Xie Hailong: Big Eyes


The Chinese Photographer Who Went Against The Mainstream To Drive Social Change in China – Xie Hailong

It is said that every two out of three Chinese people would recognize the girl with big eyes in the photo. Her name is Su Mingjuan and she was then eight years old. Morning light shone through the classroom and lit up her shy wordless stare with a tinge of sadness. 20 years later, Su has finished her college studies and is working as an accountant in a bank. This photo has changed her life profoundly, and the man behind the lens is photographer Xie Hailong.

Xie began to teach himself photography in the early 1980s, just to keep an account of the early childhood of his baby son. He often proudly showed the lovely pictures he took to other shutterbugs, before one of them made a suggestion.

The memorable “I want to go to school” series was taken in 1991, which is still believed to be one of the most successful documentary series of Project Hope, a public welfare project that launched the year before. Within the next 8 months, the photos taken by Xie Hailong helped Project Hope to raise 120m RMB in order to build schools in the desolate areas where life was extremely difficult. Xie regards the big eyes as a gift to drive social changes, “Documentary photos are meant to catch the spirit of the era and stimulate social development.”

It is also worth mentioning that the photos taken by him were not following the tide, because back in the 1980s, wealthy citizens and a powerful country was highly encouraged. Mainstream photographers took photos of smiley children with beautiful blue sky in the background, while Xie chose to take black and white photos of rural children who had to drop out of school because their parents could not afford their tuition.

Xie Hailong has been taking photos like this for the past 20 years. Nowadays he has moved on to interview the people whom he once took photos of. “They were kids 20 years ago. They are now in their 20s or 30s. I want to know how they have been. It means a lot to those who cared about them and helped them finding a way to go to school. Furthermore, no matter good or bad, it would be a portrayal of China’s educational development”, says Xie.

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