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A picture of determination

China Daily| Updated: August 22, 2023 L M S


Zheng Longhua on his way to a photography assignment. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Despite difficulties of his own, dedicated photographer captures the energy, persistence and inner strength of athletes who have succeeded in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, Yang Feiyue reports.

As the Asian Games in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, approaches, Zheng Longhua is wrapping up final preparations for his special exhibition for the grand event, which is scheduled to start in September.

Over the past few months, the man in his 60s has been sorting through tens of thousands of photos he has taken over the past two decades, and cherry-picked 100 images featuring para athletes.

"It is exciting that it will be held on my doorstep," says Zheng from the city's Lin'an district, adding that he wants to contribute to the event in his own way.

The photos cover thrilling moments from various competitions, including the fifth to eighth National Games for Persons with Disabilities, as well as the 2007 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai.

One of the photos chosen, Defying Broken Wings to Fly, depicts a group of passionate and radiant para athletes, leaping over hurdles, overcoming their physiological limits with incredible determination.

"Throughout my years of capturing these journeys, what moved me the most is how sport has reignited the flame of life for countless individuals with physical challenges, helping them regain their confidence and zest for life," Zheng says.

He says that through the images, he wants the world to see their strength, determination and positive and optimistic attitude.

In June, Zheng's documentary photography collection featuring moments of 50 people with physical challenges won the Golden Statue Award for China Photography, which was hosted by the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Chinese Photographers Association, and which is the top national individual achievement in the field of artistic photography.


Zheng Longhua's photo features calligraphy and table tennis enthusiast Chen Fei.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Zheng is also credited for his role in carrying out free public photography lectures and taking photos of centenarians in villages during his time with the Lin'an Photographers Association, as well as nurturing more than 100 young photographers.

"I'm grateful to photography — it has given meaning to my life, and I'm grateful for the era — it's society's care for the physically challenged that has helped turn my dreams into reality," Zheng says.

Zheng himself has been no stranger to hardship. He lost his hands and suffered facial scars as an infant after an accident.

From an early age, he faced many more difficulties than his peers, even when tackling the most mundane daily tasks, such as holding a spoon or using a pencil to write.

His experience has given him a tough character.

"Since I was young, the more others thought I couldn't do something, the more determined I was to prove them wrong," Zheng says.

He has been rejected by universities and turned down by employers who did not believe that a man without hands could be useful.

In 1983, a rural cultural station was hiring, but Zheng was turned away, because he was considered unfit for the photography work.

"I felt like I had to try and learn photography, so I could make people see that I could still hold a camera and record nice and beautiful things, even without hands," Zheng says.


Zheng Longhua's photo features visually impaired Paralympics gold medalist Li Duan. [Photo provided to China Daily]

However, a lack of knowledge, and money to buy equipment, hindered his determination.

After sharing his concerns with high school classmate Che Jingguang, with whom he had regular correspondence, Che surprised Zheng with a secondhand camera.

In a subsequent letter from his friend, Che confided his belief that Zheng was a person who could achieve anything as long as he set his mind to it. The letter reinforced Zheng's faith in himself and he started work on learning how to use the intricate controls of the camera.

For the following six months, Zheng rarely stepped out of his house, practicing by relying solely on his wrists to switch the camera on, frame shots, adjust the focus, and control the shutter speed and aperture.

Without fingers, the most challenging part was adjusting the focal length.

"I had to hold the camera with my left arm while using my right wrist to twist the lens, relying on friction to turn the focus ring," he says.

Since wearing protective gear would dampen the necessary tactility, Zheng's skin often chafed and cracked because of the friction.

"It especially hurt when my skin came into contact with the developing solution when I processed my photos," he says, adding that the pain would often make him pale and cause beads of sweat to break out on his forehead.

Zheng persisted and his sensitivity to the pain waned, as he honed and refined his photography skills.

He started with traditional SLR cameras, gradually transitioning to digital models, developing a unique skill that suited him best.

"I have divided the actions that normal people can do simultaneously into different steps and do them one at a time," he explains.

His forehead has also been a useful tool for him to steady the camera.

"If you look close enough, it is very calloused," he points out.

The previous setbacks Zheng had encountered ensured that he treasured every job opportunity that came his way.

To make a living, he started to take photos of villagers. He carried a backpack and pedaled a bicycle — equipped with a toolbox for developing photos on the fly — navigating steep mountain slopes and going door to door to find photography opportunities.


Zheng Longhua's photo features policeman Xu Zeming, who has a hearing impairment.[Photo provided to China Daily]

His on-site service was cheaper than photo studios in town, and soon people were lining up.

Zheng says that the recognition of his work was a source of relief.

After he managed to save some money, he started to set aside time to travel across the country and train his lens on the stunning landscapes and interesting people he met along the way.

In 1984, a photo capturing a bunch of art students sketching on the banks of the Huangpu River in Shanghai received a special award at a national instant art photography contest hosted by the Shanghai Photographer's Association.

"I consider it my first step into the realm of photographic art," he says.

The award also earned him a position at a cultural organization in Lin'an in 1986, and from there he went on to serve the district's Disabled Persons' Federation, the Lin'an Literature and Art Federation and finally the local photographers association.

In 2001, he wanted to do something special to commemorate Beijing winning the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"I was working at the disabled persons' federation, so I came up with the idea of photographing 100 athletes with physical challenges," he says.


Zheng Longhua's photo features National May 1 Labor Medal winner Sun Changting, who lost his left leg.[Photo provided to China Daily]

From 2006 to 2008, Zheng traveled across the country to interview people that caught his interest, funding the trip by selling his apartment.

During each photo shoot, he spent several days living and sharing meals with his subjects. He refrained from interfering with their work and life, merely observing quietly from the sidelines, capturing moments that touched his heart.

His subjects included Tan Chuanhua from Chongqing, who lost his right hand at 18, but still managed to become a big success producing beautiful wooden combs and providing work for other physically challenged craftsmen, and Yang Hezheng from Shaanxi province's capital city Xi'an, who was left unable to walk after a childhood ailment, but was committed to community reforestation.

"They all had grand goals, and a positive, persistent attitude toward challenges," he says.

In his images, Zheng chose to reflect his subjects' strong inner worlds through subtle facial expressions.

"I want my work to be more encouraging, and to enable viewers to better understand and respect the people in the pictures," he adds.


Zheng Longhua's photo features environmental protector Yuan Jianming. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Each photo was paired with a pertinent description about the subject's story.

"I was moved and inspired by them myself," Zheng says.

Wang Caifang, Zheng's wife, has been very supportive of his career.

She says she is attracted to Zheng for his integrity and sense of responsibility, both to his family and to society.

"I believe in what he is doing. Each time I see him laughing, I know he is doing something that really makes him happy," she says.

Zheng says that he believes a man should leave some work of value to the world.

"I hope my work can be a mirror. We should all be more dedicated to our work and dreams," he says.

Now that he has retired, Zheng says he has more time to commit to his beloved photography.

In addition to his Asian Games exhibition, he has embarked on a new project — photographing 100 model workers.

"I've taken 20 of them, and will focus on the rest after the games," Zheng says.


Zheng Longhua's photo features piano tuner Cai Qionghui, who has impaired vision. [Photo provided to China Daily]


Zheng Longhua's photographs featuring national role model worker Xiong Jun. [Photo provided to China Daily]