The eyes have it

Updated: 2013-03-17 08:50

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Steve Zhao's ongoing photography exhibition shows how ordinary folks are pretty much the same everywhere. Mike Peters takes a second look.

My first look at People to People, Steve Zhao's ongoing photo exhibition, made me pause. The image: A line of Chinese policemen coming toward me.

Yikes! I thought. What was he thinking?

But I quickly realized that Zhao was making a subtle point rather cleverly. He had paired an image of Chinese policemen walking the street with a similar image of German policemen on their beat in Munich. The faces are human, the job important. Why would another country's police officers seem more threatening than one's own?

"There are no captions on these pictures," Zhao says, catching up to walk our group through the 60 pairs of images. "I didn't want people to look at each picture quickly and then study the captions. I wanted them to look into the eyes of the people, and decide for themselves what the pictures mean."

While many photo exhibitions highlight cultural differences, Zhao's goal here is to show how ordinary folks are pretty much the same everywhere.

So a blue-clad group of Western monks assembled in front of oaken monastery doors mirrors a group of Chinese Buddhist monks gathering to study scriptures.

A grande dame in Berlin - chic in a painted straw boater with pheasant feathers - peers over schoolmarm glasses with a grin at an equally regal lady in the traditional garb of the Li people of Sanya.

A Belgian child in a pink and white hoodie clutches a stuffed bee, while a Tibetan child wrapped in a tribal blanket hugs a small white goat. There are chief cooks and bottle washers, chess players in parks, shoppers, soda sippers and a crop of charming kids.

The cross-cultural show is sponsored by the European Union delegation in Beijing.

"We were talking one day and looking at some of his pictures," says the EU's press officer, William Fingleton, "and I said how much I liked the images of people - because people the world over tend to be interested in other people.

"So we came up with the idea to take portraits of the daily lives of Chinese and Europeans, and place them side by side to show that, despite perceived differences, we are more similar than we think in how we go about our daily lives."

The exhibition was presented last fall at the EU-China summit in Brussels, and now Fingleton hopes the show can travel to other cities around China.

The approach is nothing new for Nanjing-native Zhao. Last year, on Germany's national day, the festivities included a photo exhibition by Zhao that featured people in similar situations in both countries - and a coffee table book, Germans and Chinese in Focus.

Zhao, who worked in New York for 10 years, also likes to focus on faces for his commercial works.

His goal is to capture a spirit as well as a great face.

"This one is my favorites," Zhao says for at least the third time, pausing in front of two photos taken at street markets. A central figure in each faces a crowd of shoppers with an extended hand and an amiable but firm expression. You don't have to know what language they are speaking to know what they are saying: "Best price - that's my best price!"

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The eyes have it 

Steve Zhao’s goal is to capture a spirit as well as a great face.


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