Photographer provides lasting images of beloved rural elders

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Yang Xin, a young photographer from northwest China's Shaanxi Province, has been catapulted into the spotlight recently thanks to a public-service project that has touched many hearts.

While working with elderly people in her home city of Shangluo, the 37-year-old photographer discovered that many of them lacked a portrait image that could be used in the event of their death. She quickly began focusing her lens on this special group of clients, helping to ensure they are remembered looking their best.

Over the course of three-plus years, she has provided funerary portraits for over 2,000 rural seniors.

"Many elderly people in mountainous or rural areas don't have professional portraits, except for their identity-card photos. When they pass away, some families can't even find a good portrait to use at their funerals," Yang said.

It all started in 2017, when she set up a public-welfare center in Shangluo named Caihong, meaning "rainbow" in English. Her team originally aimed to help "left-behind" children in the Qinling Mountains whose parents had gone to work in cities, leaving their offspring in the countryside.

She soon discovered another group that needed care and assistance, namely elderly people who were left idle in their "empty nests" as their children flocked to cities in search of better wages.

Among the most obvious ways that Yang could help this group was by providing them with the photographs that they lacked. She established a project to give framed portrait photographs to everyone over the age of 60, free of charge.

In Chinese culture, memorial portraits are used to honor the dead at funerals, and can serve as a vehicle for remembering and respecting deceased loved ones.

Yang's first attempt at producing such a photo took place in Yecun Village at the end of 2018.

"Many senior villagers were skeptical about this project. After they gave it a shot and found that we were taking pictures free of charge, the news spread by word of mouth and more people got involved," she recalled.

The portraits were printed, but due to various delays in the work process, they were not distributed to their owners until early 2019. "We felt very sad because several elderly clients had passed away before they received the photos," Yang said.

Since then, her team has sped up the photography and printing processes, trying to ensure that every elderly client gets to see their funerary portrait in good time.

Keen to ensure the clients look their best, volunteers stand ready to help those who have trouble taking care of their appearance. Hair is combed and collars straightened before the shot is taken. Volunteers also squat beside those with Parkinson's disease to ensure they don't fall while posing for the camera.

Special care is also taken to ensure the photographic prints are long-lasting. Yang decided on a printing process involving silver nitrate and sodium chloride, which provides durability.

As part of the service, Yang has held special photo exhibitions in the village squares. Her elderly clients would gather around to discuss their faces and the topic of death, exuding an air of relaxed calm.

"There are fewer gray hairs on my head than yours," one elderly villager told her friend.

"Oh, really? I think I have a better smile," the friend answered.

For Yang, such interactions provide confirmation that the project has been worthwhile. "When they looked at their portraits, they were as happy as children," she said.

The project has also received praise online from various netizens.

"My grandpa passed away last year. Yang captured the most beautiful moment in his life," one wrote.

Yang said that many younger people have spotted the photos online and been reminded of the need to visit their elderly relatives. "The rural revitalization strategy makes lives of the rural elderly better. Still, they need companionship and communication from their families," she said.

The young photographer plans to continue the work of providing the elderly with portraits, aiming to spread positive energy to more people.

"Everyone will grow old and every life needs to be respected. I hope to see more elderly people's smiling faces through my lens," she said. 

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