Snap happy: Photographer marks 38 years at Tian'anmen

By Du Juan(
Updated: 2017-05-24 16:46:48

Gao Yuan looks at photos he's taken during the past 38 years in Beijing, May 23, 2017. [Photo/VCG]

It has been 38 years since Gao Yuan shot his first photo for tourists at Tian'anmen Square in Beijing. He was 17 years old at the time.

In these decades Gao has shot nearly 700,000 portraits at the square in China's capital city. He's also witnessed many changes, from black white to color photos, from formal wear to ripped jeans, from getting a photo a month after it was taken to getting it quickly done. If each of those pictures was six inches long and they were laid in a line on the ground, their total length would wrap around Tian'anmen Square's perimeter 40 times.

But for Gao, it's a pity that he still has nearly 1,000 pictures that were never claimed. Some of the people who posed for the shots had given him a wrong mailing addresses; others had to hustle for their tourist bus before getting the photographs back. Gao has been trying to get in touch with then. He even turned to Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, for help.

"Some of them may not have another chance to come to the square, so my photo means a lot to them," Gao said in an interview with the Beijing News. He said he would always keep the pictures in the hope of finding their owners.

Gao Yuan looks at photos he's taken. [Photo/VCG]


More than 60 percent of those getting their photo taken were senior citizens, Gao said. They seemed to have had a special feeling for the square. Some couldn't help but cry while watching the national flag rise. Taking a photo with the Tian'anmen rostrum also was a must for them.

Gao recalled taking a picture last Oct 1, China's National Day, of one veteran when he came to Tian'anmen Square for the first time. It happened to be the man's birthday and the veteran, who was more than 70 years old, said he had stood the entire way on his train journey from a county in Central China's Henan province, because he couldn't get a ticket with a seat. It was raining the day the picture was taken but the veteran brought out a neat military uniform and put it on. The man then posed for his photo, which Gao said was very moving.

These are some of the photos Gao Yuan has taken for tourists. [Photo/VCG]

Gao also remembered a blind homeless man. The man walked his bike with all his belongings on it. The first time the man came, he pinned a piece of cloth written with the date near his right shoulder for the picture. He paid Gao in small currency notes. The man came for another photograph this year, but Gao didn't charge him this time.

Gao also recalled an older couple who every year came to get their photos taken at the same spot for 16 years.

Then there was the couple from Southwest China's Yunnan province celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, who got their picture taken while holding their old-time marriage certificate.

"I feel honored to record these moments for people. I would love to come and take photos for them for free next time they come, even if I am retired," said Gao.

These are some of the photos Gao Yuan has taken for tourists. [Photo/VCG]

Gao's complex

Gao Yuan got his photographer job at Tian'anmen Square in 1979. He said at first he did it because he made good money, but now he keeps at it because his love for the work and his responsibility keep him going on.

"I have dozens of elderly friends in my WeChat. They come to Tian'anmen Square to take photographs almost every year. I'm happy they always come to me to get their photo taken," Gao said.

"I don't think I'm only a photographer. I'm also a recorder - I show the changes in our times," he said.

Gao Yuan looks at photos he's taken. [Photo/VCG]

As for the unclaimed photos, Gao said Weibo really worked. Last September, a Henan peasant contacted him on social media. The man said he was 18 when he and his father had their picture taken in Tian'anmen Square, but they hadn't received their photo.

Gao then sent him several pictures based on the man's description. It was unbelievable that one of the photos showed the portrait of the man and his father in the 1990s.

"Media reports about me will help find the photos' owners, too," Gao said. "If I can find these people, what I want to do most is take another photo for them. It's also like a ritual, my ritual."

Gao Yuan shows one of his cameras. [Photo/VCG]

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