It began at junior high in Harbin, northeastern Heilongjiang province, when my parents bought a camera — the Ricoh XR7. That was in the mid-1980s when this camera cost close to 2,000 yuan (now $300) , making it an expensive and rare consumer product. That was the moment I became indelibly linked to photography.
In 1991, my father showed a photo of a night scene I had taken to Wang Fuchun — a photographer at the Harbin Railway Research Institute at the time, who has also received national awards for his photo series on Chinese people aboard trains.
He saw the picture and said: “This kid’s not bad. Bring him to see me.” And just like that, I began to learn from a real professional.
The following year, I was admitted to the Changchun Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics (now Changchun University of Science and Technology) in the northeastern province of Jilin. During summer vacation after the college-entrance examination, I often chatted with Wang about photography and studied some of the photos he’d taken.
He gave me some very important advice: “When you go to university, take pictures of your university life. If you want to make a living as a photographer, you have to start with the subject matter around you.”
So before even stepping onto campus, I had already decided to shoot a series of photos documenting almost every facet of my university life, and had begun preparing for it. It culminated into a photo series which was eventually published as a book in 2018 titled “My University.”
If it weren’t for these images, I wouldn’t be able to awaken so many memories based not just on sight, but also sound and smell. When I look at the pictures, I look back at myself.
1994: A few classmates and I went to a village near Changchun to take photos. A friend, Zhou Xinwang, took this photo of me.
1996: Someone took this photo with my camera while on a trip to Xinlicheng Reservoir in the suburbs of Changchun . I had just finished a bottle of beer and was dancing without a care in the world.
1994: I gave lessons to student members of the photography association.
1992: We had just enrolled, and nobody knew each other all that well yet. I caught my classmate Cai Tianzuo’s expression as he sized up another student.
1993: Freshmen practice the rifle march. From that year on, target shooting was no longer part of military training; and in 1994, all drills involving rifles were cancelled.
1994: The poses and smiles of these young women on campus take me back to that time immediately.
1994: I circled around students during military training with a camera in my hand, feeling like a sinister voyeur. After practicing photography for more than 20 years, part of me only cares about taking the best photos possible, while the other feels guilty for violating people’s privacy. I’ve always had trouble reconciling these conflicting feelings. When taking photos, I try and smile at my subject — not so much out of kindness, but rather, as a way of sheepishly apologizing.
Campus life 101
Before arriving, I knew little about the university where I was about to spend the next few years. But the photographs I took at that time show me what I was like more than 20 years ago: innocent, vulnerable, sensitive.
And though my education until then was very narrow — I knew little outside the textbooks — in university, I began studying aspects of literature, history, and philosophy that interested me, and that was when I truly began to feel free.
On most days, I walked across the campus, past dormitories, canteens, classrooms, computer centers, and libraries — a life without computers and mobile phones. This is now virtually unimaginable.
That’s how I spent days at university, though all the entertainment began after classes. This largely meant collective activities and events, the most common being dance parties. There were such parties in the student activity room every weekend, by far the liveliest events on campus — imagine dozens of carefree young men and women spinning and shuffling under colorful lights.
The school club showed movies every Wednesday and Saturday, too, where I was a regular. Most films were from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and the Westerns we saw were usually pretty old. In the mid-1990s, China began to import Hollywood blockbusters and the first one I ever saw was the 1993 hit “The Fugitive.” I was stunned by the sound effects in the film — I had never heard such realistic sounds in a movie before.
There were only a few TVs in the dormitory at that time because they were so expensive. Just a few students were able to scrape together enough money to buy one. Dramas, variety shows, and ball games were our main interests on the small screen.
Also, the 1994 FIFA World Cup — held in the U.S. — was broadcast live but late at night due to the time difference. Then, students moved the TV into the corridor and plugged it into an outlet meant for a lamp. A dozen people gathered in front of the tiny black-and-white TV set.
1992: My first dance party. Most classmates were a little shy though some men quickly got into the groove and began to socialize and dance with the women.
1995: Many on campus developed a knack for the guitar.
1994: A classmate dancing the disco.
1994: Students playing cards.
1994: Watching TV on the weekends.
1994: Watching the World Cup in the dead of night. I had no interest in football, but I stayed up late to take photos.
In the classroom
While life in the dorms was a breeze, in class, I was a little worried about university-level math: I did pretty poorly in this subject in high school. Luckily for me, our head teacher Chen Yujian also taught mathematics.
He was a very experienced teacher who used vivid and humorous metaphors during his lectures, which, when paired with his resounding voice, never failed to seize my attention — I didn’t skip a single class.
But though I had few difficulties with my studies, by the third year, I was completely preoccupied with photography. Sometimes, I furtively read books on art during class, or skipped them altogether to take photos. I lost all interest in my major (measurement and control technology and instruments). I felt like I was in the wrong place and that the subject I was really interested in wasn’t my major.
University studies began to feel like an errand that just had to get done and I often visited the art faculty studio at Northeast Normal University and made friends with students at the Jilin College of Arts.
Taking and developing photos as well as organizing small exhibitions with people who shared the same passion as me are some of my most cherished memories. We’ve rarely been in touch with each other since graduation, but such friendships are like sealed treasures — whenever I take photos of them out of their case, they glisten as brightly as ever.
1993: The head teacher of my class, Chen Yujian.
1994: A freshman using a computer for the first time ever. Computers were probably the most attractive thing on campus for students at the time. Few could afford one in the early 1990s.
1995: My classmate Pan Dan’s stationery box. Self-adhesive stickers appeared in schools when I was in junior high, and, from that point until I graduated university, the culture of Hong Kong and Taiwan was plastered all over our stationery boxes and textbooks. They are among my most defining memories of growing up at that time.
1993: Our applied mechanics classroom. I don’t remember the teacher’s name — just that he spoke in a faint, monotonous drone. He spoke non-stop from start to finish, and I left each class without a clue about what he’d said. I basically taught myself this subject. Being dead tired in class one of the things that first comes to mind for anyone thinking about their days in school.
1994: My classmate Tao Jing. What urged me to take a photo in that moment was not her behaviour, but her posture and emotion, which struck me as very beautiful.
1994: Students taking photos in the dormitory.
1994: Guan Jue and Zhang Tao taking photos in the dormitory. The Phoenix 205 was the first camera for many photography students. It was capable of producing clear images and cost about 200 yuan in the early 1990s.
1995: Schoolmates Wang Lidong and Bai Hua read martial arts novels in their dormitory.
Behind the lens
I was so firmly fixed on photography that I began spending most of my spare time outside class practicing my craft. I still remember the first picture I took — classmate Wu Shaohua cleaning a window. To my friends, I was special. It was as if taking photos indicated to people that you had a certain professional status, like a journalist. Soon, I joined the university’s Photography Association.
When I was shooting the “My University” series, Wang, the acclaimed photographer, gave me some invaluable guidance. “Your photos are getting better and better, but you’ve had too little experience.” That was in my sophomore year. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what he meant by “experience” — it took me until I was middle aged to gradually understand — practice makes perfect.
Wang’s comments on my photos and his guidance on technical issues also helped me make rapid progress in understanding photography. He was in the midst of producing his “Chinese on the Train” series, and the photos he took at that time were a source of great inspiration to me.
In 1995, I convinced my department to let us use a vacant bedroom as a darkroom. From then on, we had our own little photography paradise where we were free to develop our photos and prepare exhibitions.
From enrollment to graduation, I shot more than 135 rolls of black-and-white film across four years, and this experience gave me plenty of confidence to make photography my career. After graduating, I even found a job at a photo agency.
1995: A student aims his binoculars at the women’s dormitory.
1995: A woman uses a mirror to reflect sunlight into the men’s dormitory.
1993: Students practicing qigong on campus.
1995: The chairmen of the student unions of several colleges and universities in Changchun visited our school. Our students’ union threw a banquet and karaoke party in their honour.
1995: Contestants at the college singing competition in Changchun.
1995: A student holding up a sign for the College of Mechanical Engineering at the university games.
1993: Two third-year students frying vegetables in the dormitory. At the time, there was an alcohol stove in almost every room. Some had kerosene stoves too that produced a hotter flame. Stir-frying food in the dormitory became a trend at our school.
1994: I captured this little interaction between classmates Zhou Huixuan and Tao Jing.
1994: Women from the Northeast Normal University looking for work as tutors in downtown Changchun. Those days, tutoring was the most common way for students to earn money. Most held up such cardboard signs at spots across the city hoping to land a gig.
The long goodbye
In the mid-1990s, university students couldn’t just rely on the government to find jobs, and so from 1994, graduate job fairs became increasingly popular.
At the time, employment was essentially a bilateral decision between companies and students, though the latter still had to respect certain provisions: They could only apply to work for companies in the same system as their universities.
For example, my university belonged to the now-defunct Ministry of Arms Industry, so we could apply for work at companies owned by that ministry. If a student found work at an employer not included on a predetermined list, they had to pay a “training fee.”
Before university tuition fees were reformed, our fees were nominal, and university funding mainly came from companies run by the same ministry. Encouraging students to apply at these companies was the government’s way of compensating them for their funding.
On graduating, I found a job at a news photo agency in Heilongjiang province, so I paid the school a “training fee” of 4,000 yuan.
During those heady days of finding a career, hunting for jobs, and leaving campus, I always took photos of students graduating and bidding farewell, but I didn’t really know what this rite of passage felt like until it happened to me. It only dawned on me in the final term of my fourth year, when classmates began looking for jobs and starting their graduation projects — university life was coming to an end.
Every time a class group graduated, Changchun Railway Station became the scene of solemn farewells. These were largely spontaneous, and I visited the station each year between 1994 and 1997 to capture this on camera.
And on July 6, 1996, I waved goodbye to my own classmates at the same railway station and took pictures as they left. I was crying so hard that I could barely see through the viewfinder.
In the end, it was only on graduating university that I really felt that I’d come of age — that in photography, I’d found myself. By that point, I was confident that I could make a career and a name for myself in this profession.
To this day, I still get confidence from the experience of creating the “My University” series: It taught me that true happiness and freedom comes from focusing on what you love.
1994: Students needed a headshot of them looking their best to put on their CVs.
1994: A class group takes graduation photos in front of a teaching building.
1994: Before graduating, students bought a white t-shirt and got everyone to sign it.
1995: Changchun City’s Talent Exchange Conference attracted students on the verge of graduation from a number of local schools. The conference hall was so jam-packed that the front doors broke open, leading the police to come and maintain order.
1996: Students singing together on the railway platform before saying goodbye.
1994: During every graduation season, the same scene played out at railway stations: as the train rolled out, people waved their arms with tears in their eyes.
1996: I held my classmates’ hands and said goodbye to them.
A version of this article was originally published by Jiazazhi. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Lu Hua.
(Header image: On a student outing just before graduation, Wang Jinsong and Li Hailan opened up about their relationship, 1996. They had quietly dated for a year without anyone suspecting a thing. Courtesy of Zhao Gang)