Published: 16:59, November 29, 2023 | Updated: 18:01, November 29, 2023
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Rural photographer captures life's farewell moments
By ​Li Xinran in Beijing and Hu Meidong in Fuzhou

Wu Muliang, a compassionate photographer from rural China, transforms funeral portraits into cherished memories, bridging generations and creating a visual legacy for forgotten lives.

Wu Muliang (center) shows the village elders the portraits he has just taken for them. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In China, having a portrait of the deceased at the funeral holds great significance. Wu Muliang, a 24-year-old from East China's Fujian province, took on the responsibility of capturing funeral portraits for his fellow villagers.

Wu embarked on this task coincidentally. He had left the village at the age of 16 and only returned last year.

"I switched between lots of jobs and moved around frequently. There has always been a sense of belonging that's missing," he said.

Taking funeral portraits for the elders was not part of Wu's plan when he first decided to return to the village.

With a background in the new media industry, Wu was originally looking to make videos centered around agriculture and rural areas — topics that were trending both on social media and at the state level. This is why he was surprised to discover that his camera gravitated toward a task more significant than he had anticipated.

Raised by his grandparents until the third grade of primary school, Wu saw them only once or twice a year thereafter. "When I first came back, I could truly see how time had changed Grandma. Her back used to be as straight as a pole, and she would do farm work every day by herself," Wu said.

"But now her back is bent to about 90 degrees, and she often needs my assistance with farming."

The cousin of Wu's grandmother (left) and her husband help each other with their hair before the photo shoot. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Wu's grandfather passed away nine years ago. At that time, the family couldn't find a proper funeral portrait for him, and it has always been a regret for the whole family.

The elderly, especially those in rural areas, rarely have their pictures taken due to the absence of more advanced technology. Most of them still use cellphones without cameras.

"When elders pass away in our village, either they have no photo like my grandpa, or they have to use the one from their ID card," Wu said.

When Wu's grandma asked him to take a funeral portrait for her, he was a little upset.

"It was as if she was getting ready for the end," Wu said.

However, when he saw her getting excited while picking out the outfit for the photo shoot, he changed his mind and began to feel that a well-taken photo was better than none.

Wu helped dye his grandmother's hair and found a piece of red cloth for the backdrop.

"If we're going to do it, we've got to do it right," he said. "Grandma loves bright colors like red because it looks vibrant and joyous."

Wu (front left) takes a picture of an elderly woman. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In this small philanthropic photo booth, Wu took funeral portraits not just for his grandmother, but also for more than a dozen other elderly villagers, ranging in age from their 50s to their 80s.

"Some of them were surprisingly young," Wu said. "They explained that they wanted their funeral portraits to capture a younger and more vibrant version of themselves."

Wu was also impressed by how the elders were either excited about the photo shoot or casual, as if it were just another daily task checked off their to-do list.

"The topic of death is not as taboo to them as it is to me. As time goes by, the elders have said enough goodbyes to the point that they're accustomed to it and eventually peacefully accept it," Wu said.

The funeral portraits may hold more significant meanings for the loved ones of these elders.

"My grandpa didn't leave any photos behind. When we try to reminisce, his face starts to fade in our memories as years pass by. We need a clear and decent image of him to remember," Wu said.

In his social media posts, Wu managed to retrieve a photo he took with his grandfather years ago. When his grandmother glanced at it, she sighed: "All these years have passed. I have grown old, but he still looks young in this picture."

Wu (right) shows pictures to an elderly man. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

While taking these portraits, Wu also recorded some behind-the-scenes moments. For example, the cousin of Wu's grandmother and her husband have been married for over 50 years, and Wu captured them helping each other with their hair and clothing while getting ready for the photo shoot.

"For many elders, they neither have the concept of romance nor express sentiments such as saying 'I love you' or sending flowers," Wu recalled. "But that moment of casual tenderness was truly romantic."

Wu also made these moments into videos and posted them online. They have now exceeded 4 million views on the video-sharing platform Bilibili. Some nonprofit organizations even reached out to Wu and asked him to take photos for elders of the Yi ethnic group in Southwest China's Yunnan province.

"Many people left comments, saying that the videos reminded them of their own grandparents," Wu said. "Some people asked me about the details so they could do the same for the elders around them."

Wu was glad that he could help others and make positive impacts. "It's like a relay of kindness."

Wu also made a special short "film" for his grandmother, of her chatting with friends, doing farm work, and household chores.

"When I first showed her this video, I was quite nervous," he said.

Wu (right) prepares his grandmother for the photo shoot. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

But Wu's grandmother turned out to be really fond of the "film". She even invited her friends to watch it, which Wu displayed for them with a projector.

"She was laughing when she saw herself working in the field and went into silence when she saw the close-ups that showed her wrinkles," Wu said.

"I wonder what was going through her mind in the four minutes."

Although the short video may not fit the common definition of a "film", Wu felt it captured the essence of his grandmother's life, and, most importantly, she loved it.

This experience has taught Wu to appreciate the time spent with his family, and he sincerely hopes that everyone can devote more time to their elderly loved ones.

He also wishes he could do more to help preserve the memories of the elders in the village.

"I will continue to focus on rural areas like my village and perhaps go beyond to create more changes," Wu said.

Yang Jie contributed to this story.