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    Lens Snaps Shut: Mao’s Personal Photographer Dies at 93

    Hou Bo spent over a decade documenting and immortalizing the public and private life of one of China’s most important political figures.

    Out of the approximately 700 photos of Mao Zedong published before his death in 1976, more than half of them were taken by Hou Bo, his personal photographer for 12 years. Hou’s pictures gave the public an inside look at the chairman’s life in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the country’s central government. Hou passed away on Nov. 26 in Beijing, at the age of 93.

    Born in Shanxi province in 1924, Hou joined the Communist-led underground guerrilla army during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when she was just 14. She completed high school and college during her time in Yan’an, the Communist stronghold from the mid-1930s to 1949. After graduating from university, Hou worked as a nurse for the Central Red Army Hospital and as a teacher to local farmers. It was around this time that Hou met her future husband, Xu Xiaobing, a famous war photographer who mentored her at the start of her career.

    Hou became the chief of photography at Northeast Film Studio in Heilongjiang province in 1946. In her memoir “Photographer With Wings,” Hou said the appointment was unexpected: “I had only a limited understanding of photography, but the management trusted me because I was a reliable senior Party member. Political beliefs outweighed skills in this case.”

    Three years later, Hou was promoted to chief of photography of the Central Security Bureau of the Communist Party of China. She moved with her family into Zhongnanhai and lived next door to some of the most powerful political figures of that era. For more than a decade afterward, Hou was constantly on-call to take photos of her new neighbors.

    Through Hou’s lens, the chairman seemed more relatable: swimming across the Yangtze River in Wuhan; talking with a child while wearing a bathrobe after a dip in the Xiang River; reading a newspaper pensively at the Ming tombs with his shoes off; and smiling happily in a crowd of young people. However, because some Communist Party members thought these candid photos may tarnish Mao’s image as a strong leader, only a few of Hou’s works were published before the chairman’s death.

    Over the span of her career, Hou said nothing could compare to standing atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen on Oct. 1, 1949: At just 25 years old, Hou captured the collective fervor when Mao proclaimed the establishment of People’s Republic of China.

    “As photographers for government officials, it is their duty to record all formal events,” said Chang Chao-tang, a photographer from Taiwan, in a 2001 biography of Hou and her husband. “But making the leaders look relaxed and more affable at official gatherings requires real talent.”

    Editor: Doris Wang.

    (Header image: A visitor takes a photo of Hou Bo’s work ‘The Founding of the PRC’ in 1949 during an exhibition in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, June 22, 2011. Long Wei/IC)