Chet Cooper traveled to Beijing to build a relationship with China Press
for People with Disabilities. In the coming months, the partnership
will result in an exchange of articles, art and ideas between the two
countries. Our magazine will include stories from their organization,
while their publications will feature stories produced by our team.
During one of the meetings held to cement the deal, Cooper connected
with Zhang Heyong to talk about his work as an artist, journalist and
advocate for persons with disabilities
Zhang learned painting and calligraphy at an early age, and majored
in art in college. Later, he became a journalist and served as a photographer
and editorial director at Shandong Pictorial Publisher House; he is
currently deputy editor-in-chief for China Press for People with Disabilities.
As a photographer, he has returned to people with disabilities as a
subject matter again and again. Exhibitions of his art have been held
in Singapore, Japan, Germany and Korea.
Zhang is also a gifted curator with many exhibits to his credit over
the past decade, including National Photography Competition for
Persons with Disabilities, New China 60 Anniversary Calligraphy
and Painting Competition for the Disabled, and Love and
Truth: Photography Exhibition About the Disabled.
Both Zhang, who presided over the Beijing 2008 Paralympic torch relay,
and his wife, Wang Jin, help people with disabilities. She is one of
the founders of China Disabled Peoples Performing Art Troupe and
took the group to the US and more than 60 other countries to perform
the program My Dream. She was in charge of art production
for Chinese programs in the closing ceremony of Athenss 2004 Paralympic
Games and director of programs in the opening and closing ceremonies
of Beijings 2008 Paralympic Games. The couple has made substantial
donations in Chinas poor areas, so far helping more than 200 children
with hearing impairments.
Chet Cooper: You met your wife at the same time that you decided to
focus on people with disabilities?
Zhang Heyong: In the 1990s, there was a sports event for athletes with
disabilities. At the time, I knew little about disabilities; I was simply
a professional photographer sent to take pictures of athletes. The competition
was held in a city near the sea. That first time I was worried about
the safety of the athletes: What if a blind runner ran into something,
or a person with a missing limb fell and got injured? But I went to
see the competition, anyway. After that, I got in touch with these athletes.
There were several deaf athletes who had run a half-marathon and were
sitting on the grass. When I saw that their toes were peeping out of
the end of their socks, which were sticky with blood and sweat, I felt
that my blood was running cold. That night I made a decision to take
all the money I brought with me and buy shoes and socks for 100 athletes.
When I carried these socks and shoes into the hotel where the athletes
were staying, they stood on the porch inside the building, waving and
Cooper: How did you deal with the fact that you didnt know
what sizes they wore?
Zhang: I got some data on the athletes.
Cooper: But it was a surprise when you donated them?
Zhang: Word got around that I had inquired. They smiled. Their smiles
made me cry.
Cooper: So smiling makes you cry?
Zhang: One of the people there was a woman who was a co-host of the
artistic performance for the opening ceremony of the sports meet. She
gave me a flower, we got to know each other, and I ended up marrying
Cooper: So going to that competition really changed your life, not only
in terms of making disabilities a major focus, but also because it led
to you meeting your wife.
Zhang: Thats right.
Cooper: Initially, who was it that asked you to take the pictures?
Zhang: A magazine in Shandong; its comparable to your Life magazine
Cooper: So you have them to thank for your good fortune. Now you
also have a background as a fine artist. Can you tell me about that?
Zhang: In elementary school, I didnt do well in my studies, and
I didnt have much faith in myself. But I did show artistic talent
when it came to drawing, painting and traditional writing with a special
Chinese pen. It was on this path that I found myself.
From that point on, I began to immerse myself in art. When I was 18,
I went to the university and studied Chinese paintings for four years.
I also learned about Western-style painting. Several of my Western-style
paintings are in this center; Ill show them to you.
Cooper: How did you come to work for China Press for People with
Zhang: By fall 99, Id taken over 10,000 photos, from which
I chose 120 to show at an exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the
founding of the Peoples Republic of China in the Shandong Province,
specifically. And several officers from China Disabled Persons
Federation (CDPF) attended the ceremony, and we got to know each other.
They suggested I work in Beijing and gave me housing, an offical position
and other benefits. But the important thing was that I got more opportunities
to focus on media, disability and the arts.
One time I stayed with a young man near the Yellow River for a week;
he couldnt walk independently, so he held on to a goat to get
around. Without that goat to lean on, he would have been stuck at home.
I took photographs of him and reported his story.
Later, I took photographs of 100 people who had similar challenges and
reported on them, as well. I lived with some for more than a week, and
with others for less time.
Cooper: How did you find them?
Zhang: My wife worked for a local association that dealt with the disability
community in Shandong.
Cooper: So you married soon after you met?
Zhang: Yes, and then I traveled. The pictures represent my journey from
1998 to 1999, and now I intend to revisit the people I met then and
update their stories. Most of them live in Shandong Province, which
is about 300 miles from Beijing. (Shandong is about as big as Germany.)
On my upcoming trip, Ill drive to many cities and villages to
meet with families and interview them.
Cooper: What kind of camera do you use?
Zhang: Canon 5D Mark II.
Cooper: Me, too!
Zhang: Its heavy, but the photographs can be enlarged, and they
are very clear.
Cooper: I even take good pictures with my camera, and I dont
know what Im doing. The camera compensates for my ignorance.
Zhang: All the time, Im trying to get better. I do it to grow
and also for the passion. Every year I also choose some deaf children
who need support and help them. All the money comes from the sale of
Cooper: Do you have a gallery?
Zhang: Different galleries show my work.
Cooper: Do you ever sell your own art?
Zhang: Yes, and sometimes my friends buy it. My work is shown in galleries,
and also hung in hotels. Of course, my creative motivation is absolutely
for my arts ideal, not for money. Through my work, I hope to arouse
the public to pay more attention to the disabled, and to contemplate
the meaning of life.
Cooper: Have you sold your art in the US?
Zhang: Some of my paintings have been sold through different channels,
and some are owned by American friends.
Cooper: Tell me about the art work that will be featured when we help
you bring an exhibit to the US.
Zhang: All works for that event will be paintings and photographs by
artists with disabilities; and I personally would like to donate three
paintings to help suppprt this Sino-US arts exchange. Two of them are
Western, and one of them is a traditional Chinese painting.
Cooper: Do you think the traditional works will sell better than
the Western ones?
Zhang: Maybe. Some Westerners approach the value of Chinese traditional
paintings vs. that of Western style paintings differently. They think
the former are put on paper, while the latter are on cloth. Paper is
cheaper than cloth in their mind, so they think the Western paintings
can be more expensive. Actually, a piece of Chinese art paper is more
expensive than a piece of canvas.
Cooper: In addition to your work as an artist, you also work as a journalist.
How long have you been involved with China Press?
Zhang: Since 2003.
Cooper: How many exhibitions featuring people with disabilities have
you held with your publication?
Zhang: About seven. We call it a competition, and we ask companies to
support it; the money they give us goes to the winners. We get the artworks
from all over the country. We will get thousands of pieces to display.
From that number, we will choose some for the competition. About 30
or 40 winners will receive prize money.
We also hold exhibitions in Korea and Japan, with whom we have good
relationships. We hold exhibitions in each country once a year and we
invite them to China to hold exhibitions. This year we have invited
them to one of our countrys oldest cities, Luoyang, to host an
exhibition, and next week I will go there to prepare for it. Its
our custom to seek some local government support for the exhibit.
Cooper: Will this be the first time an exhibit of Chinese artists
with disabilities comes to the US?
Zhang: Yes. After you go back to the US and get in touch with relevant
agencies and persons to carry the arts exchange forward.
Cooper: Next week when you go to Luoyang, will that be to host art from
Korea and Japan, or will there be art from China there as well?
Zhang: The focus will be Korean and Chinese art for the 20th anniversary
of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea. Exhibitions have
been held in Shanghai and Beijing, and I wanted a third city, Luoyang.
Cooper: Will the art be auctioned off?
Zhang: No, but there will be another photo exhibition in Inner Mongolia.
Cooper: Anything else that you would like to add to the interview?
Zhang: Its been good meeting you; Im impressed by your humor
and your curiosity, and also by your commitment to work together. Before
you came to China, I was eager to meet our counterpart in the US so
that we could build a bridge. Lets make it a long-lasting and
Cooper: Zhang and to your wonderful staff at China Press for hosting
my trip to your country. I look forward to returning the favor when
you come to the US. I know the exhibit by Chinese artists with disabilities
will be the first of many projects of our combined efforts... Ill
be practicing my Mandarin. .....
in ABILITY Magazine
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