At that time, Xie Hailong was a creative member of the Cultural Center of Chongwen District in Beijing. When he was creating the “art” of rural photography, he found the sad reality that rural children were helpless to study in remote areas. These children, either because their families are poor or because they are not in school, do not receive the basic education they deserve. The situation of rural basic education is in sharp contrast to that of urban and developed areas. Faced with this cruel reality, Xie’s simple conscience and anger aroused a strong sense of social responsibility. Therefore, he stopped his so-called “artistic” creation and spent nearly 6 years on a thorough photographic record investigation of this grim reality ignored by the society. He used his meager income to travel to poor and backward rural areas, and went to more than 200 schools in 20 provinces, more than 50 counties. In Dabie Mountain Old Area, he took a number of photos that entered the history of Chinese photography, such as “Big Eyes”, “Little Bald Head”, “Big Nose”, “Baking hands”, “Mopan Primary School” and so on. During this period, his work was hampered by the rigid educational administrative system around the country at that time, so that he often encountered the embarrassment of questioning, often in the predicament of work could not go on. For this, he had to find a nominal identity support, in order to obtain the right to “interview”. So he went to the official China Youth Development Foundation, which he had just started working with. We hope to gain their support. The newly established China Youth Development Foundation is struggling to find a breakthrough in its work. Xie’s idea thrilled the foundation’s leaders, and Xie successfully received administrative support from the China Youth Development Foundation, giving his brave individual act continued moral motivation and “legal” status. Xie Hailong himself thus completed the transformation from a “photographic artist” to a documentary photographer with sociological colors.
In October 1992, Xie Hailong’s photo exhibition titled “Documentary Photography of Project Hope” was exhibited in Beijing and Taiwan at the same time, and immediately received high attention from all levels of the whole society. Education to strengthen the country has been a long-term concept of China since the Confucian thought of the Spring and Autumn Period. Xie Hailong’s personal efforts have met and matched the social tradition and realistic public expectations. Therefore, Xie Hailong’s photography finally realized the interaction between photography and social development in China. The Hope Project, a public welfare action for the benefit of the country and the people, has finally turned from a difficult beginning to a grand momentum.
Another important significance of Xie Hailong’s photography is that he broke through the long-standing taboo of using photography as a visual medium to expose suffering in China’s mass media at that time. Although there were some similar photography before this, most of them were disguised as “art”, so no matter in terms of aesthetic orientation and display form, they did not have the real characteristics of social “viewing” and documentary. After Project Hope Photography, exposing and documenting suffering and social problems began to gain a formal and legitimate identity in the media, and some photographers’ lens blind spots were also opened. Therefore, Xie Hailong made a great contribution and became an extremely important figure in the history of Chinese photography.
Xie’s photograph of a wide-eyed girl at a desk went viral after it was used as an iconic image of Project Hope. Thousands of Chinese sons and daughters, as well as people of other ethnic groups with conscience, have taken action to support Project Hope. Up to now, Project Hope has received a total of 17.58 billion yuan in donations, supporting 639.7 students, building 20,593 Hope primary schools, and training 114,306 teachers. Project Hope is no longer just an ordinary educational project, but a great project to demonstrate the strong cohesion of the Chinese nation and pave the road to its future rejuvenation.
Xie Hailong has been photographing children in remote rural areas for more than 20 years, not only recording the state of remote rural primary schools in the 1980s, but also recording the changes of these schools later. His subjects are not limited to the surrounding Beijing, but also to the southwest, northwest and northeast. The span of time and space endows these images with richness and objectivity, endows them with irrefutable power, and also confirms the arduous history of the development of rural education in China.
Xie Hailong is now a retired cadre of China Photographers Association. He has never given up understanding and capturing the follow-up life status of the out-of-school children.