Zhou Qingfeng, aka Ye Wei Jun, won over the Chinese internet with her intricate time lapses of fungi and slime molds. She has more than a million followers on Weibo and 200,000 followers on the video platform Bilibili.
As a child, Zhou Qingfeng was always interested in plants and animals. In college, she studied pharmaceutical science and later worked as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company.
Last year, she quit her job to pursue her passion: photographing fungi and slime molds.
In heavily built-up Shanghai, Zhou spends her days foraging for specimens in the city’s parks and urban forests.
She brings the samples home, where she lets them grow and takes intricate time lapses of the process.
Fungi are an important part of the ecosystem. They act as decomposers, turning trees and leaves into humus.
“There are 13 million species of fungi, but only about 100,000 are known to us,” Zhou says. “It’s a very strange thing. Before you take a picture of it, you wouldn’t even have imagined such a thing existed in the world. That’s what’s most unique about it.”
“I was so mesmerized when I first discovered them. I didn’t think such a strange thing existed.”
Slime molds, on the other hand, are giant cells that move and reproduce on their own. For a long time, they were mistaken for fungi. But now, they’re classified as protists. Other protists include the amoeba.
“I was so mesmerized when I first discovered them,” Zhou says. “I didn’t think such a strange thing existed.”
Fungi and slime mold are typically found in places with low light and constant humidity levels, such as caves and dense forests. Zhou rarely has to travel far out of the city to find interesting specimens.
“Shanghai has very little wilderness,” she says. “There is very limited wildlife that you can see here. But I discovered that these fungi are not limited by this environment. They can grow in some very ordinary places.”
To show how easy it was to find interesting fungi and slime mold, Zhou brought us to a park near her house. She brought along a pair of scissors and surgical gloves. She then proceeded to inspect tree trunks, fallen bark, and the backs of leaves.
“I’ll see if I can find some smatterings or some of their dormant bodies,” she says. “The smaller they are, the more delicate they are.”
Although fungi was her first love, Zhou eventually became obsessed with slime molds. These cell masses are able to feed on food, grow, and even solve mazes.
Slime molds have two apparent growth stages. In the first stage, they crawl around like an animal. In the second stage, they spread out in a spore-like manner.
It’s these growth stages that Zhou documents. Slime molds take about 24 to 48 hours to grow, moving at a top speed of 1 millimeter per hour.
The challenge of photographing these specimens is predicting where they will grow.
“The most important thing is that the focus can’t change because when it grows, you have to predict where the focus of the image should be,” she says. “Then I have to be by its side to adjust the focus.”
She shoots her time lapses in a dark, temperature-controlled room, spending hours on end to create results that are ethereal and otherworldly.