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May 10, 1999

Here is some background on Wu Jialin that I have drawn from various letters, press releases, letters and reports that I put together and that provides some interesting details about FotoFest's relationship with the photographer.

Notes dated 11/28/95

...Last March, I stayed with Marc Riboud in Paris, at which time the postman delivered a package to Marc from China. We were having coffee and Mark opened the package which contained a book, Mountain Folks of Yunnan - Selected Photographs of Wu Jialin.

Mark had no idea who this was until he opened the book and saw his picture in the forward (Marc and Mr. Wu sitting on the bed in Marc's hotel room). As Mr. Wu only speaks Chinese and Marc does not, they were editing what turned out to be this book. Mark put down cards marked; A, B, and C. that corresponded to little piles of 5 x 7 prints with the best pictures going in the A pile, etc. This is what is going on in the picture

Mr. Wu had journeyed from Kunming to find Mark in Shanghai - a thousand-mile journey having read in the Chinese press that Marc was in Shanghai photographing Gong Li, Asia's most famous actress (The Red Lantern, My Favorite Concubine).

Unlike Mark, Mr. Wu is an unknown photographer, both in and out of China. Even within the Chinese Professional Photographers Association, Mr. Wu is a rather mysterious figure. He is known to the CPPA as a fine photographer, whom nobody has ever seen - a talented ghost from a remote province. Marc Riboud, on the other hand, is famous in China, having worked on assignments for international magazines since 1956 and one of the first western photographers to win the trust of the Chinese. When he shoots in China today he is covered as a celebrity. He has been described as the father of Chinese photojournalism, was an early member of Magnum, and at one time its president. He is known as one of the world's great photojournalists.

When I saw Mr. Wu's book, I decided to include his work in FotoFest '96 and if possible to bring him from China to participate in the festival. Easier said than done. Three months of faxing and letter writing between Houston, Paris, and China finally put us in contact with Mr. Wu. We eventually got the required permissions, visas, etc. and Mr. Wu will come to Houston in February to print his exhibit at the labs of the Rice Media Center sponsored by FotoFest and Rice University. He will lecture in Houston, participate in FotoFest's International Meeting Place, and be on hand for various activities with Rice University, the photo community as well as Houston's large Asian Community.

Our most recent meeting in Paris in November was prompted by a need to describe the above developments to Zeng Nian, a Chinese photographer living in Paris, who was instrumental in contacting Mr. Wu in China. This resulted in a conversation at Mark's apartment that brought about some important additions to the above scenario. Mr. Zeng is going to China on December 1 and will see Mr. Wu. Mark is very concerned about Mr. Wu's trip to Houston. From what we gather, Mr. Wu has never been outside his province, except on the occasion of coming to see Marc in Shanghai. Since, Marc set in motion a chain of events that may change Mr. Wu's life substantially, he feels a strong sense of responsibility for the consequences. This trip, in fact, could have significant implications for Mr. Wu.

Marc proposes providing Mr. Zeng with a short course to coach Mr. Wu on how to prepare for the trip, with subjects ranging from choices for the exhibit, to how to protect himself and his negatives from harm. Marc is suggesting that Mr. Wu come to Houston via Paris, where he would be further briefed on the ways of the west. Marc recounts a story about a Zambian photographer who arrived at his doorstep in New York, with no money, no passport, no cameras, or negatives, having been ripped off at JFK airport through some scam.

Having spent his entire life in a remote corner of China, the west is going to provide major culture shock. This trip should be an incredible windfall for Mr. Wu and Chinese photography if precautions are taken. Marc has offered to accompany Mr. Wu to Houston with a possible stop in New York for a couple of days. Marc wants to document Mr. Wu's introduction to the west for European, American and Asian publications and eventually return to Kunming to photograph Mr. Wu on his own turf.

My Wu is fifty-one years old but looks much younger. By all accounts he is a remarkable man. In spite of being poor (many of his negatives were made on 35mm movie stock), he is a self taught photographer, and according to Marc, is a charming and rather shy man who would make a wonderful subject for an essay. His book, shown around by Mark, has made a very favorable impression with some very important people in the photography world. Mark told me that Henri Cartier Bresson looked at his book and commented that Magnum needed more photographers like him. Robert Delpire, chief of the Centre Nationale de la Photographie, saw the book last week and was very complimentary about it.

Report sent to Mr. Ralph Samuelson, Director, Asian Cultural Council, New York, July 24, 1996:

The benefits of Mr.Wu's trip are incalculable and I can say that this visit and the exhibition have changed Mr. Wu's life in many ways. The visit also changed FotoFest's chances of opening up opportunities for playing a role in the Chinese photography world. Events have been set in motion that will have a long term effect on Mr. Wu, Chinese photography as well as FotoFest's activities in China. It is too soon to speculate exactly what this effect will be but I think you will get a sense of how this might work if I tell you about some of the highlights of Mr. Wu's visit.

First, there was a great deal of attention paid to Mr. Wu and his exhibit. There were about 10,000 visitors as well as over 1,000 children from the Houston public schools, organized by FotoFest to see his show. The exhibit was covered by local TV and Mr. Wu, with the help of student translators, did daily gallery tours at the Rice Media Center (exhibit site).

I did not realize that Mr. Wu had accumulated an $8,000 debt from the publication of his book. As Mr. Wu earns $80 a month as a government photographer in Kunming, we figured that it was going to take Mr. Wu about 800 years to pay his debt. With this in mind, FotoFest and the photography community in Houston got busy and started buying prints and books from Mr. Wu. He departed for China with over $22,000 in his pocket. I also contacted the Leica factory in Germany, told them about Mr. Wu and that he had never owned a camera (he always used government equipment) and explained why he would be an excellent candidate for their largesse. They graciously agreed and will give him the Leica Medal of Excellence and a new M6 Leica in Paris when he arrives there for his exhibit in November. Wu made enough money to get to Paris, visit photographer Marc Riboud and meet a lot of important people. There is other interest in Mr. Wu's work. In 1996, Stockholm will be the European City of Culture and I have received serious interest from the organizers to have the Wu exhibit there. There is also interest in Mexico and several places in the U.S.

Mr. Wu had mentioned having heard stories in Yunnan about an American photographer/scientist, Joseph Rock working in the area beginning in the 1920's. Rock's photographs appeared in the National Geographic in 1922. Mr. Wu is very enthusiastic about this idea and wants to have such an exhibit in China.
Mother Jones Magazine recently called and asked that Mr. Wu apply for their documentary prize ($25,000). FotoFest is preparing slides of the Wu work for this purpose.

As you can see, Mr. Wu's visit and exhibit were a great success and many exciting projects are materializing. We are all grateful for the help of the Asian Cultural Council in making it possible to achieve a complete transformation of Wu Jialin's status as a photographer as well as providing FotoFest with visibility in Chinese cultural and photography circles. I will keep you informed about further developments of this remarkable story.


Epilogue, May 10, 1999:

  • Mr. Wu had an exhibit in Horten, Germany in 1986 through a curator he met at FotoFest.
  • During the Stockholm 98 - European City of Culture exhibition Under/Exposed (700 giant photographs from some of the world's best known photographers, shown at 21 Metro stops) Mr. Wu's work was included.
  • Mr. Wu received the Mother Jones Award for Documentary photography in 1997.
  • Mr. Wu had an exhibit at ICP in New York in 1997.
  • I attended a lecture/slide show about Chinese contemporary photography at a meeting of Oracle at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan and was delighted to hear the Chinese scholar Sushi Si say that Mr. Wu was China's most famous photographer.

  • Sincerely,

    Frederick Baldwin, President