Beyond The Frame: How a Pioneer Set Her Sights on Yunnan’s Birds
YUNNAN, Southwest China — Early on a February morning, little stirs in a forest outside Kunming in the southwestern Yunnan province. The chirping of unseen birds is silenced only by the distant clatter of machinery.
By the side of a forest road near a spring hidden in the undergrowth, 63-year-old Wang Ying treads softly. One of Yunnan’s most renowned bird photographers, she knows better than most that any careless movement can startle and scatter her subjects.
Her camera trained on a flock of small green birds known as white-eyes hopping down branches to the spring, Wang whispers: “When I watch birds, I am not lonely at all. A pair of birds may fight sometimes, but they also take care of each other.”
The day began with a sense of excitement. A rare bird called the wallcreeper, a small, gray bird with red wings that scales sheer rock faces, had been spotted at a dam just outside the city.
But, two hours later, the wallcreeper remained elusive. Wang suggests visiting the spring nearby, a known watering hole for birds. A while later, she stops at a dedicated birdwatching ground complete with watering holes and purpose-built shelters to hide from and observe the birds.
And with China’s elderly retirees looking to reconnect with nature, birdwatching is now more popular than ever. As Wang walks around meeting the other birders and amateur photographers, their admiration is palpable. “She is my teacher, I am her student,” says one birdwatcher, a man in his sixties.
And amid them all, Wang is the only woman.
She tells Sixth Tone: “When I started, almost nobody was taking photos of birds, and certainly no women. I am a frontline soldier, both as a bird photographer and as a woman.”
Though she began focusing on birds only late into her decadeslong, award-winning career in photography, Wang’s reputation of being fearless in pursuing her subjects has spread far and wide. Most recently, her images of Yunnan’s birds were among the promotional material used at the COP 15 UN biodiversity conference in Kunming last year.
Over the years, bird photography has taken Wang across the world, from Papua New Guinea and Australia to Cuba. But Wang says her hardest assignments have been in China.
In 2013, Wang was part of a wildlife photographic expedition across the brutally steep valleys of Wolong in the southwestern Sichuan province.
“We walked for 10 days. We could not talk, because loud sounds could bring boulders down the side of the mountain. We crossed rivers with chest-high water, a rope around our waists — a dozen such crossings a day. We slept under a sheet of plastic,” she says. “When we got back to the highway, I cried in relief.”
And though she’s now past 60, Wang still disappears into the mountains for weeks at a time. She says, “Often, I carry 30 kilos of equipment, eat wild berries, drink from streams, and sleep in tents.”
A lot of the grit and determination Wang possesses was inherited from her father, who was a decorated soldier.
“I was born in Kunming, but my parents are not from here,” she explains. “My father was an artilleryman, and he came here with the army while fighting the Japanese.”
The older of two sisters, Wang was born in 1960. “I was always a rebellious child. My father treated me like a boy because there were no sons in the family. I did all the work normally done by men,” she says. “I have never been afraid of anything.”
As a child, she once even went into a morgue on a dare. “As kids, we were trying to see who was the bravest. I was not afraid of dead bodies, my mother taught me that ghosts did not exist.”
During the Cultural Revolution, Wang, at age 16, was “sent down to the countryside.” She recalls, “I was by Dianchi Lake in a village that farmed fish. Once you ended up there, you needed to learn to look after yourself.”
Locals tried to bully a girl from the city: “They blocked my way on a pass between fish ponds. I then got myself a stick and (the next time) I hit them, knocking them into the fish pond,” she says.
Every morning, Wang had to cut grass: “You must start early because there is dew and the grass is easy to cut. We had to cut at least 80 kilograms every day.” And since there was little to do besides work, Wang bought a manual and learned how to draw.
Such was her desire to leave the village and see the world that she even tried to volunteer during the then ongoing border conflict with Vietnam.
“My father said no! He made a call to his old war comrade and said ‘do not let her!’”
Eventually, Wang landed a job with a danwei, or work unit, that was constructing power stations in the mountains in southwestern China. She recalls rolling huge boulders down the mountainsides and then breaking them up to pave access roads.
Soon after, though, her superiors decided to transfer her to the work unit’s labor union department.
That’s where her self-taught art skills came in handy. “I made posters for films!” she smiles. But then, the films also had to be delivered to work crews and villages deep in the countryside.
“I travelled across the mountains with the projector on my back … When it rained, I got soaked. The farmers often gave me a bowl of noodles with an egg, and this brought me great happiness! And I could watch films for free!” she says.
The labor union was also where Wang first picked up a camera — Wang was asked to publish PR material. It meant taking photos and interviewing the workers of her work unit.
She instantly fell in love with photography and, soon after, told her father that she wanted her own camera. He asked if she was serious. She replied: “I learned drawing by myself, and I will learn photography too.”
That won the argument. “My father bought me a camera — a Seagull BF-1 that cost 345 yuan. At that time my salary was 19 yuan per month.” He also built her a dark room to develop photos.
All the while, Wang continued working as a projectionist for her work unit. A young man started to court her, but soon went abroad to study. The two wrote to each other, but then the connection gradually faded.
Not long afterwards, Wang got married. “I had a child. I kept working and went to university at the same time. I carried my child to my lectures. I didn’t take any photos for a long time,” she says.
For better holidays and more time to look after her child, Wang shifted jobs to work at a middle school, where she initially did accounts and PR, and later worked as a teacher’s assistant.
She also started taking photographs again, but not of birds. “I photographed people, I went to villages, markets. I also took photos of landscapes.”
A chance, yet close, encounter with a bear changed everything.
In 2006, amid the mountain wilderness of the Laojunshan National Park in Yunnan, Wang was busy taking photos of blooming rhododendron trees when she bumped into a black bear.
She did not panic. Wang recalls: “I hid behind a tree. I did not move or make a sound. I did not know what to do … The bear then climbed up a tree to eat rhododendron flowers and I took a picture of it.”
At the time, famed wildlife photographer and filmmaker Qi Yun was also in the area, photographing snub-nosed monkeys. When Wang told him about her run-in with a bear, he was more than impressed.
“He said to me: ‘you are brave!’ We then went to find that bear afterwards, and he taught me how to take photos of it,” says Wang. Qi Yun then became her wildlife photography mentor.
On the same trip, Wang found a bird’s nest hidden amongst the roots of a great tree. The craftsmanship of the nest amazed her: “It was made from plants, with strands as long and as fine as a toothpick. I wanted to know more, so I started taking photos of birds after that day,” she says.
That year, Wang joined the Kunming Birdwatcher Association, and months later, went with local citizen scientists to Lake Baikal in Russia to document the annual migration of gulls from Baikal to Kunming’s lakes.
The trip marked a turning point in Wang’s career — she decided to dedicate herself to bird photography. And when her job got in the way, Wang took early retirement on medical grounds.
“I had a small pension, but it also meant no more work. I just ran after birds. I went to a lot of places,” she laughs.
She supplemented her pension with bird and wildlife photography: “I sold photos to magazines. I also won photography prizes and got some prize money.”
The one she most values is a Yunnan Television award, for a documentary on migratory birds, that got her a 50,000 yuan ($7,256) prize. She says, “There are other, smaller awards for photography contests, but I stopped participating. I want to do my own thing rather than try and fit into the style that such contests like.”
Another one she is proud of is a photograph of a bearded vulture on its nest that made the cover of the Chinese Journal of Zoology. In 2015, Wang took part in research on these giant birds that feed on bones of dead animals. On the Tibetan plateau, she, along with a team of researchers, monitored their behaviour and took photographs.
Her family does not understand her passion or pursuits. She says: “My husband went with me once, but he got bored. He asked me, ‘why do you come to this wasteland?’”And Wang’s daughter, a doctor, is too used to the comforts of city life to accompany her.
Bird photography is also expensive, says Wang. “I spend all my money on travel and equipment.” Giggling, she recalls the time she once broke an expensive camera when a tiny jumping spider she was taking a photo of suddenly leapt onto the lens, and she fell backwards.
Driving back to the city, Wang says that many have asked her to write a book about her life and bird photography. “But I look at my life, and I ask myself, ‘what have I achieved?’ I don’t think I have really done anything,” she says.
She has another personal objective — photograph every bird species in Yunnan. She says: “There are more than 1,000 bird species in Yunnan. At the moment, I have photographed about 500.”
(Header image:Wang Ying seeking out subjects near a reservoir outside Kunming, Yunnan province, Feb. 8, 2023. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)