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Not Just Another Photojournalist

Not Just Another Photojournalist

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Published by Zhuang Wubin
An interview with Taiwanese photojournalist Wang Chih Hong, published on "Grain", October 2004
An interview with Taiwanese photojournalist Wang Chih Hong, published on "Grain", October 2004

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Published by: Zhuang Wubin on Jan 02, 2014
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Wong Chih Hong.

fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 1
Starting out as a photographer for Earth Chinese Geographic Monthly in 1986,
Taipei-born Wang Chih Hong is now an explorer, a humanitarian, a writer and
the editor-in-chief for the award-winning Rhythms Monthly. What happened
along the way? By Zhuang Wubin
Wong Chih Hong.fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 2
“A single image is never going to change the
world,” 42-year-old Wang Chih Hong states
in Chinese.
For the past decade though, he does seem
to be trying to change the world, not through
photography, but through the humanitarian
work that he has managed to fit into his
schedule wherever he has ventured with
his cameras.
“At the end of the day, I’m just trying help
someone in need within my capacity and
work,” he replies modestly in English, a
language he has acquired “on the streets”.
English is crucial to his work at Rhythms
Monthly, a magazine published by Tzu Chi
Foundation, the largest Chinese humanitarian
organization in the world. How else is he
going to communicate with contributors
like Magnum photographer Abbas, UN
secretary Kofi Annan or former Soviet Union
president Mikhail Gorbachev?
Bamiyan, 1998
His main objective was to deliver one ton
of antibiotics and medical supplies to
Afghanistan with aid workers from Tzu Chi.
But at Bamiyan where two gigantic statues
of Buddha from the 2
to 5
stood, it was the photographer in Wang
Chih Hong who emerged.
However, a Chinese photographer walking
around Bamiyan was a magnet for the
clamorous kids. Wherever he pointed his
lens, the kids would get into his view,
making photography impossible.
“Do you need help?” an angelic voice
Top: Buzkashi: Buzkashi is the national sport in
Afghanistan. Horse riders race for a headless
sheep. The first rider to grab the body, take it
to a designated point and return to the starting
position becomes the winner.
Wong Chih Hong.fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 3
asked Wang in English.
To his relief, Hazargul Hashini became his
photo assistant for the day, distracting the
kids, acting as his translator and pointing
out those people who were willing to be
Before Wang left, he took a picture of
Hashini and 14 other kids. Then, he gave
the child his name-card and asked him to
send him a letter if he needed anything.
Returning on the third day to the statues at
Bamiyan, he had been photographing the
monuments for two hours before he noticed
Hashini running towards him. The child
slapped his letter onto Wang’s palm.
What’s the haste? Wang wondered.
One of the helpers explained: “After 19 years
of fighting, our postal system has long
become non-existent.”
In his letter, Hashini asked for a dictionary
to be mailed to the person-in-charge at the
Bamiyan area office for the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
so that he could pass it to Hashini who
was studying at Bamiyan Primary School
beside the office.
Not a difficult request, Wang thought. But
he was already in two minds. The Taliban
was slowly but surely winning the battle
over Bamiyan against the Northern Alliance.
It was time to leave.
It was only back in Taipei when he realized
what Hashini wanted was a Persian-English
dictionary, and not a Chinese-English one
Wang had assumed.
How was he going to find a Persian-English
dictionary in Taiwan? He managed to locate
one via an Afghan friend in America. Not
long after sending out the dictionary,
Bamiyan fell to Taliban. The UNHCR left
Left: Waiting Anxiously: Refugees in the Hazrati-Sul-
Tan camp in Afghanistan wait anxiously in the
snowstorm for the arrival of relief supplies from the
Tzu Chi Foundation.
Top Left-Hand Corner: The Civil Guards of the Gigantic
Buddha Statues: The Hazarans have always
considered themselves as guardians of the statues in
Bamiyan. They used to place many soliders there to
protect the statues. However, they were subsequently
defeated by the Taliban.
Wong Chih Hong.fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 4
and Wang had no way of knowing if the
dictionary had reached Hashini.
Taipei, South Pole, Tibetan Plateau, 1990-
Barely 28, Wang Chih Hong was in line for
a promotion at Earth Chinese Geographic
Monthly to the position of editor. However,
it would leave him very much desk-bound.
So he left the magazine in 1990 and found
himself in the freezing winds of the South
Pole for three-and-a-half months
documenting the wildlife and the work of
the scientists. Then, he began visiting the
Tibetan Plateau “armed only with a pair of
tennis shoes”, not knowing it would become
a major part of his work for the next ten
It was sometime in 1991 while driving a
4WD over the Silk Road in China on the
Tibetan Plateau that it occurred to him to
do a major feature on the journey Venerable
Xuan Zang made 1,300 years ago. It was
then impossible to travel to central Asia
and Afghanistan. As soon as access was
available in 1998, he dispatched three teams
of photographers and writers to 11 different
countries to re-create the pilgrimage. The
result from that spark was a wildly successful
photographic exhibition, a two-volume
encyclopedia and an extensive series on
Rhythms Monthly – winner of Taiwan
Magazine Golden Cauldron Award for four
consecutive years. The exhibition was in
Singapore in April 2004.
From 1990 to 1994, he made frequent trips
to the plateau – each lasting two to five
months – to document the natives and the
scenery. Meanwhile, he was supporting
himself as a freelance photographer for PR
and ad agencies back in Taiwan.
Through his viewfinder, he soon discovered
that the lack of medical infrastructure was
affecting the natives from the region. But
there was a limit with what he could do as
a photojournalist.
“I can, at the end of the story, put in a line
that says ‘You can help by contacting so-
and-so or doing so-and-so’ but it’s not going
to be very effective,” he told himself.
So he collaborated with Doctor Khoo from
Yang Ming University in Taiwan and started
giving medical training to the nomads in
1996. They started with those who were
literate. From this group, they reached out
to the nomads who weren’t. To date, Wang
and Khoo have provided basic medical
training to 200 nomads and have trained
Refugees: The 53m-tall Buddha statue Bamiyan has become a pile of debris in an empty altar. Many refugees
use the caves on the precipice as shelters.
. 41
Wong Chih Hong.fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 5
holes each” came to pick them up.
Along the way, they were discussing whom
to bail out if they were really kidnapped.
Because Wang was the youngest, the rest
decided he that would be the last in line.
As the cars pulled up at an unidentifiable spot,
the group was led to the warlord in control
of the area. To their relief, the warlord
merely wanted to express his gratitude to
the team of aid-workers.
Singapore, 2004
Does a photographer have a moral or
36 doctors on the plateau.
Mazar-e-Sheriff, 1998
Leaving Afghanistan was never easy. The
team of seven was on one of the two Soviet-
built transport planes that the Alliance had
owned. Therefore, they were constantly
looking out for Taliban aircraft through their
Fortunately, they landed safely at Mazar-e-
Sheriff, only to be surrounded by tribesmen
armed with AK47s. They were held at the
airport for one-and-a-half hours before “two
battered cars with a hundred bullet
ethical role to fulfill?
This seems the perfect question for Wang
Chih Hong. He is in Singapore for the
opening of “Journey to the West”, a
photographic re-creation of the journey
Xuan Zang made 1,300 years back.
Interviewing him at the Tzu Chi Foundation
in Singapore, Wang is occasionally
interrupted by people asking for autographs.
“What is the role of a photojournalist? It is
to seek the truth. Why then do you want
to seek the truth? So that you can destroy
the world?” he asks hypothetically.
“Obviously, you hope to improve the world.
What I’m doing here at Tzu Chi is therefore
a natural progression.”
And because Tzu Chi publishes Rhythms
Monthly, Wang’s articles and photos have
an added function of convincing the readers
and donors on the importance of the causes
that the humanitarian organization is
pursuing. One of the readers donated 1.5
million Taiwan New Dollars (about S$77,000)
after reading his reportage in Afghanistan.
“In North Korea, that was the rationale I
used with the government. I told them I
needed to account for the aid coming into
their country to our donors, and that was
why they allowed me to shoot pictures,”
Wang explains. “In exchange, I promised
that the photos would be used only within
Tzu Chi and not be leaked to other media
networks in the world.”
Of course, photography is also very personal
to Wang.
“It is my energy and motivation,” he
continues. “It allows me to travel the world.
I enjoy the feeling of waking up every
morning and not knowing where I am. That’s
my life, I’m like a piece of
Mine Sweeping: In Bagram, north of Kabul, members of the mine sweeping team carefullu clear up a possible
mine area while young students stroll along to school.
Wong Chih Hong.fh11 9/17/04 10:37 AM Page 6
sponge.” Today, it is hard to imagine he
nearly didn’t become a photographer. He
was a business administration undergrad
at Taiwan Cheng Chi University. It was a
choice to please his dad. Wang’s father was
a successful businessman.
“By a twist of fate, my father suffered a
setback in his business and became
bankrupt. That was when I had the
opportunity to sit down and think what I
wanted in life.”
Bamiyan, 2003
Incidents of massacre filtered out through the
wires after Bamiyan fell to the hands of
the Taliban. Despite his concern for Hazargul
Hashini’s safety, Wang had no way of
reaching him. It was only after America’s
war that liberation of Afghanistan when
Wang had the opportunity to re-visit
Bamiyan. By then, the Buddha statues were
no longer standing. The Taliban had blown
them up in 2001.
Standing on the main road leading into
Bamiyan, holding the picture of the 15 kids
he had shot five years ago, Wang didn’t
know if he could find Hashini.
An elderly man stopped and stared hard.
Then, he laughed out loud and told Wang
Chih Hong that one of the kids was his
grandson. Through his grandson, Wang was
reunited with Hashini.
Hashini’s family had fled to the Kobhibaba
range when the Taliban marched into
Bamiyan. The Taliban offered amnesty for
villagers to return to Bamiyan. Some of
Hashini’s family members bought that and
returned. They were promptly executed.
Renewing their friendship, Wang asked if
Hashini had received the dictionary that he
sent out. He didn’t, but had already found
Top: Ancient Heritage: Archeological experts have
determined that the 38-meter-tall statue of Sakyamuni
Buddha, originally covered in brass, was carved out
during the 6th century.
one in the market.
For now, Wang Chih Hong is trying to get
18-year-old Hashini into university.
. 43

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