Taking funeral portraits for China's elderly empty-nesters in rural areas: “Your children and grandchildren will remember your smiling face.”
For many of them, this is the second time they have had photos taken. The first one was the photo for their ID cards.
The following article was published in Southern Weekly (南方周末), a Chinese weekly newspaper based in Guangzhou, and the Wechat blog of Southern People Weekly (南方人物周刊) on April 21 as 为农村空巢老人拍遗照:“娃们以后都记得你是笑笑的” Taking funeral portraits for China's elderly empty-nesters in rural areas: “Your children and grandchildren will remember your smiling face”.
In China’s rural areas, elderly empty-nesters are those whose children have grown up and moved out (normally to work and live in bigger towns and cities). Ginger River decided to share the story with you after reading it in April but was unable to do so due to manpower constraints. After a month, your Ginger River finally finds the time to present a full translation, mostly completed by Jinglin Gao and proofread by Ginger River.
In the charity event called "Memory for Life", many old people face the camera for the second time, showing gums with or without teeth.
Over the past 4 years, Yang Xin and her friends have taken memorial portraits of over 2,000 old folks for their future funeral services in Shangluo City, northwest China's Shaanxi Province. In small village squares or some old people’s yards, seniors sit in front of the red backdrop put up by volunteers, smiling, showing gums with or without teeth. For many of them, this is the second time they have had photos taken. The first one was the photo for their ID cards.
Most of these photo shootings took place in remote villages where young and middle-aged people have gone to the cities for work, leaving the elderly on their own. Old villagers try their best to provide for themselves and avoid troubling their children, so spending money on things like taking photos is off the table. However, such an often-overlooked trifle would bring much regret: some old people died without a portrait except for the one on ID cards.
Yang Xin, a local journalist and also the person in charge of Shangluo Rainbow Public Welfare Center, registered this institution five years ago and has been providing care to left-behind elderly and children in rural areas ever since. The center is rather small and has only 18 core members including ordinary housewives, business owners and enterprise employees.
"As a small public welfare institution in a small city, we can only do things within our power," said Yang Xin. Their need often comes from Yang Xin’s observations: the volunteers would raise funds to buy socks when she found children in villages walk around barefooted. Hygiene packages would be handed out when she saw lice on children's heads, and they would raise funds for quilts when she noticed that secondary school's resident students only had wafer-thin quilts. Similarly, having realized that many old villagers died without a memorial portrait, Yang organized this photo shooting project to take photos for the elderly still alive.
Here's Yang Xin’s narration
Yang Xin (left) and Dong Rong, a participant of the "Memory for Life" charity event
01 “Everyone needs a memorial portrait when they pass away.”
I stumbled across the fact that many old people in villages long for a funeral portrait when I was visiting the elderly in the mountainous area. During the conversation with an elderly man, I said, “I’ll take a photo for you.”
“I'm old and ugly.”
“Not at all.”
I took a photo of him using my digital camera and showed him on the screen. The man was shocked at the convenience. Later on, I developed the photo and gave it to him. He was thrilled when he received the photo, and told me it would be his funeral portrait.
I was kind of blown away because he said it in an ordinary tone. After all, everyone dies someday, and they’ll need a photo for that.
Once you notice the problem, you would find how widespread it is. When I did interviews in villages, I heard about the funeral of an elderly person living alone. The funeral was simple and there was no photo at all. At another old woman’s house, I saw a corrugated board with a piece of white paper carrying a name pasted on it. This is her late husband’s memorial tablet.
It’s customary in our city for the children or relatives of the deceased to make a memorial tablet, some are made with wood, others with paperboard. The memorial tablet will be replaced by a photo of the deceased for worship purposes after some time. However, many families don’t have a memorial portrait and the memorial tablet with names on it is all they got.
Photo shooting remains fancy in remote villages even today. Despite the popularity of smartphones in cities, it is not the truth for elderly people in rural areas. Those in their 60s and 70s usually have dumbphones only to contact their children, and the elder ones have no cell phone at all. Some of them have fixed-line telephones at home while others rely on neighbors or village cadres to pass on messages. So photo shooting with a mobile phone is beyond imagination.
Taking photos in a photo studio is difficult too. Before they were relocated to a settlement, the villagers were scattered all over the mountains. It would take them a long time to even go to the market or a fair. Even if they do, there may not be a photo studio.
Occasionally, some merchants would come to the villages for photo shooting. They’d park their vans at the entrance and hang up some color photos and the villagers would know that photography service is available. The process is very simple: they press the shutter, change a colorful background and print it on photographic paper which can be laminated if you’re willing to pay more. The whole pack would cost dozens of yuan.
I saw many photos like this when I was in the mountains. Printed photos are vulnerable to sunlight and they fade away and get blurry pretty quick. Even so, the elderly are unwilling to take any photos at the make-shift stall. They would only do that for infants when they are 100 days old.
So the idea of taking photos for the elderly keeps hovering in my mind. In 2018, the Chinese Welfare Lottery decided to support social organizations, and they offered us some help. Then we organized the first shooting of “Memory for Life”.
It was a joint event organized by multiple organizations. One organization did safety training and performance on a small temporary stage set up in the square, and we put up our backdrop next to the stage to take photos for the elderly.
In the beginning, we were worried that nobody would come because a show would be much more appealing than taking funeral portraits. To our surprise, several seniors came to our stall immediately. I had to show them the size of the photo with my hands because I didn’t bring a sample. I told them that we’d develop 12-inch photos, put them in frames and bring them back here, all free of charge.
Someone got suspicious and said, “Don't you come back and ask for money for the frame.” I reaffirmed that we would not take a penny. The village cadres next to us added, “They’re here to take photos for free. Hurry up.”
After understanding the situation, the performance next door lost its magic. The elderly queued up and members of other social organizations came to help us keep order. The photo shooting began at 9 a.m. and lasted for hours. At 1 p.m., people still drove old people here in motor tricycles.
Some elderly people who came to our photo shootings were very old. They took tricycles here, teetering towards the chair. There were also people working in the fields. Once hearing about our event, they hurried along.
An old villager from Shangluo, Shanxi province. She holds a 12 inch framed photo.
02 “Everyone chooses the red backdrop”
After this event, we went to nearby villages and took photos for the elderly there. The scale of our photo shootings was determined by the amount of funds we raised. After every fundraising, we’d organize another photo shooting according to the budget.
The queues were long every time. When there were elderly people who couldn’t walk, we’d take photos in their yards and ask the volunteers to hold the backdrop.
Before the photoshoot, volunteers would dust the elderly’s clothes with brushes and help them comb their hair. For those who have long hair, volunteers would braid their hair or help them do a low bun.
For some of the seniors, this is the second time taking photos in their whole life. The first time was when they took ID card photos. Perhaps they were nervous or embarrassed, their faces were always stiff in front of the camera.
However, their expressions would gradually soften when the volunteers helped them sort out their clothes. They would say, “How nice you are to help me comb my hair and sort out my clothes, despite my awful odor.” When guards were down, muscles on old people's faces would relax. People next to them would joke around and say, “Just smile. See how tired you’ve made of these nice kids!”
We would take about ten photos for each person and pick the best one. Sometimes the elderly would come to look at their photos after the shooting. But they couldn’t see it clearly on the tiny screen due to presbyopia. So I’d zoom in on the photos and show the details.
Many elderly people were toothless and were unwilling to put on a smile for fear of looking ugly. Some would hide their gums with lips. I realized that I could take one photo of their stern expression and another one while they are smiling and ask them to choose. “Your children and grandchildren will remember your smiling face. They surely don’t like your stern expression, right?” They agreed with me firmly.
Though taking photos for funeral portraits, the elderly gathered around talking, not depressed at all.
We always take photos in the small village square where elderly people gather around to chat and have jokes, “You’re here too, you old geezer?”
Although the photos are for funerals, the atmosphere at the shooting site is not depressed at all. Some people would even wear good clothes their children bought and some would joke around, “Tell your children to hang up the photo after you are gone,” others would reply, “You too.”
The job of preparing burial garments and coffins falls onto the shoulders of aged villagers. The children would be considered quite filial if they help with the preparation, but most of them are working in the cities now. To ease the burden on their children, the aged plant vegetables to provide for themselves. And now, choosing a photo they like for their descendants is something worth celebrating.
At the first photo shooting, we prepared two backdrops, a blue one and a red one. But people rarely chose the blue backdrop, because emotions have colors. Blue is cold while red is warm. Funerals are happy and auspicious events in villagers' eyes (Ginger River notes: Weddings are referred to as "red" joyful events in China, while funerals for individuals who have lived a long life are referred to as "white" happy events, collectively referred to as 红白喜事 red and white happy events), so everyone wanted the red backdrop. Therefore, we only bring the red backdrop in the subsequent shootings.
Someone wrote in the comment section of my report that it’s cold-blooded to take funeral portraits for the elderly. But the elderly themselves don’t think in this way because they believe that they will need them eventually. A man even asked us to develop two more photos for him so that each of his three sons could get one. “I can pay for the extra copies,” he said. Maybe different attitudes result from the generation gap.
However, there were regrets too. The photo shooting in 2018 took place in winter. When we delivered the photos, the man who came to get them pointed at the photos and said, “He has gone, and she has passed away.” Winters are too rough for the aged. They may die tomorrow even if they are talking with you right now. In the end, we had to ask their fellow villagers to bring the photos to the deceased's families.
Old people prefer red backdrop for the funeral portrait.
03 “Wrinkles in photographs will not be ironed out during post-production.”
After we developed the photos and send them back to the villages, we’d hang them up and make it a small photo exhibition, and then distributed them when everyone arrived.
I still remember a photo distribution in 2018. The secretary of the next village came with a pack basket to get photos for the seniors in his village. When he got the photos, he commented, “This guy looks so good. Look how high-spirited that man is.” There was also a time a granny stood in front of the board looking at her photo. She had a benevolent countenance and all her fellow villagers said that her photo was the most beautiful of all. “You were so pretty when you were young, so it’s natural that your photo would be great even when you get old.” I also liked that photo. She had beautiful facial features and most importantly, she laughed very happily in that photo.
After the shooting, we’d process the photos and make some adjustments. But it's mainly about adjusting the brightness rather than removing the wrinkles because I want to save the most realistic looks of them. But there are of course exceptions. For example, facial paralysis or scars would be retouched or removed. At one time, a seventy or eighty-year-old man took off his tawny glasses during the photo shooting and revealed his injured eye. He told us that he had surgery and got an eyeball removed. We wanted him to look better in the photo, so we copied his left eye and pasted it on his right eye.
Instead of printing, we used more expensive silver salts to develop the film so that they wouldn’t fade. I studied photography in college and am familiar with all of the local picture processing companies. Their equipment is rather old and they don’t change the developing solution as often as is required. As a result, the photos they develop look grey and dull. So, I contacted an agency in Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, which developed photos with much higher quality. The elderly would keep the photos in the cabinet and ask their children to hang them on the wall after their death.
The elderly in rural regions seldom express their emotions in words. They smile when they are happy and sulk when they are mad. I remember this one old man who held his photo over his head and laughed happily. But he suddenly fell into silence. He lowered the photo and put it right in front of himself and smiled again. I could feel his psychological changes: he was satisfied to see the photo at first, then felt kind of heavy when thinking about his old age, and finally cheered up again when realizing that he could leave a photo of himself to his children.
Some people started to get familiar with us after several photo shootings. An old woman named Dong Rong left me with a very deep impression. At one shooting, she wore a purple coat with dark flowers printed on it and pinned her hair neatly behind her ears. When we were done, she came forward to say hello. That is the moment we realized that she had been standing there all along. She held my hands and invited us to her house to drink some water. In this place, when someone invites you over for water, it means he or she treats you as an honorable guest.
I had met her before and sent her food and a down jacket. She got a red one. I once saw her wearing broken gloves revealing her fingers. So I took a new pair from my car and gave them to her. But she didn’t throw away the broken ones. Instead, she carefully folded the old pair and kept them.
Her son was disabled because of a brain injury and lost the ability to work. He had to live with his mother in a mud house with three rooms. The house is in the mountains, no traffic available. When we sent supplies to her house, she was extremely grateful and didn’t even know where to put her hands, fidgeting. “I caused you too much trouble”, she said. And then she took out all the walnuts and baked pancakes to treat us.
Whenever I think of her, I’d remember how long she waited that day and how her eyes turned into a line when she smiled at us. But it was a long way to her house and so we didn't pay a visit that day. We took a group photo with her. She reluctantly stayed there for some more time and then slowly walked away.
Dong Rong, an old villager. The photo on the left was taken when she received a new down jacket and new gloves.