Wei Wei is a Chinese citizen born in Shanghai in 1978 and a contract photographer with Visual China Group (VCG) and Getty Images. His Magic City on Wind and Cloud, a series of photographs that show Chinese urban developments of the past 70 years, won him a grand prize in VCG’s annual photography competition in 2017. As a man with drug-induced deafness, he was awarded the title of “National Role Model with Disability” in 2019.
“One picture I shoot could be sold for 6000…” Wei said, showing “six” with his hands.
Seeing the incredulous look on the interlocutor’s face, Wei added, “in US dollars.”
He always feels bemused – and perhaps even a little proud – to find this sort of “unknowing” face of a colleague, client, or someone he has not met before. “It’s beyond their imagination that a deaf person can shoot photos sold for such a high price.”
With his deafness, Wei used to feel like an outcast of this mundane world, until the moment he first held up a camera in his ordinary white-collar status. From then he started to size up the world in which he had lived without any pronounced presence.
Non-conformity at the core
At a young age, Wei had his hearing damaged by penicillin, to which he was allergic. Both his parents worked as teachers. Like most of their peers, they expected their son to be a good student, find a good job when he graduated, get married and, finally, to live the rest of his life in contentment – everything would be perfectly predicable.
Wei’s two “rebel” episodes had something to do with his jobs. The first episode was when he was in his early twenties. He had completed his special school education in computer application and design by then. He went on to work in one of Shanghai’s key middle schools – something of great fortune and inheritance in his parents’ eyes. But in less than two weeks he quit the job because he could not stand “a life so limpid that one can see the other end right away.” After a while, he managed to get a job at an ad company and became a graphic designer.
Learning what their son had done, Wei’s parents were “so angry that they almost tossed him out of the door.” The good thing is that Wei did not settle for any ordinary company; it was Ogilvy, a key world-class player in the field. Finally, the couple decided to stop being mentally torn between a “stable” job and the thought that their son was simply “fiddling about.” They felt somewhat relieved that Wei could earn a handsome salary doing something that he loved without experiencing any discrimination against his deafness.
Two years later, however, Wei again quit his job at Ogilvy and became a freelance photographer. This came as another “bombshell” for his parents. His reason, they thought, was senseless: “In the company I came close to a lot of photographic work. I felt it was nothing difficult. I could do it on my own.”
By that time, Wei had already been married and his wife, also deaf, was the first to support his idea: “We have some savings after all those years of work. Go and try it out if you know what you’re doing.” In the first six months of his resignation, Wei had no income and had spent 60,000 yuan on equipment, including a camera and a “grand triple lens” system. His future seemed full of uncertainty. This is why he has always been “grateful for his wife’s initial support and understanding.” He fell into silence before speaking up again with a smile, “Actually they could not have held me back even if they had tried. I had told my family that I myself alone would be responsible for any consequences of the kind of work and life I chose to have.”
With such a non-conforming spirit at his core, Wei set out on the road to a possibility in which “photography may impoverish a family of three generations and a DSLR will ruin your life,” as an insider doggerel chants.
From 6 to 6,000 US dollars
The first picture Wei was able to sell six months after resignation only brought in 6 US dollars, less than 50 Chinese yuan. His wife teased, “60,000 yuan in exchange for 6 USD.” Wei did not mind her saying that. Instead, he was somewhat pleased with himself: “At least it means that my pictures are not unwanted.” A successful transition from 6 to 6,000 US dollars per picture, according to Wei, is attributed to his work at Ogilvy.
Having worked as “Party B” for a while, Wei could easily figure out what Party A wanted. He also found that a lot of ad companies tried to reduce their studio costs by purchasing pictures from external sources. Whenever he had time, Wei would go and work as an assistant to in-house photographers. “I did whatever they asked me to do and all was learning by doing. Over time I got the gist of it.” He also signed up with both VCG and Getty Images: the first one is based in China and the other caters to the international market.
A born and raised Shanghainese, Wei zeroed in on urban views in his city for a start. “This kind of picture is easy to shoot at a low cost.” From Jing’an to Pudong to Jiading, he scanned every nook and corner of the city, without any need to open his mouth and speak or to listen, as if the myriad of lights could tell amazing stories to his heart. Magic City on Wind and Cloud attracted public attention. This series of 60 panoramas, a cyberpunk-style illusion with shifting lights, treacherous clouds, and the winding Huangpu River, won him the grand award in the VCG Photography Competition 2017 and launched him into the circle of famed photographers. His commission fees were also on the rise.
Now seen as a high-end professional photographer, Wei still cherishes the difficult and yet exciting times when he first stepped into the field. Back then, every shooting with a camera felt like a challenge.
Like most photographers, Wei would go out of his way to shoot a satisfying picture, even if it spelled stupidity. Once in 2015, he climbed more than 50 flights of stairs with his friends to the top of the half-finished Shanghai Center just to shoot day and night changes. They had planned to return after shooting some night scenes, but they ended up spending the night on the roof, curling under a blanket of tossed newspapers, waiting for sunrise the next day. Wei also has a lot of similar experiences as a “wall climber, “ “guerrilla fighter” with security guards, and a “whipping boy” for a suspected theft.
To shoot meteor showers, Wei headed to Da-Qaidam in Qinghai and propped up a tent in a completely deserted area. All went well except that he did not zip up his tent completely. When he woke the next day, he found a lot of sand in his mouth and ears. Still not satisfied, he traveled up north to shoot glaciers in the arctic area, where minus 30 degrees Celsius at night “was really unbearable for a Shanghainese” like him, but the end product made him feel “all was worth the while.”
A considerable number of Wei’s works are aerial photographs. The use of drones may lend a unique angle for photographers to present the city space in a way that is both familiar and magical for viewers. Over time Wei has become more prolific and expensive. He began to sell his works to companies in North America, Europe, Australia, and Southeast Asia. “Foreigners are really keen to buy pictures of developed cities in China.” Wei said that he could feel their interest in modern Chinese lifestyles through documentary photography. “In other words, prosperity in my country put the Chinese people ‘upfront’ to a global view.”
“I’m only a shutter puncher.”
Wei used to keep silent most of the time due to his deafness. He would resort to writing or sign language when he had to communicate with people. Photography provoked his sense of self-worth and created a need to improve his work efficiency. He began to learn lip reading and with hearing aids, he mastered oral communication as we have seen earlier.
“Once on a shooting project, the client called out to me and thought I was upset with him because I didn’t answer. It was only after he came over and tapped on my shoulder that he found I was deaf. Sometimes I taught them some interesting hand movements.” There were people who doubted Wei’s competence as a deaf photographer. “They became speechless” when he showed them his works. According to Wei, this is perhaps a “privilege” for the deaf community: It is an area of expertise where the result, not the process, is critical. “No one cares about how you photograph. You are good as long as you are able to produce satisfactory works.”
The label of “deafness” seemed to be diminishing on Wei with his profuse amount of outstanding works. When asked, Wei says that his success may not be impossible for deaf people to replicate after all. “Photography is quite deaf friendly except in people photography where you need to talk with models.” This is a lower threshold when compared with other industries and creates easier access for deaf people.
“Frankly speaking, anyone can get a camera and press the shutter,” Wei added. But it’s not as simple as that if you wish to excel. “Techniques can be learned, but ideas are very difficult to teach.” Wei has successfully taught a few disciples, all of whom are hearing. He has been thinking about teaching deaf people, but he has lived and worked mostly with hearing people. He can only “do it as the opportunity presents itself.”
Since 2015, Wei has been giving out free food and water at the Shanghai Train Station as a member of the Kechara project in the city. It was also the time when he started to do people and cultural photography. On his regular visits he takes photographs of those homeless people. He does so not for the sake of documenting his own good deeds, but of capturing moments of different human lives. In his portraits, most are elderly people with deep family issues. They roam around the train station scavenging for sellable trash or begging. Also disabled, Wei can acutely sense cold apathy and alienation against them.
One such encounter was “Bespectacled Zhang”, a childless old man who was almost fully blind, with a pair of glasses swaddling on the nose and extending way beyond the contours of his face, the lenses so thick that his pupils were almost invisible. To help him recover by surgery, Wei raised funds through photography and got into contact with his relatives in Anhui Province, to which Zhang returned after recovery. Since then he has often phoned Wei asking, “When will you come to shoot photos here? Now I can see, I will be your guide.”
In May 2019, Wei was awarded the title of “National Role Model with Disability”. After he returned from Beijing, he “truly felt busier than usual.” Suddenly, a lot of media people came to interview him. “I’m not quite used to this. I can only shoot photos and I don’t know what to say.” But he is happy at the thought that in some way he can help more people with disabilities.
To Wei, photography is no simple work. He prefers to think of himself as a “shutter puncher.” “I am only a deaf man who exhausts a shutter. The reason why the world in my eyes looks impressive is that there are things that only I can see. I want people to observe these realities and join together for a change.”
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine