At first glance, the set of 12 photographs that won Ou Zhihang, 51, an honourable mention at this year’s World Press Photo awards last month have a mesmeric, quixotic quality about them.
All of them depict a stark-naked middle-aged man doing push-ups in public at various settings across China. Some of these settings — like the iconic CCTV tower in Beijing, with its post-modern design — are instantly recognisable around the world, but many others may pop the flashbulb of recognition only to faithful followers of recent events in China.
But the common thread in the photographs — other than the pale-coloured posterior in the foreground — is that they all freeze the frame on a controversial news event and narrate an episodic story in China’s ongoing search for its soul. The photo series, titled ‘Na Yi Ke’ (That Moment) is, says Ou, a “record of history.”
Ou, a producer at Guangdong TV and a pioneering fashion photographer in China, is both subject and photographer in all the pictures — which physiological feat was accomplished by his ability to strip and pose in his push-up pose in eight seconds flat! And given that almost all the 12 public settings are associated with recent high-profile controversies in China, they were sometimes taken at some risk to personal safety.
And even when there was no risk involved, Ou’s challenge was to click himself in the nude in very public places that normally teem with crowds — without being seen or giving offense.
For instance, one of the 12 settings in the series — outside a bathhouse in Hubei province — pays homage to the story of Deng Yujiao, a 21-year-old pedicure worker who earned enormous public support last year after stabbing to death a government official who made sexual advances on her.
Given widespread public anger directed at immoral government officials, the murder charge against Deng was dropped, and she was let off without sentencing although she was found guilty on a lesser charge of “intentional assault”.
Likewise, another picture in the series was taken at the site of the Shanghai apartment complex that spectacularly keeled over intact last year. A third, taken at the site of a recent protest by Guangzhou residents against a planned incinerator in the city, records a rare instance of civic activism in China.
Although Ou’s award-winning set of photographs chronicle what he calls “negative stories” about China, they only form a small part of a larger ‘That Moment’ series that’s he’s worked on for a decade, and which portrays a more even-handed, and in some cases, positive picture of China — by employing the same ‘nude push-up’ device.
Those pictures document places across the length and breadth of China — from monasteries in Tibet to the desolate northeastern region that abuts Russia, from shimmering Shanghai in the east to the serene island of Hainan in the south. Somewhat impossibly, he’s even snapped himself doing the nake push-ups at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, on the Great Wall — and in Hong Kong.
But why do nude push-ups - and what does he hope to convey through that quixotic anatomical device? Writing on his popular blog, Ou notes that discreet nudity — without resorting to exhibitionism — is “healthy and active, powerful and sincere”.
What he’s trying to do is contrast his “tiny body” with the “miracle of the world” — as epitomised by iconic settings in China.
There are, of course, many ways of narrating the story of a ceaselessly changing China. With his ‘nude push-up’ series of photographs pegged to contemporaneous events, Ou Zhihang
offers an unorthodox bottom-up view of China.