China Underground > China Views > Reflections with Zhou Na: Photographer & Multimedia Storyteller

Reflections with Zhou Na: Photographer & Multimedia Storyteller

A Journey through Images that Capture Moments, Memories, Trauma, and Changes

Zhou Na is a freelance photographer and multimedia storyteller from China. She earned a bachelor’s degree in tourism English in 2009 and a degree in Design Aesthetics in 2012. She has been working as a photographer in Beijing since 2015. In 2017, she was named one of nine fellows for the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice Program. She began her photographic projects in rural China. In 2012, she took part in the documentary “Left-Behind: The Rural Elderly,” which was co-produced by IFChina. Zhou Na has collaborated with various news outlets and non-profits, including ChinaFile, Sixth Tone, Tencent, iFeng News, NetEase, Greenpeace, and Goethe-Institut China, and she has worked as a video reporter at The Paper. She has covered a variety of subjects in China, including the Tianjin explosion, pneumoconiosis, food safety, environmental pollution, female migrant labor, and more.

Zhou Na’s official site and Instagram profile

How did you get into photography and when did you decide to choose it as a profession? What does photography mean to you?

I am interested in social innovation in college and know a group of ideal people through field study and related seminars. After I graduated, I was invited to a photography project “Left-Behind: The Rural Elderly”. This project enabled me and the other 7 partners to go back to our own villages and visit hundreds of “left-behind” senior citizens living alone in rural places and shoot their experiences, stories, and feelings. And the photographs and films later on were exhibited at both factories and universities in GuangDong province.

After that I worked in IFChina Original Studio, a non-profit, non-governmental cultural development organization based in Southeast China’s Jiangxi Province. Founded in 2009, IFChina is one of the nation’s pioneer organizations in the field of community art development. Here I met some professional photographers, Clary Estes told me I have the eyes as a photographer, Sim Chi Yin had a brilliant documentary photography workshop there, and gave me some realistic suggestions to be a freelance photographer.

I think that’s the moment I really decided to be a photographer.

Then I went to Beijing, the capital of China, and lots of photographers gathered there, as a freelancer. At first, I did several fixer works for some other photographers, it’s a very good way to learn the process of the work. And we keep in touch after the fixer work. I seek suggestions from them in my own project. And gradually was commissioned by the media and NGOs. And got more recognition from the industry.

Photography was not in my plan at first. I liked it and began to shoot some daily life when I was in middle school. I am really fascinated by how this machine can capture the moment that continuously slips away. And how photography as a powerful medium can engage into the reality leading me to the profession.

Who has had the greatest influence or source of inspiration on you as a person?

Zhuang Nen, the founder of an NGO. His idealism and the people in the organization influenced me a lot. I didn’t see anyone around me having that ideal when I graduated. Oral history documentary is one of the most important branches of its work. It’s the beginning I pondered and practiced on memory & disaster.

Can you tell us about the beginnings and the main challenges of your experience and career?

Self-doubt, hesitate, fear. I didn’t know whether I could be a good photographer or even a photographer or not.

What are your main sources of inspiration? What are your favorite photographic subjects? What do you hope to communicate with your projects?

Memory is one of the main inspirations for me. Personal memories and feelings hold certain aspects of the truth of the puzzle when reality is distorted. For a long time, the desire to keep evidence has been a strong driving force. My favorite subject is changing from time to time. Now, I am more concerned about my identity as a woman. Marriage and having a baby changed a lot of me. I am curious how it happened.

What is your favorite aspect of your job? What are the most rewarding and satisfying aspects?

To connect to people, and they are always so different from first impressions. To build trust with people, they told me the stories, and they let me walk into their lives. I am an introverted person. This job broadens my life experience in many ways.

Do you face some unexpected moment during your photography shooting that makes a difference for you? Can you share with us a story from backstage of a photo shoot?

In The Window project (about the aftermath of the Tianjin explosion), When I finally got a chance to sneak into the buildings and the houses which is forbidden by the official. I was so nervous to be afraid to be found out and so afraid when I stood in the space alone to see the scene: bloodstains, broken glasses, damaged furniture, empty windows. I didn’t expect and prepared what was in front of me. And the window there without glasses like a man without eyes, the curtain was flying in the chemical smell air. A power that intruded into the house through the window was so strong, that neither security, privacy or dignity left after that. Then I focused more on the window from then on, trying to catch the daily life before that explosion.

This is one of the window photos inside these houses. I walked into many houses that day. In the late afternoon, the sunshine is warm, it’s so quiet. The explosion seems like it has never been there before.

Is there any photographic project you have created that you are particularly attached to? What makes it special for you?

Definitely The Window project. When I shot the aftermath of the Tianjin explosion, I took photos of hundreds of Windows. And after that, I took 3 years to focus on this project.

Personally, “Window” means a lot to me. When I was little and alone as a left-behind girl, Window is the direction I stared at a lot. Larger, I was attracted by the curtain dancing beside the open window, the scenes engraved in my mind.

I put a curtain made of my cotton shirts on the wall in front of my desk. So it’s more like a poetic existence for me.

Before the tragic event of August 12, 2015, inhabitants of Tianjin’s Binhai New Area district were unaware that they lived near an industrial facility that was indiscriminately storing dangerous chemicals and corrosives. An explosion ripped through one of China’s largest seaports, killing 173 people. The explosion impaired around $1.1 billion in damage and injured nearly 800 persons.

How has China changed, compared to when you started your photography projects?

For documentary photographers in China, it’s harder. When I started, a lot of photo columns were there to give commissions to photographers and places to show the works. Now, there are not many big platforms anymore. I knew some really good and powerful photo projects but people were unable to see them at all.

What is your experience as a photographer nowadays? What do you think will be the evolution of photography in the era of social media and Artificial Intelligence?

I know many friends have very good exhibitions as a photographer on social media, I think it’s important in some aspects. But I can see some photographers may cater to his or her fans somehow. AI is a tool as well, but I can’t imagine how it would impact photography.

Photos courtesy of Zhou Na

Last Updated on 2024/03/19

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