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Interview with Photographer Wang Wei

By Steve Sweeney, Digital Editor | November 18, 2022

Chinese photographer Wang Wei is a rail preservationist who is set to explore U.S. railroading

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Steam locomotive entering tunnel
The QJ 7119 locomotive that is about to enter the Jitong Railway is performing a special operation for the steam locomotive festival at the end of each year. This photo was featured on CNN Travel in 2015. Taken in 2013, Jing peng, Inner Mongolia

Interview with Photographer Wang Wei: Golden sunlight-lit autumn leaves, grazing horses, steam, snow. Majestic mountains. Night shots. Sparks. The Big Dipper.

Words fail at this point. Wang Wei’s images convey color, contrast, and depth to equal any images showing off awe-inspiring Chinese landscapes. Underlying these images’ qualities is a single constant: trains.

Passenger train passing by a group of horses
Several horses and a 3,300-horsepower Dongfeng 4B cargo diesel locomotive, taken on the Xinchuoyuan section of the Bollinger Line. In 2016, Hulunbuir, Inner Mongolia

Steam locomotives are notable and dramatic in Wang’s images, but ordinary-looking passenger trains and the ubiquitous (for China) high-speed trains also participate in his high art.

Wang is taking his show on the road, so to speak, and moving to the United States. He says he’s approved for a special visa for talented individuals. He’s published four books on the heritage of China’s Beijing – Zhangjiakou Railway with his works appearing on CNN and The Guardian.

Three steam locomotives next to each other in the snow
The upstream steam locomotive of the Zalai Nuoer open pit mine, the design and technology of this 2-8-2 locomotive originated in Japan, but its roots are in the United States. In 2021, the normal operation of steam locomotives in Northeast China officially ended at the Wujiu Coal Mine. This photo was featured on CNN Travel in 2015. Taken in 2009, Zhalai Nuoer, Inner Mongolia. spoke with Wang via Microsoft Teams in September 2022 to learn about his art, his passion for rail, and what he expects from living in the U.S.

A mutual acquaintance, Wang Zezhou, served as interpreter. The following interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

TRAINS: Please tell us about yourself and your background.

Wang Wei: I was born in Beijing, China, and I am a freelance rail photographer and also a rail heritage preservationist.

I have traveled around the world focusing on the Chinese rail heritage, but also focused on the 200 years of railway globalization. I use a method called action photography, where I took part in the preservation activities, and in using my photography to help in some of the preservation.

[Wang has taken photos of old railway buildings in China, for example, and was able to gain attention from local media to raise public awareness and the stories locals had about the railway itself.]

Two passenger trains at historic station
Tao’an-Solon Road (now Bai’a Line) Aershan Station. The station building was built in 1937, an Oriental-style station building built by the puppet Manchurian authorities. In March 2013, it was announced as a national key cultural protection unit. 2013, Inner Mongolia Xinggan League,

So that’s how I participated in preservation, focusing on the railway heritage in China, but also the 200 years of railway globalization.

[One reason Wang wishes to move to the U.S. is to explore those parts of rail globalization that China imported from the U.S. — that are integral to Chinese railroading — and find out more about them.]

TDC: What interests you about railways and how long have you been interested in them?

WW: When I was a child, I was fascinated about the different kinds of the locomotives or rail cars and the business (of railroading).

And when I got older, I learned something about adrenaline: When I’m close to the tracks … the song of the steam locomotives passing by very close to me … something like just went from bottom to my top … through my head. And I was overwhelmed by it. That’s how I got fascinated with trains.

Steam locomotive pulling long freight train
Two steam locomotives push and pull a freight train running on the special railway for Sandaoling Coal Mine at the foot of Tianshan Mountain. Due to the large slope of the line, 2 locomotives are required. 2010, Hami, Xinjiang

When I became a little older, I paid attention to heritage. For example, the station I lived close by in Beijing — Beijing North Station. That is a combination of the British and also … other Western designs (in Chinese railway architecture). That is the starting point of the Xinjian Railway.

I started to look around all the different railway heritage in China because I’m fascinated about it and I no longer pay attention to just rolling stock or just the trains, but instead I pay more attention to the heritage because, up to this point, nobody, or not a lot of people or rail fans in China pay attention to this part. There are only very few rail fans in China.

Steam locomotive running at night
A JS steam locomotive pulls a self-tipping car loaded with coal onto the Sandaoling open-pit mine. Some photographers pay the driver 300 yuan to let the driver spray the effect of “fire dragon” when the locomotive passes the camera, so as to achieve the purpose of shooting. This has almost become an underground tourism project in the local area. You must know that the steam locomotive drivers here only have an income of more than 2,000 yuan. In mid-July 2022, this section of the mine railway will be removed, and the “Fire Dragon” carnival will become history. 2020 Hami, Xinjiang

[Much later in the conversation, Wang said that he wanted to convey the meaning his work has for him, particularly in Chinese rail preservation, since so little has been done compared to the U.S. Those in the U.S. might be shocked to learn of his admiration for U.S. heritage rail when many Americans think we have so little compared to say, the United Kingdom.]

WW: I personally think that railway photography is not only for beauty, it is not only for looking good, but it’s … for record keeping. And it can show the transitions of the railway which is meaningful.

Railroad bridge over canyon and reflecting river
The train passes over the Yingzi Bridge of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway at night. The bridge was built in 1910 and was designed by French bridge designer Paul Bourdain. It is a sister bridge with Viaduc de Garabit in France, by the same designer. 2019, Pingbian, Yunnan

TDC: Please tell me a story about one of your favorite photographs or images.

WW: Eighty years ago, Beijing was in the frontline of the war against the Japanese … So that year was 1937. During the 30s, there as a department head of one of the major universities’ film departments by the name of Min Jing Sun. He was in the field doing an anti-Japanese … movie when they were at Beijing.

The department head’s son remembered that his dad told him it was so tense between the Chinese and the Japanese troops (before open fighting started). His father saw all the Chinese troops on the platform.

When the film department’s head’s train pulls into the station, the stationmaster at that (Ching Lung Chiao) station was friendly.

He told the department head, “I see that you have very professional equipment… Can you take a photo for our station?”

Train station in front of mountains in black and white
Ching Lung Chiao station. Old photo, taken by Sun Mingjing in 1937

And seven days later the Japanese started the invasion… And everyone was fleeing.

[It was another beginning to World War II, but years before the United States’ entry. The photo delivery was held up by the war, the Chinese civil war, and China’s Cultural Revolution. That Revolution saw destruction of historic items including film and negatives.

But not the image of the train station. The department head aged, but remembered this photo and his promise to the station master. And eventually, his son tried to carry out his father’s wishes.]

WW: So, he was trying to deliver the copy like 70, 80 years later.

[Eventually, the photographer’s son was connected with Wang Wei and the railroad. Wang was able to have the original photograph from 1937 delivered. Wang also took the “now” photo to complement the original photographer’s “then” shot.

In the new photo are three men posing where the soldiers did on the same day, 80 years earlier. The photographer’s son, on the right, the station’s current station master and the previous station master.]

Train station in front of mountains
Ching Lung Chiao station. New photo, taken by Wang Wei in 2017

TDC: What makes a good photograph?

WW: The reality or the truth.

Not a super reality, just close to your life.

Tracks going through and around mountains at night
The zigzag return line of Qinglong Bridge on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway was designed by Mr. Zhan Tianyou, a Chinese railway engineer who graduated from Yale University. He laid the zigzag return line often used in American mine lines here to solve the problem of trains crossing the steep slope of the Badaling Great Wall., while shortening the construction length of the Badaling Tunnel. Taken in 2015, Beijing.

Our conversation lasted nearly 90 minutes and covered Wang’s sketched recreations of railroading in China from early years; his discoveries of the physical remains of historic Chinese railroading. We might call it railroad archeology… as well as his love for the 2-4-4-2 Skookum whose Chinese sisters are long gone and the QJ locomotives in the U.S.

Painting of old railroad yard and train station
Xizhimen Station in the 1940s. Created in 2016, Beijing

What is clear is that Wang loves trains. Expect to see him trackside with camera in the coming months.

Calendars for 2023 that feature his work are available online.

One thought on “Interview with Photographer Wang Wei

  1. Excellent, informative, and educational article with exceptional photographs!

    Did Wang Wei ever publish a book of his photographs and, if so, where could it be purchased? I did order the 2023 calendar.

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