would not have come out the way it did if he had not been thoroughly prepared. Wu Jialin has no other hobbies, and every time he would travel for work, he would bring small prints of his photos. When the others headed out for a night on the town, he would stay in his hotel room and carefully examine his own photographs. As a result, among the group of photographers who met Marc Riboud that day, he was the only one with developed photographs on hand, which drew the French photographer’s attention.

Wu Jialin’s photography is focused on the most ordinary people and animals in the mountains of Yunnan, everything on that very lowest rung, from the old farmer in the border village, to the ordinary urbanite, a dog, or a cat. These are all the most common sights around us. He does not seek novelty or pursue some lofty heights, and he is certainly not drawn in by the glimmer of the fashionable life. Instead, he has quietly persisted in capturing the most common people and animals around him.

This man from the mountains was born with that stubbornness of the salt of the earth. He can’t stand the slightest speck of dust in his eyes. He has nothing but disdain for those who sully the name of photography in the pursuit of fortune and fame. His are the most fundamental principles of human morality. He once wrote about the 18 people in his life who made his career possible. The first was his mother Duan Kaihui. He wrote, “She drew from the morals of our ancestors to teach me to be an honest, kind, moral person with a conscience, to teach me, no matter what difficulties I encounter on the path of life, to face them with resilience, and to understand the need to respect nature, that we are insignificant in the face of nature, and to always remain grateful, and to care little for fortune and fame.”

This ordinary man possesses extraordinary energy, just like those ordinary photographs, each one of which touches us deeply.