Born in 1943, Wang is a native of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, northeast China, where Russian and Japanese-built railways have long made it one of the most connected parts of China. Wang, whose parents died when he was very young, was raised by his elder brother, a railway worker, and his sister-in-law. He grew up near railway tracks and dreamt of becoming a railway driver in the future.
But the rails weren’t Wang’s only passion – there was also art. He joined the army in 1965 and spent five years drawing reverential portraits of Chairman Mao and comics about the exemplary deeds of model workers or soldiers, as was typical for the time. Wang left the army in 1970 and was hired by the propaganda department (later the publicity department) of the trade union under the Harbin Railway Bureau.
Wang’s journey of photography started in 1977, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when he was asked to take photographs of model workers on the railways. He borrowed a Shanghai Seagull camera from the technology office, one of the few models available in China at the time. “Once I took up the camera, it was hard to put it down. I always say that I took off with a Seagull and I’m still flying today,” Wang told NewsChina.
Wang commuted by train every day, which allowed him to observe passengers in the carriages and snap moments. Before the term “documentary photography” was introduced in the Chinese mainland in 1995, Wang had already unknowingly practiced it since the late 1970s.
He became a professional photographer in 1986 as he was transferred to an institute under the Harbin Railway Bureau. The new post provided him greater resources such as film, equipment and also a railway pass that allowed him to travel all around China free of charge.
With his free pass, Wang has journeyed to every bit of China the railways touch. Since 1977, one year before Reform and Opening Up officially began, he has taken thousands of trains, traveled more than 130,000 miles and used over 100,000 rolls of film.
His passion has also got him into trouble on numerous occasions.
The most dangerous experience he had was on the Harbin-Shanghai express in 1991. He nearly fell onto the tracks when he caught hold of the door handle but failed to enter the train as the door suddenly closed. “I gripped the handles as hard as I could. But the train accelerated and my body started to be lifted up. At that critical moment, the door opened and the conductor and some passengers dragged me into the car. I collapsed and couldn’t stand up for quite a long time. That near-death experience was one of my worst nightmares. Even today I quiver at the thought of it,” Wang told NewsChina.
He spent so much time on trains that in the early 1990s Wang couldn’t fall asleep without hearing the clanking sound of rail tracks. “When I was at home, I took five or six sleeping pills but it didn’t work. Strangely, when getting on a train, I fell asleep as soon as I lay down. The locomotive screeched and clattered, sounding like a symphony or a lullaby,” said Wang.
He believes that acting without his subjects’ permission is the only way to capture reality. Wang describes his shooting as “undercover photography” and jokingly calls himself a “thief.” “I do not steal their property but their images,” said the photographer. Walking back and forth through the packed carriages and snooping around here and there, Wang silently snaps the little moments with an unnoticeably small camera.
Nowadays people are much more sensitive about privacy issues and image rights, which makes it harder for Wang to take photographs. “It’s lucky if I am just told to delete the photos. More often than not, what waits for me is abuse, punches and kicks. I am always reported to the railway police by passengers suspicious that I am a thief,” Wang told NewsChina. Last year, Wang was beaten by a man who objected to his baby being photographed.
In 1998, Wang retired from Harbin Railway Bureau and became a freelance photographer. In 2000, his “Chinese on the Train” series was exhibited in the Denmark IMAGE Festival. One year later, in 2001, the photographer published the album Chinese on the Train.
Wang has won the 17th National Film Festival gold medal in China, 3rd place in the Chinese Photographic Art Award, and has been named an outstanding photographer. His works have been widely exhibited around the globe, including in the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Brazil, Italy, Britain and Russia.
Wang has also explored many other photographic projects, including “Steam Locomotives in China,” “Black Earth,” “Siberian Tigers,” and “Households in Northeastern China.” But life on the trains is his real passion.
He is now 73 and still taking photographs on trains. “It’s really rare for a photographer to spend 40 years on a single project,” said Wang. “It’s like digging a well. Many photographers don’t have the patience to dig deep enough into their projects and just walk away to attempt something new. I’ve dug the well for four decades and the water I’ve found is so sweet and rewarding.”
Wang told NewsChina that in 2018, the 40th anniversary of the reform and opening up, he will publish two albums, 40 Years of Chinese on Trains, and 40 Years of Chinese Images.