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China Releases Award-Winning Photographer Who Documented Nation’s Dark Side

Chinese photographer Lu Guang attends the Pingyao International Photography Festival in Pingyao, Shanxi province, China, Sept. 20, 2014.

A country boy kneels before the grave of his parents, who died of AIDS after becoming infected with the HIV virus because unsafe procedures were used when they sold their blood. Horror colors the eyes of a miner with his face, unprotected by any safety gear, entirely blackened by coal dust. Two men under a yellow sky view a 200-year-old temple surrounded by belching industrial smokestacks. Hours before her death from AIDS, a barely clad woman takes comfort in the arms of her husband, who could not afford to take her to the hospital.

For decades, Chinese independent photojournalist Lu Guang documented China’s dark side, covering the discomfiting economic, social and environmental issues long steamrollered by China’s race to become a world power.

Chinese police detained the award-winning freelancer in early November 2018, according to media reports. His wife, Xu Xiaoli, said Lu, 58, was meeting with local photographers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the center of Beijing’s crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.

Detainment of Uighurs

Once a storied stop on the Silk Road, Xinjiang is now notable for vast re-education camps set up to turn the Uighurs faith in Islam to faith in the Chinese Communist Party. Rights groups say the Chinese government has detained hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities without trial.

Facing international condemnation, China announced in July that most of the detainees who were in the “de-radicalization” centers had been released, which was widely doubted.

On Monday, almost a year after Lu’s disappearance, Xu posted on Twitter that “Lu has been at home for several months.”

Although the couple has lived in New York City since 2005 and are permanent residents in the U.S., home in this case for Lu means China. He is believed to be under surveillance on a residential bail-like release, according to Wen Yunchao, a New York-based former political commentator and family friend. This means Lu could still face charges if, in the eyes of the authorities, he misbehaves. VOA knows Wen as a credible source.

FILE - Visitors walk past the old city district in Kashgar, western China's Xinjiang region, Aug. 31, 2018. Police confirmed that Lu Guang, a prominent Chinese photographer who went missing more than a month ago was arrested, his wife said.
FILE - Visitors walk past the old city district in Kashgar, western China's Xinjiang region, Aug. 31, 2018. Police confirmed that Lu Guang, a prominent Chinese photographer who went missing more than a month ago was arrested, his wife said.

Like Lu’s detention, little official is known about his release. VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Wednesday but received no response. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international press freedom advocacy organization, China has one of the world’s worst records for press freedom, and is currently detaining 60 professional and citizen journalists.

In August, before news of Lu’s release became public, RSF listed him among the 12 nominees for its 2019 Press Freedom Award, an honor he did not win on Thursday.

“Many of the nominees face constant threats or have been imprisoned several times for their work, yet these journalists refused to be silenced and continue to raise their voices against the abuse of power, corruption and other crimes,” said Christophe Deloire, the RSK secretary-general, in a release.

Robert Pledge, president and editorial director of Contact Press Images met Lu in China about 17 years ago. His agency represents and distributes some of Lu’s work. He told VOA that Lu’s photographs have a “universal dimension. … Pollution, coal mining, the AIDS issue, the way water is affected by industrialization and all these matters are common to the world in general.”

Lu “expresses these concerns and these anxieties that people around the world have,” Pledge said. “They are taken in China, but they’re not about China in particular. They’re about the world we live in today collectively.”

Pledge continued, saying, “Governments are never happy anywhere to see images or information that depicts the realities that are painful to look at and that expressed some real concerns about situations that are developing.”

Pledge said he feels Lu’s photographs were not the cause of his arrest.

Becoming a photographer

Lu took to photography when he first held a camera in 1980. At the time, he was a 21-year-old factory worker in Yongkang, his hometown in Zhejiang province.

Intent on a photography career, he opened a portrait studio and started an advertising company before taking classes at the school now known as Fine Arts Academy of Tsinghua University in Beijing between 1993 and 1995.

After studying with some of China’s top photojournalists, he turned to documentary photography and began to focus his work on the people rarely seen in China’s state-run media.

“He is highly sensitive to the suffering of those who live at the bottom of the society, as well as the various human rights violations that take place in this country,” Hu Jia, a prominent social activist and political dissident told VOA.

This undated photos shows retired doctor Gao Yaojie, 74, right, applying medicine to a villager's arm as she helps people from neglected AIDS villages in the central China province of Henan.
This undated photos shows retired doctor Gao Yaojie, 74, right, applying medicine to a villager's arm as she helps people from neglected AIDS villages in the central China province of Henan.

He called Lu “a good friend” and remembered their trips to so-called AIDS villages in China’s central Henan province. There, because of unsafe procedures used during a government-sponsored blood drive, many villagers were infected with HIV when they sold blood. In some villages, up to 40 percent of the residents were seropositive, but received no help because China did not officially recognize the existence of AIDS within its borders in an era when it wanted foreign investment.

Lu “is willing to use his wisdom and take the risks to capture them,” Hu Jia said.

Lu spent three years visiting more than 100 of these villages, shooting tens of thousands of pictures. Those portraits earned him his first World Press Photo award in 2004.

Many international awards

He went on to win many other international awards, with projects on drug addicts, industrial pollution, and coal miners. He is the first photographer from China to be invited to the U.S. by the Department of State on a program for visiting scholars. In 2010, he won a National Geographic Photography Grant.

In 2013, at the Prince Claus Awards ceremony in The Netherlands, Lu explained to the audience why he became a photographer.

“Since 1980, I realized that I can use my camera to help a lot of people, even solve some problems. I keep on finding those problems and hope to play some roles with my photos.”

But in covering controversial issues in China, Lu drew criticism for staging photos he presented as truthful documents of a moment.

In 2008, Lu was disqualified from entering a renowned Chinese photojournalism contest because the judges questioned his journalistic ethics. That same year, the respected Chinese photojournalist He Yanguang alleged that Lu had admitted paying an addict in order to photograph him using drugs. Lu denied this.

Polluted rivers project

At the time, Lu was involved in a 10-year project on China’s polluted rivers. It won him the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography in 2009 and a National Geographic Photo Grant in 2010.

On Nov. 26, 2018, Xu tweeted that Lu had gone missing during a trip to Xinjiang. She said he had been invited to meet with local photographers in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He was not planning to photograph the detention camps, she told The New York Times.

“We were all very shocked to hear this,” said Wu Yuren, a family friend and artist who moved to New York after angering Beijing with his human-rights activism. “After coming to the U.S., we rarely hear anyone in our close circle just vanished like that.”

Xu made multiple attempts to contact the police in her husband’s native Zhejiang province. Eventually she learned that Lu had been taken by the Xinjiang guobao, a branch of China’s police in charge of state security.

Arrested in Xinjiang

On Dec. 11, Xu received a phone call from local police saying her husband had been arrested in Kashgar, an ancient city in southern Xinjiang predominantly populated by Muslim Uighurs. The police did not provide her with any written record of the arrest or tell her why Lu was arrested, according to Xu’s tweet.

Lu’s arrest drew international attention. The U.S. State Department’s 2018 Human Rights Report mentioned his case. Numerous rights groups called for his release.

“The Chinese government has a long history of taking people whose views it doesn’t like, literally off the grid and disappearing them,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

After the initial tweets, Lu’s family maintained silence until Xu tweeted of his release this week. She told VOA the family didn’t announce the news of his release when it occurred several months ago because they wanted to live a quiet life.

On Tuesday, Xu, declined VOA’s request to interview her husband. In an email sent on his behalf, she wrote, “He is doing very well and is busy with setting up a photography museum. He doesn’t want to be bothered. Thank you for your understanding.”