From temple to disaster zone: How a Taoist priest became an award-winning news photographer

Ep.3/Jan 09, 2020

Zhou Qiang’s intimate portraits of life in rural China have been exhibited in Berlin, Paris, and New York—and won him a Lucie award, one of the most prestigious honors in photography. But he fell into the profession by accident.

For Chinese photographer Zhou Qiang, there was life before the Sichuan earthquake of 2013 and life after.

At the time, he was working as a breaking news photographer, covering explosions, floods, and other disasters. But nothing prepared him for the scene that unfolded before him.

“I went to the disaster area,” he recalls. “It was my first time witnessing such a devastating scene.”

A boy holds his mother’s leg and cries outside their damaged house in earthquake-hit Ya’an, Sichuan Province.
A boy holds his mother’s leg and cries outside their damaged house in earthquake-hit Ya’an, Sichuan Province. / Photo: Reuters

The 6.6-magnitude earthquake left more than 190 people dead, according to official government figures, and displaced countless others. For Zhang, it forced him to re-evaluate his life.

“I thought to myself, no matter how rich or powerful you are, you could still lose your life in a split second.”

Zhou Qiang

“I saw many dead bodies being carried out by soldiers,” he says. “I thought to myself, no matter how rich or powerful you are, you could still lose your life in a split second.”

So Zhou decided to quit news photography, a job he had held for six years, to embark on a journey across rural China to document life’s small moments.

A dip in the lake.
A dip in the lake. / Photo: Courtesy of Zhou Qiang

His work has been exhibited in Berlin, Paris, and New York, and won him the Lucie International Photography Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in photography, in 2017.

(Read more: The photographer subverting gender norms one ‘little porno’ at a time)

Zhou’s best-known pieces are his intimate portraits and absurd observations of rural life.

A woman in Tibet.
A woman in Tibet. / Photo: Courtesy of Zhou Qiang

He’s also known for his obsession with death, which he attributes to his time as a Taoist priest.

“A Taoist priest helps the dead cross over into the afterlife,” he explains. “It’s a folk practice in China. Looking back, I think this did change my perspective on death. Because I was exposed to a lot of dead people when I was a kid, I understood the concept of death at a young age.”

Many of Zhou Qiang’s pieces are meditations on death.
Many of Zhou Qiang’s pieces are meditations on death. / Photo: Courtesy of Zhou Qiang

One of his most striking images is that of a dead cow lying on a river bed.

“I was driving when I saw a dead cow in the river, so I took off my clothes and jumped into the river just to take this picture,” he recalls. “At that moment, I was wondering how a big cow like this could end up dead in the middle of the river.

“Maybe as humans, we will never understand how death happens.”

From priest to photographer

Zhou fell into photography by accident. By his account, he was a poor student and dropped out of school when he was 12.

Raised without his parents, Zhou relied on his grandfather. Concerned that his grandson would have no future, he enlisted the help of a Taoist priest in hopes of getting Zhou into the priesthood.

The experience shaped Zhou’s views on life and death. When he encountered his first big accident—a bridge collapse next to his home in Hunan Province in 2007—his instinct was to pick up the camera and shoot it.

“It was purely out of curiosity,” he says.

Zhou Qiang at his home in Sichuan Province.
Zhou Qiang at his home in Sichuan Province. / Photo: Nicholas Ko

When he uploaded the photo to QQ, a Chinese social media platform, it caught the eye of a news editor, who bought the photo and published it in a newspaper.

“That was when I realized I could shoot for a living,” Zhou says.

Art as meditation

When Zhou retired from breaking news photography to focus on his personal projects, he leaned into his philosophical inclinations.

“This photo is especially memorable to me,” he says, pointing to a photo of a monk and his dog.

A fortuitous encounter with a monk and his dog.
A fortuitous encounter with a monk and his dog. / Photo: Courtesy of Zhou Qiang

“I asked him, ‘Where are you from?’ And he said, ‘Shehong County.’ But that’s nearly 110 miles away.”

It turns out the monk had walked the entire way, and the dog had joined him in the middle while he was passing by a market.

Given to introspection, Zhou considered all the ways the monk could have embarked on his journey—by bus, train, or car.

“But he chose to walk,” he says. “I was moved by the power of his determination, so I took a picture of him.”

Taking a break.
Taking a break. / Photo: Courtesy of Zhou Qiang

Many of Zhou’s pieces explore the contradictory desires of continuous development and longing for nature.

For all the material comforts that modernization has brought to China, there is an equal, if not more powerful, desire for the simplicity of rural life.

For all the material comforts that modernization has brought to China, there is an equal, if not more powerful, desire for the simplicity of rural life, which is why much of Zhou’s work takes place in far-flung locales and remote villages.

“I switched from journalism to art because I wanted to change my perspective,” he says. “Photojournalism is about reporting facts, but artistic creation gives me the freedom to express how I see the world and my thoughts.”

(Read more: Breathtaking rooftop photos show Shanghai like you’ve never seen it before)

Ever the philosopher, he doesn’t want his work viewed as a singularity. He is generous, open to multiple interpretations and different possibilities.

“Art spawns many ways of thinking,” Zhou says. “If 100 people see my work, I hope there will be 100 ways of thinking.”

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Credit

Producer: Nicholas Ko

Mastering: Victor Peña