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Trouble Shooter's Great Ambition Runs Sky High

Ma Wenxiao usually does not do close-ups. He prefers his photos from hundreds of meters above.

Since Ma took a plane on a mission in 2001 to take photos of the Fifth Ring Road under construction in Beijing, Ma has taken over 10,000 pictures from the air.

Most of them focus on the roads, architecture and scenic spots of Beijing.

Although he has to go through complicated procedures to get flight permission, Ma believes the high ratio and unique angle of air photos deserves all his efforts.

"With a speed of 185 kilometers per hour, I can shoot the whole city of Beijing within two hours. One minute I will be capturing Tian'anmen Square, the next minute I will be above the Summer Palace. I once shot 500 pictures in one hour.

"Also, it's totally different when you get a panoramic view of a city you've been so familiar with," Ma said.

"Aerial photos give an over-all view of the city. You can clearly see how modernized the city is, how large the greenbelt is, how the color of the air changes due to the air pollution, and whether a crossover has invaded the area of nearby ancient architecture. You cannot feel these in a photo taken on the ground," Ma said.

"Speaking of Beijing, many Westerners still think of the Forbidden City, the courtyard, and the lanes. When the image of a new Beijing in the great changes of the early 21st century is needed, I can provide some useful information," Ma said.

Ma has not limited his vision to downtown Beijing. Since 2004, he has also taken aerial trips to the Great Wall.

Great Wall

"The Great Wall is the grandest cultural heritage China presents to the world," said Ma, an army veteran. "We should feel upset that people of thousands of years ago can complete such a great project but today we cannot protect it well."

Seeing his photos of the Simatai remnant of the Great Wall, viewers can immediately understand why Ma is so keen on recording the ancient wonder.

Many parts of the Great Wall, including Simatai, located in a mountainous area, are hard to protect. Some local residents even remove the bricks to build houses. The flood of tourists speeds up the collapse of wind-eroded walls.

"Some experts say that only 50 kilometers of the Great Wall are under full protection today," Ma said. "If we gave them up, 30 years from now, we may have no Great Wall at all. So at least I should record their images, when it is too difficult for me, a single person, to protect them."

Ma has a nickname among friends: Ma Shuang, which means he is a person who always makes fast decisions. But even with his quick temper, he can wait over 10 hours to shoot a perfect picture of the Great Wall.

"It's quite amazing that the best pictures tend to appear when I am going to give up after a long wait," Ma said.

According to Ma, patience is not the only trait an aerial photographer should have; strong will is also essential.

In the winter of 2004, Ma started off for his "Great Wall in Snow" series with a double-layered leather coat, pants, and hat, but no gloves. When he leaned forward out of the door, he felt the piercing wind drag him into a natural refrigerator.

"Imagine that you open the window of a taxi in December in Beijing. Let alone I was hundreds of metres above the earth and had to stand the jolt of the plane."

Although many aerial photographs are taken inside the plane, Ma insists on shooting outside the door of the plane. It is dangerous, but Ma has his reasons.

"If you shoot through the glass of the window, you cannot perceive the best light and shadow, and cannot move your camera freely. This cannot produce the best pictures."

Although his photos are both accurate and clear, Ma would not compare his works to satellite photographs or Google Earth maps.

"I have taken part in the construction of Beijing and witnessed it," he said. "I feel proud of the achievements we have made. I pour my feelings for those highways, buildings, and crossovers into my composition, and use of light and shadow. It's totally different from satellite photos; they are frosty, lacking life."

The 46-year-old has two titles printed on his name card: deputy general manager of an advertising company, and aerial photographer. Also, he used to be a soldier, a constructor of Beijing's roads, and a journalist. All these experiences have contributed to shaping his enthusiasm for air photography.

In 1978, Ma left his hometown in Henan Province and became an engineer soldier of a Beijing-based troop. During his military days, he joined in the construction of the Second Ring Road and the Jianguomen crossroad of Beijing.

Having retired from the army, Ma worked as a journalist at the Capital Construction (Shoudu Jianshebao), a newspaper reporting the achievements of Beijing's infrastructure construction. The job gave him ample chance to go to many construction sites in Beijing.

Ma's third job, coincidentally, still relates to Beijing's infrastructure. He works in a branch of the Beijing Company of Highway Development, a State-owned company which runs Beijing's highway building and management.

This past may explain why skyscrapers and highways, in Ma's works, do not seem impersonal or cold. In his photos of the Siyuanqiao crossroad in sunshine, the Third Ring Road in blue twilight, and the National Grand Theatre in construction, all seem to be telling vivid stories behind their steel and concrete surfaces.

In the past two years, Ma has also captured almost all of the 650 kilometers of the Great Wall in Beijing. These copies will lead to an album named "Viewing the Great Wall from the Air" (Kongzhong Kan Changcheng).

Ma's dream is to photograph all the Great Wall in Beijing, Hebei, Shanxi and Gansu provinces. This grand plan, he said, will take time and energy.

"If I could do only one thing in my life, I would aerial photograph the Great Wall, the entire great wall," he said.

Compared to his ambitious plan, things like winning awards, exhibiting his work, and controversy over his works about whether they are scientific recording or fine art, in Ma's eyes, are just trivialities.

"Let it be," he said, smiling, "as long as I can make nice photos."

(China Daily October 9, 2006)


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