'Project Hope' is a public welfare project launched 20 years ago in China. Thanks to its help, hundreds of millions of school dropouts in the country's poor remote regions have returned to school. Among all the efforts many have made, one photographer named Xie Hailong has contributed a lot indeed. Since he first participated in helping publicize the project as a volunteer in the early 1990s, many have been touched by his work which has helped make it the most successful charity project in China.
Xie Hailong in a remote area with his cameras [Photo: idoican.com.cn]
Chen Zhe has his story.
Xie Hailong began to teach himself photography in the early 1980's, just to keep an account of the early childhood of his baby son. He often proudly showed the lovely pictures he took to other shutterbugs, before one of them made a suggestion.
"He said: 'All of your works are very charming. But photography is not only about that. There should also be something thought-provoking. It's a photographer's responsibility to make people think, rather than make them feel comfortable."
Xie Hailong started to think how to fulfill his responsibility. And finally he found his own way. In 1990, he decided to photograph the desolate areas of China where life was extremely difficult, because during his travels he learned that many rural children had to drop out of school because their parents could not afford their tuition. Their strong desire to continue with their schooling affected Xie Hailong deeply. He decided to call on those more fortunate to help them, with his camera.
"At that time, two or three million children dropped out of school every year due to poverty. Ten million had to stop their schooling in the 1980s before 'Project Hope' was launched. If that number continued to rise, society would face huge problems in the future."
Xie Hailong took trains, tractors and whatever transportation he could find to reach small villages in the mountains. Not having a lot of money to travel, he had to live in farmers' houses or stay in the homes of schoolteachers at times. By the end of the same year he had travelled to 12 provinces, 28 counties and visited over 100 schools throughout the Chinese countryside. And then he encountered a wide eyed little girl.
"She was studying hard with her head bent over her books. When she raised her head-Wow, her wide eyes were so absorbed. I pressed the shutter as soon as she looked up at me."
The most memorable photograph
in the first 50 years since the founding of the People's Republic
The girl named Su Mingjuan was then eight years old. Morning light shone through the classroom window and lit up her shy wordless stare with a tinge of sadness. This photo entitled 'I want to go to school' achieved immortality.
As of 1994, it was used more than 100 million times in newspapers, posters and other materials and that probably made it the most memorable photograph in the first 50 years since the founding of the People's Republic.
Over the following eight months, many people called or wrote to ask about the girl. 'Project Hope' collected 100 million Yuan, or 15 million US dollars in contributions, mostly on account of her and that photo. Su Mingjuan became the photographic ambassador for 'Project Hope'.
Twenty years later, Su Mingjuan has finished her college studies and is working as an accountant in a bank. Many people remember the one behind the lens: Xie Hailong. But to him, celebrity is not the most important thing.
"Every time one child continues his or her schooling due to my photography, I feel I've received a prize; and one school is built, I felt I've been given a prize. I keep travelling, telling city dwellers about poor rural children's desire for education and then bring back their love and care to those children."
Talking about the photos of children in poverty-stricken areas that he took, Xie Hailong can recite a story behind every one of them. He feels extremely proud that all of the children he covered have returned to school and their then-dilapidated classrooms have been rebuilt into new Hope Schools.
"Every time I tell these stories, I feel a great sense of achievement."
With the nationwide popularity of Xie Hailong's works, 'Project Hope' ranks as the best known and most influential charity cause in China during the past two decades. Since its implementation, 'Project Hope' has raised almost two billion Yuan, or 300 million US dollars, in donations, helped two million children continue their schooling, built 8,000 Hope primary schools and presented Hope mini-libraries to 10,000 village schools in remote areas. In addition, Project Hope funds had enabled over 6,000 village primary school teachers to receive further training.
Xie Hailong's works have secured his several awards and his photos have been displayed at several photography exhibitions, both in China and abroad.
For Beyond Beijing, this is Chen Zhe.