Sha Fei exhibition

Source: China Daily (9/19/17)
Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer
By Lin Qi

Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer

Sha Fei, Chinese photographer [Photo provided to China Daily]

Two gunshots were heard at the Bethune International Peace Hospital in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, in December 1949. A Japanese doctor was shot dead by Sha Fei (1912-50), a patient of tuberculosis and a noted photographer of the People’s Liberation Army.

Two months later, Sha was sentenced to death by a military court in China.

A retrial in 1986 acquitted Sha posthumously saying he was in mental distress as he was reminded of the cruelty of war scenes when seeing the Japanese doctor, and he thought the doctor had attempted to poison him.

Sha took up photography in the 1930s and became the first full-time photographer of the Eighth Route Army led by the Communist Party of China around 1937.

But, Sha’s career as a photographer was short lived, and his work was not studied or presented until in recent times.

A Tower of Light, an exhibition now on at the museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy, sheds light on Sha’s contribution to 20th-century Chinese photography. On show are some 100 images from Sha’s oeuvre, which are printed from the negative plates owned by his family.

Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer

Chinese writer Lu Xun (foreground left) is one of the iconic figures in Sha Fei’s photographs. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The display includes his early works before Sha joined the Eight Route Army.

Sha, whose birth name was Situ Chuan, was from Guangdong province. He changed his name to Sha Fei (“flying sand”) saying that he wanted to be like a grain of sand and freely fly in the sky of his homeland.

He started as a telegraph operator and later developed an interest in photography.

As a photographer, he not only focused on scenery, but also, he zoomed in on those who struggled at the bottom of society such as rural women, children and adults in destitution, and rickshaw pullers.

He held his first solo show in Guangzhou in 1936. In the preface for the show, he said: “The undertaking of art is to help people understand themselves, transform society and regain freedom.”

He said that photographers should not separate themselves from society, but instead they should reach out to people from different walks of life.

The late Li Hua, a friend and lithography artist, once said that Sha’s works capture vividly the coexistence of people’s desires and psychological battles, and each photo is “like a painting that shows the vicissitudes of one’s life and makes people reflect”.

Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer

Sha also focused on battle scenes, like soldiers on the Great Wall in 1937 during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). [Photo provided to China Daily]

Sha later moved to Shanghai, where he met Lu Xun (1881-1936), the writer whom he photographed. The exhibition features two photos, in which Lu Xun is with young artists at a national woodcut exhibition. The writer avidly promoted wood engraving as a way to spread revolutionary ideas. There is also one of his last portraits by Sha at the show. Speaking about that picture, Sha had said that he rushed to Lu Xun’s home after hearing about his death, and took the photo in great grief.

After Sha was executed, people found on his body a box in which there were the negatives of the Lu Xun pictures, according to Yang Xiaoyan, a professor of Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University.

For Sha, Canadian physician and communist Norman Bethune (1890-1939) was another iconic face. The two met when they both served in the Jinchaji revolutionary area.

Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer

Sha Fei’s works [Photo provided to China Daily]

One photo at the show depicts Bethune in the middle of an operation. It is one of dozens of snapshots focusing on soldiers in Jinchaji and battle scenes from the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

Through Sha’s lens, people also see a lively, gentle side of Bethune.

His other portraits at the exhibition show Bethune getting along with villagers, enjoying an egg dish cooked by his guardian, He Zixin, sunbathing and even swimming nude.

Sha’s signature works also capture moments when Nie Rongzhen (1899-1992), then Jinchaji’s top commander, took care of an orphaned Japanese girl whose parents had died in a bombing.

Exhibition focuses on work of noted army photographer

Sha Fei’s works [Photo provided to China Daily]

Commenting on the show, Wang Mingming, the director of the Beijing Fine Art Academy, says: “Through Sha’s eyes, people are able to review happenings in 20th-century China.

“He didn’t showcase his photography skills. Nor did he hunt for novelty.

“He was involved in historic events, and he participated in acts to save the country from great danger. That is why his photos are of human interest and are artistically touching.”

If you go

9 am-5 pm, Monday closed, through Sept 26. 12 Chaoyang Gongyuan Nan Lu, Chaoyang district, Beijing. 010-6502-5171.

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