Snapshots of busy people on the move
Zhang Xinghai takes a picture of his reflection in the subway window at Sihui station, on Oct 12, 2012. Photos: by Zhang Xinghai for China Daily
 
Photographer spent 10 years capturing images of passengers on the subway
 
 During rush hour on Beijing's subway, it's easy to forget that the crush of bodies is made up of individuals going about their daily lives.:
 
Zhang Xinghai, 44, has spent a decade photographing the faces of passengers using the capital's sprawling transport system - and reminding us that everyone has a story.
 
A photographer for a local science and technology newspaper, Zhang's work focuses on the people in the news - officials and experts mostly.
 
 
But his real passion is snapping the everyday faces on his daily commute. His collection of 4,000, mostly close-up, portraits show beggars, drunks, vagrant singers, migrant workers, tourists, rubbish collectors and occasionally well-groomed women and fashion models.
 
His pictures can be amusing - a young couple sleeping on their feet; a woman subway worker picking up a lost sneaker on a platform - and dramatic, such as the moment plainclothes police arrested a thief on a carriage.
 
He views the subway as a mobile community, and his work displays the struggles of ordinary people who are often overlooked amid China's rapid urbanization. Most of his portraits are glum faces, such as a drunk lying across the seats, a sleepy white-collar worker in a crowd, and a dirty, sweating construction worker anxiously waiting for the next train.
 
"The subway is always loaded with the hardships of life", Zhang said.
 
 
Beijing's subway tentacles have grown longer and more complex in the past 10 years. The city had 114 kilometers of track over four subway lines before 2007, and now has 574 km over 18 lines carrying 12 million passengers daily.
 
Zhang first rode the subway in 1999, the year he arrived in Beijing to seek a better life. He grew up dreaming of becoming a great writer, inspired by the story of a Chinese soldier who became a famous author after living in Beijing.
 
Born in a village in Yongshou county, northwestern Shaanxi province, Zhang knew nothing of the high cost and fierce competition of city life. The university graduate supported himself working low-paid jobs, as a dishwasher, delivery man and advertising salesman. "Such people are always ignored," he said.
 
In 2000, he was employed as an editor at a small newspaper, where he developed an interest in photography. He spent his savings of 1,000 yuan ($145) on a simple camera.
 
 
His first fixation was landscapes and buildings, until one day he saw a senior photographer's album, which recorded the unique folk customs of his hometown. "I realized then that good photography depicted people and their lives, rather than just scenery."
 
With a young son to care for, he had few opportunities to go on photo shoots, so snapping the daily subway commute was an easy approach.
 
He seldom talks to his subjects. Some have responded with a smile; some have looked at the ground or stared back angrily; while a few have demanded he delete their photos at once.
 
Aiming his lens at strangers was difficult. At first, he only dared to capture people's backs or beggars.
 
Once, he tried to capture a romantic moment when he noticed a girl closing her eyes as she accepted a kiss from her foreign boyfriend.
 
 
He summoned the courage to approach the girl and raised his camera, but the moment he pressed the shutter, she suddenly opened her eyes in anger and suspicion. She and her boyfriend wanted to report him to the police, so Zhang exposed the whole film to placate them.
 
He has tried asking permission before taking photos, but he found the subjects became less natural and more self-conscious. Now he openly wears his camera around his neck to make it clear he's taking photos.
 
"You can't feel embarrassed about taking photos," he said.
 
He has a new digital camera and refuses to use a mobile phone as this would appear "stealthy". He had planned a book, but publishers told him an unknown photographer's work would not sell. However, since he began sharing his photos on social media in April, they have drawn millions of hits.
 
His work is also earning critical acclaim for its simple depiction of people's lives.
 
"I believe what he sees in these faces is the photographer himself - lonely, curious, depressed, but appreciating city life. Different images repeat the same feeling, which is the power of these snapshots," said Yan Zhigang, an art critic.
 
Zhang's photos also record changing lifestyles in China. In 2006, the subway was packed with newspaper readers, but now people stare at their phones or laptops; passengers used to wear simple masks to avoid germs, but now they wear more sophisticated masks to keep out the smog; more people appear with tattoos or dressed in punk regalia, reflecting a more diverse urban culture.
 
Zhang now plans to leave the subway to return to his hometown and photograph the country life he misses.
 

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