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The World in Focus

The photographic world is zooming in on the small city of Pingyao, Shanxi Province, in North China, to get a better picture of what happens when photos and people cross borders.

The Pingyao International Photography Festival (PIPF), which opened on Saturday and will end on Friday, showcases more than 10,000 photos shot by 1,600 photographers from 41 countries.

Befitting of the festival's theme "diversity and harmony" more than 20,000 professional and amateur photographers, journalists and patrons from all corners of the globe have come to bring the works of international photographers into focus.

"If you want to meet diverse and vibrant photographers, this is the place to do it," said Nir Elias, a staff photographer in Reuters' Shanghai office. Reuters spared no effort in making sure the festival put the agency in contact with other photographers. The company has rented a whole local production warehouse to display its photographs, holds daily press briefings and has organized exchange opportunities, including training classes on sports photography and discussion workshops intended to improve the lines of communication with Chinese photographers.

"I can see how many photographers are here and that is exactly what they need exchange with international audiences and contact with international photographers who are coming just to share their knowledge," said Reinhard Crause, chief photographer of Reuter's China bureau.

The size and feel of Pingyao make it an ideal venue for festival-goers to meet and share ideas about pictures. With 2,700 years of history, the 2.25 square-kilometer town is renowned for its ancient city walls, well-preserved dynastic architecture and aura of antiquity.

"Pingyao is a small town, so we feel a sense of intimacy here, which makes communication easy," said Stephen Dupont, photographer of Contact Press Image, a US-based organization of photographers focused on documenting social, political and human rights issues.

PIPF's exhibitions are housed within the factories, warehouses and courtyards spread throughout the city. Showcasing work in these abandoned buildings of yesteryear gives the festival a rough-hewn charm acclaimed as unique among major international exhibitions.

Contact's exhibition area the dirt-floored shell of an abandoned diesel factory became a site of international interfacing where amateur photographers and photo enthusiasts engaged in one-on-one discourse with top photographers of the likes of David Burnett named "one of the 100 Most Important People in Photography" by American Photo magazine. "We are particularly interested in bringing photographs to places where they aren't often seen," said Jacques Menasche, special projects director of Contact.

This is exactly what makes the festival worthwhile for people such as 48-year-old local driver Zhao Chongren. "In a place as small as Pingyao, we don't have many chances to enjoy prominent photographic works like those featured in these exhibitions, but the festival gives us this chance," Zhao said.

With exhibitors ranging from amateur students focused on experimental photographic art to leading photojournalism agencies capturing the realities of today's world, the festival offers a snapshot of the diversity of contemporary photography.

Greenpeace's exhibit shows works addressing environmental concerns, while the French Artcurial Auction Company is exhibiting 100 black and white works about China shot by 10 renowned international photographers over the last half century. ReGeneration showcases the works of 50 up-and-coming photographers from art and photographic schools around the world, while a Free Forum offers the public to showcase their work in a slideshow.

The variety of exhibitors demonstrates the boost in prestige the festival has brought to the tiny ancient city over the last five years.

"If I say I'm going to Pingyao, now, people will ask, 'are you going to China for the photo festival? I would love to go next year'," said Robert Pledge, president of Contact.

The festival is a dream come true for Wang Yue, director of the festival's organizing committee.

Wang said he hoped the international festival could transform the tiny town a "global village."

"The people of Pingyao built these city walls to stop invasion from the outside, but now we are opening the gate to the outside world," Wang said. "Photographs are a universal language. Through these works, international photographers who come to Pingyao can understand each other."

(China Daily September 19, 2006)

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