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Last Update:2017-12-10

Bold in the cold

A veteran photographer turns the challenge of Arctic photography

into a new life’s work, Wu Yong reports from Harbin.



While most of his peers choose to take care of grandchildren to occupy their retirement, Wang Jiannan is packing up his gear for another Arctic journey.

The 63-year-old photographer has visited some of the coldest places on Earth 16 times in the past seven years. He’s taken more than 30,000 pictures ranging from the daily lives of the indigenous people to the Arctic’s unique plants and animals.

I just follow my inner guidance and do things I really want to do,Wang says slowly.

Now, he is holding an Arctic photography exhibition at the Harbin Art Museum, located on the western outskirts of Harbin, capital of Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province. Th e show has attracted extensive attention from home and abroad.

Wang names his exhibitionExtreme Action- reflecting both the weather conditions in the Arctic and his philosophy in life. Wang showed his artistic talent at an early age and was admitted to the middle school attached to Lumei Art University, one of China’s most famous art schools, in April 1966. If all had gone according to plan, he could have become a well-known painter in China.

But the cultural revolution (1966-76) a month later shattered his dreams. He strived to make a living and worked as a porter, a farmer and a middle-school teacher in the following decade. But he never forgot his artistic dreams.

In 1976, he joined Harbin Daily as a photojournalist aft er years of preparation. Since then, photography has been a big part of his life.

As his reputation grew and opportunities unfolded in China, Wang spent 20 years with the newspaper, becoming its editor-in-chief at the age of 44.

But Wang chose to leave at the peak of his career when he was only 50 years old, 10 years before the official age of retirement.

Each of us lives only once, says Wang, who felt he still had time to double or triplehis life experience by exploring new opportunities.

China’s entry into WTO in 2001 was followed by a golden decade, and Wang was hired as the overseas CEO for a public company in East China’s Shandong province at the astronomical salary of 1.2 million yuan ($190,000) a year.

Th e new job brought him to Canada. He and his friends even started a Chinese television station for the local community. But a report about a local youth driving to the Arctic stirred his curiosity and his blood.

It’s amazing! I thought the Arctic is covered by ice and snow and nobody can touch it except for professionals and researchers.

My wife and I had a short discussion and we decided to give it a try.

A trip he made to Inuit settlements in the Canadian Arctic raised the curtain on a new life. It was 2005 and Wang was 55 years old. He sold his share in the TV station, and planned to start his second life.

In the Arctic Circle, he saw native people living a mixture of modern and traditional lifestyles.

They are helplessly struggling,he says.

The scenario grasped me and I knew it is what I was looking for.

Wang plans to spend fi ve to 10 years to record the Inuit and Sami people’s lives before they are totally changed by modern civilization.

I want to make a cultural and ecological white paper about the Arctic. Nobody has done this before, says Wang proudly as if he has discovered a hidden treasure.

Th e fi rst step of his new life was building a website, named arctic007.com.

The Arctic is my destination. And 007 refers to James Bond, who is my idol, Wang explains, slightly embarrassed.

In fact, he enjoys some similarities with Sean Connery, one of the most successful Bond actors. Both are elegant and smart.

And Wang has the potent combination of a 20-year-old’s vitality and a 60-year-old’s insight.

I like Bond and wish to explore the whole world and experience a variety of challenges. The Arctic is one of my dreams.

Recording images of the Arctic is a dangerous hobby due to its extreme weather.

I rarely think about death, because my father lived to be 100 years old, and I believe that I can live more than 90 years, says Wang with a slight smile.

My wife and I feel that life on the road is the happiest we ever found. If one day, we went to the Arctic Circle and never return, it would not be that bad because we die on the trip of our dreams. Th e Arctic’s snow is so clean and there is no trace of pollution.

Death may not trouble him, but language does.

Wang planned to shoot 300 settlements and has finished one-third of them in North America and Europe.

But most of the remaining 200 settlements are located in the Russian Arctic.

There are few images recorded of this region and Wang guesses that they are likely to retain the original life and religious practices because Russia pays little attention to this region.

Th is may be the treasure I am looking for.It’s not easy for Wang to contact people living there even though he has written dozens of letters and e-mails to them.

He says this area is like a black hole of information fascinating but daunting.

But Wang has made contact with the local foreign affairs office through the current photo exhibition.

Th e staff there has pledged to help Wang to contact the Russian side about expediting Wang’s Siberian travel and perhaps putting on a photo exhibition there, too.

I want to return to the road and continue my extreme dream,he says.


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