Recently ABILITY’s 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 People’s 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 Athens’s 2004 Paralympic Games and director of programs in the opening and closing ceremonies of Beijing’s 2008 Paralympic Games. The couple has made substantial donations in China’s 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 applauding.
Cooper: How did you deal with the fact that you didn’t 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 her.
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: That’s right.
Cooper: Initially, who was it that asked you to take the pictures?
Zhang: A magazine in Shandong. It’s comparable to your Life magazine in America.
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 didn’t do well in my studies, and I didn’t 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; I’ll show them to you.
Cooper: How did you come to work for China Press for People with Disabilities?
Zhang: By fall ’99, I’d taken over 10,000 photos, from which I chose 120 to show at an exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s 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 official 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 couldn’t 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, I’ll 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: It’s heavy, but the photographs can be enlarged, and they are very clear.
Cooper: I even take good pictures with my camera, and I don’t know what I’m doing. The camera compensates for my ignorance.
Zhang: All the time, I’m 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 my paintings.
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 support 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 country’s oldest cities, Luoyang, to host an exhibition, and next week I will go there to prepare for it. It’s 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?
Ni Lin (China Press), Chet Cooper (ABILITY Magazine) and Zhang Heyong formed an alliance to foster greater disability awareness in China & USA [posted 2013]Zhang: It’s been good meeting you; I’m 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. Let’s make it a long-lasting and stable relationship.
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Kurt Yaeger, Chet Cooper, Ashley Fiolek and China Press are DRLC Honorees
Kurt Yaeger, Chet Cooper, Ashley Fiolek and China Press are DRLC Honorees