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China's largest fair devoted to fine art photography took place in Shanghai this weekend. The first time event is called Photo Shanghai. It includes more than 500 works from photographers around the world as well as some of the most interesting in China. NPR's Frank Langfitt took a look and filed this report.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: One of the exhibits that struck a lot of Chinese visitors is by a photographer named Zhang Kechun. And there are a bunch of pictures from the yellow River. There's one that's really striking. It's a Buddha head. It must be 40 feet high. And it's sitting in the middle of an outdoor coal mine.
JI HEXIANG: (Through translator) I feel the Buddha is someone that people revere.
LANGFITT: Ji Hexiang, who works as a nurse, is trying to interpret the image.
HEXIANG: (Through translator) The Buddha head may be there to bless and protect coal miners to keep them safe and sound. On the other hand, these coal mine bosses pursue their own interests regardless of the costs.
LANGFITT: Zhang the photographer suggests that Ji is onto something. Generally, coal mine barons are reviled in China. Many are seen as corrupt and greedy, often risking their workers' safety and degrading the environment. Zhang says the coal mine owner actually became a monk and built a temple.
ZHANG KECHUN: (Through translator) They dig coal every day, and suddenly, one day they realize what I do isn't too good. So they came up with a way to redeem themselves. So they chose to believe in Buddhism.
STEVEN HARRIS: I'm Stephen Harris. I'm the director and owner of M97 Gallery in Shanghai.
LANGFITT: Harris's fine art photography only emerged in China in the late 1990s. In earlier decades, the Communist Party mostly used photography as propaganda.
HARRIS: Compared to the West, the history and evolution of the medium of photography as a personal expression was really sort of null and void for the second half of the 20th century. So we were making up for a lot of lost time here.
ALEXANDER MONTAGUE-SPAREY: A lot of people said to me when I started this project, you know, you're completely crazy. The Chinese will walk around this fair in 10 minutes, and they'll be like, what the hell is this?
LANGFITT: Alexander Montague-Sparey is the fair director for Photo Shanghai. He says contrary to those concerns, a lot of visitors are engaging with the works.
MONTAGUE-SPAREY: It's been such a dynamic response from the audience. They're asking questions. They're so inquisitive.
LANGFITT: Whether curiosity will translate into sales, though, is a big question. Many visitors just seemed excited to see so much quality photography in one place. One named An Na is 54 and used to work in a state-owned tire factory. She recently bought a camera and has taken up documentary street photography in retirement. An Na spent Friday scouring the exhibits.
AN NA: (Speaking Chinese).
LANGFITT: Of course, there's a lot to learn, she says. I can't study all of them today. I'll be back tomorrow with friends. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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