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Forgotten Chinese Photographer Resurrected

Famous war photographer Robert Capa, founding member of Magnum photos, was in China in 1938. He was covering the Chinese resistance against the Japanese invasion that had begun in July 1937. Capa was a seminal figure in the world of photojournalism; his work is familiar to many. But how many of you can say you've heard of Sha Fei, the Chinese photojournalist who was covering the same events as Capa?

Until recently, many Chinese hadn't even heard of him. Sha Fei's promising career in photojournalism took a turn for the worse when he fell mentally ill in his late 30s. He was tried and executed for murder in 1950, and his story was thereafter repressed.

An exhibition of Sha Fei's work debuts today for the first time in America — at Ohio State University's Urban Arts Space. The curator, Eliza Ho, was awarded a Presidential Fellowship by OSU to complete a graduate dissertation on Sha Fei. As she writes, the photographer lived "in one of the most turbulent periods in China's modern history. During his lifetime, China was radically transformed by a succession of revolutions and foreign invasions..."

Having witnessed their country in crisis, a new generation of Chinese youth grew up with a strong sense of patriotism. Sha Fei was part of this generation, and he shared with his peers a conviction to reform and modernize China. To contribute to that effort, Sha Fei chose photography as his medium because of its unique potential for representing the reality of the current age.

Ho divides the exhibition of 38 photographs into three phases: the fine art photographer, the social documentarian and the propagandist. You can see Sha Fei's career develop from his early pictoralist photograph, Song of the Fisherman, to images from later in his life of Communist propaganda.

His photographs show a China in transition. Sadly, at the young age of 36, Sha Fei was hospitalized after contracting tuberculosis in 1948. Ho writes:

Tragedy arrived ... on December 5, 1949, in the Bethune Hospital in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province where he was receiving treatment for tuberculosis. Sha Fei became delusional and fired several gunshots that killed a friendly Japanese surgeon serving the Chinese Communist Party in China. As a result, he was charged with murder and was subsequently sentenced to death... and his name was to be erased from the Chinese Communist Party's version of the history of Chinese photography.

Many years later, China's improved cultural climate allowed for the resurrection of Sha Fei's work. His reputation was restored in 1986, when his family appealed the manslaughter verdict. The military court ruled in the family's favor, reinstating Sha Fei's Communist Party membership that had been revoked. His work has been displayed and published in China and is now visiting the States for the first time. There's much more to Sha Fei's career, and you can learn about it on OSU's Web site.

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