Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 3 February, 2017

This week an interview with Chinese documentary photographer Pang Xiangliang about his incredible series on the Daqing Oil Fields. Also American photojournalist Daniella Zalcman launches her new Women Photograph site and Melbourne’s Magnet Galleries extends its Excessive 80’s exhibition “by popular demand!’

Feature Interview:

Pang Xiangliang  – Iron Man Spirit

In China’s far north, where the country borders Russia and Mongolia, winter brings sub-zero temperatures, snowstorms and ice sheets. In summer the ground thaws turning to steaming, muddy swamps. In this challenging environment more than 250,000 workers toil on China’s largest oil bed at Daqing Oil Fields in Heilongjiang Province.

Working in these conditions takes brute force and a will of steel. While technology aids in getting the black gold out of the earth, the physical effort required by the workers to operate the machinery makes Daqing Oil Field one of the harshest places to work.

“This is work that truly brings out the Iron Man spirit,” says Chinese photographer, Pang Xiangliang (Mr. Pang) who has spent five years documenting the workers of the Daqing Oil Fields and battling the same conditions. When Mr. Pang says Iron Man he’s not talking about a super athlete who surfs, runs and lifts weights. The Daqing Iron Man stems back to the 1960s when the oil fields were first developed. During this time Wang Jinxi the manager of rig 1205, led the workers through what Mr. Pang describes as “unimaginable difficulties” instilling a fighting spirit that saw the drilling of many high quality wells. “Later, he was named Iron Man Wang and his legend lives on in the spirit of the workers.”

In his youth Mr. Pang, who lives in Daqing City, worked on the oil fields, and he says the natural affinity he holds for the drill crews allowed him to gain access that others might have found more difficult. Certainly the intimacy of the images shows a deep trust between photographer and subject.

“I am the offspring of ‘old battle Daqing oil field’”, says Mr. Pang who tells that his father worked on the first oil field in 1961. “I have deep feelings for the oilfield. Daqing is a modern city because of the oil. For more than forty years, no matter what jobs I’ve done, I’ve always thought about the development of the oil field.”

In his series titled “After 80”, he focuses on the young men born from 1980 onwards, many of who are following in their fathers’ footsteps. Others are university graduates who are attracted to the work for its high wages. But money alone is not the motivator and Mr. Pang says all the workers he met hold great pride in the work they do.

He began this project in 2008. At first he found the high tech drilling equipment visually engaging and only concentrated on photographing the machinery, but as his documentation of the oil fields progressed he began to turn his attention to the drill workers.

“When I stepped on the rig floor and saw the workers were busy with drilling operations, that unique kind of atmosphere and environment, the rumbling rig, the powerful action of the drill shook my soul.”

To make his images even more authentic he immersed himself in the drilling culture, reading everything he could lay his hands on and seeking advice from technical personnel and experts to explain what he was seeing. “This helped me to take better pictures and to interpret the stories in my works.”

Many of the images in his series were shot in the thick of winter when the ponds and swamps were frozen. He says the freezing conditions provided a more favourable environment in which to shoot. “In summer there’s too much steam from the ponds”. The winter climate also delivers a particular aesthetic that gives the pictures an almost painterly feel – eyebrows encrusted in white, clothing sculpted with frost created by body heat, backdrops of sleet and snow.

One of my favourite images is the one where workers are drilling while the wind whips snow about them. Mr. Pang concurs, nominating others that he also favours such as ‘young roughneck Zhoupeng’, ‘rolling steel cable’, ‘drilling in the wind and snow’ and ‘casing in’ which he says evokes the “typical character of the drilling industry”. As an aside, ‘casing in’ is part of the construction of the well giving the drill hole strength and functionality.

Mr. Pang says photographing on surfaces slippery with oil, snow and frost made for challenging moments. Once in early winter a snowstorm covered, but didn’t freeze, one of the mud pits and he narrowly avoided falling in. Another time he had to wear a safety harness to climb the ten meters to reach the derrick floor platform, which was covered with ice and oil.

“I have to think about my own safety and also protect my camera equipment. I use a special cold climate cover to limit the impact of the weather on the gear, but in spite of this, in five years of photographing I damaged two lenses”. That doesn’t seem such a bad trade off for the extraordinary pictures he has taken. The arthritis he’s developed as a consequence of being in such harsh conditions is a more serious outtake.

Over five years Mr. Pang made multiple visits and worked his way across the entire oil field, photographing more than 100 drilling crews. As the workers got to know him they allowed him into their world. “I have a natural affinity to the drilling workers because I was a drilling worker too. When I was taking photos on the well site, I ate and lived with the drilling workers. They treated me as one of their own. We talked and laughed and some even shared stories about their marital problems with me! They always let me know when major activities are happening so I can photograph them. They trust me very much”.

Rich in detail, Mr. Pang’s photographs introduced me to a world I knew nothing about and I found the images incredibly engaging. He smiles and says his motivation in wanting to exhibit these photographs is partly educational. “I would like the audience to know how much work goes into drilling the oil, one of the resources of which we depend. The drillers deserve respect because they work in the most difficult place and they work so hard for the oil industry. I would also like people to know that the young people who were born in 1980s in China have a sense of responsibility and they work on the well site without complaint or regret”. This last point is telling and reflective of the impact the opening up of China to the west has had on the younger generation.

“The young men born in this time (after 1980) grew up in the period of Chinese reform. With the development of the market economy and the collision of east and west culture, their world outlook was affected by the ideas of ‘money worship’, which made some young people have a lack of faith and goals in life. But the “After 80” drilling workers who I shot have a definite goal in life, and personal ideals and ambitions.” It is obvious he admires their commitment and application.

Daqing oil field was constructed in 1960 and has generated more than 2.1 billion tons of crude oil production since that time. Mr. Pang says Daqing “has been hailed as a miracle in the history of the world’s oil industry”. Daqing City is home to more than 3.6 million people and while oil production is the main industry there are also oil refineries, chemical fertilizer plants, automobile factories and other enterprises.

Mr. Pang says he hasn’t finished photographing the oil workers, but he is also keen to keep expanding his subject matter. “I’ve loved photography for 15 years. I will continue to take photos which are not only related to the oil and drilling, but also to the people’s livelihood and the Chinese Buddhist culture”. All photos (C) Pang Xiangliang 

Women Photograph
New Resource for Photo Editors 

A National Police officer behind a riot shield is pushed backwards by a crush of demonstrators during the March of the Empty Pots, which coincided with International Women’s Day in Caracas, Venezuela. March 6, 2014.Credit Natalie Keyssar

Freelance photojournalist Daniella Zalcman, who was the 2016 winner of the FotoEvidence Book Award for her series Signs of Your Identity, has launched a new site – Women Photograph – which features the work of 400 women photojournalists, from 67 countries. These women have five or more years of editorial experience and are available for commissions. The hope is that photo editors will see this site as a resource and engage women photographers in numbers greater than we are seeing now. It’s a fantastic initiative. You can read more about Women Photograph in the story the NYT Lens Blog ran.

Excessive 80’s 

Elton John (C) Bruce Postle

Due to “popular demand” Melbourne’s Magnet Galleries has extended the run for its Excessive 80’s exhibition. If you haven’t popped in yet, you’ve got until 18 February. 
Mirka Mora (C) Greg Scullin
Berlin Party, Inflation (C) Rennie Ellis
Level 2
640 Bourke Street

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