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The bird man of Africa

Updated: 2013-04-19 11:21
By Zhang Lei ( China Daily)

 The bird man of Africa

Clockwise from top: The Scarlet-chested Sunbird with habitats in sub-Saharan Africa; the Superb Starling in East Africa; the African Fish Eagle found throughout sub-Saharan Africa; the photographer, Zhang Jianwen. Provided to China Daily

Inspired by a chance sighting of migrating birds, Zhang Jianwen has amassed a collection of tens of thousands of photographs

Zhang Jianwen is an adventurer. The 34-year-old has been to the heartlands of Africa and returned home with many a tale to tell. And not just tales; he also has tens of thousands of photographs of his new passion - birds.

His three journeys through Africa were quite a departure for the physics graduate from Nanjing University, who was working at a high-tech company until last April. The journeys are something that he still talks enthusiastically about with a twinkle in his eyes as he recalls his adventures.

Zhang has 80,000 photographs of African birds from his trips, 150 of them in flight. The collection, which he has named "Precious", began when he came across a flock of migrating birds.

"I didn't plan to take all these bird photos in the first place, but when I came across a flock flying zigzag one day, I was instantly drawn by the spectacle," he says. "Like mammals, they also migrate once or twice a year in Africa. This unique path and their resolve to conquer gives them their own fantastic beauty, light and shape that I strive to capture in my photographs."

Glancing over some printed copies of the collection, Zhang says they bring back memories of his trip.

"Every time I thumb through them I recollect my thoughts during my stay in Africa last year," he says. "And these birds, although not in motion, slowly become individuals unto themselves.

"Each bird living in this continent makes a great journey to discover itself with its family. I only want to enhance it as a unique piece of art by using fine tones to accentuate it."

Zhang got off the beaten track in Africa, leaving behind the more common travel destinations such as South Africa and Kenya, for the heartlands of Namibia, Swaziland, Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

Every encounter with birds brought a different experience. "Each bird photograph is a one of a kind as was their journey," he says. "Most of the time their natural beauty is breathtaking enough that I didn't need to use many filter techniques to reveal it. It is their natural beauty that I love to capture."

It was Zhang's third trip to Africa and along the way he has come to value his sleeping bag and camera dearly. But the most important tools for his adventures have been candor and courage, he says.

"I was afraid about my poor English before the trip, but things turned out well because a smile is the best language," he says.

"A smile and thank you are enough to bring out the hospitality of African people.

"One day it began raining heavily and I was at a loss to find a shelter. An 80-year-old grandmother came to me smiling and asked if I needed any help. A big umbrella was held over my head before I had time to respond."

Enthralled by the grandeur of Africa and the hospitality of the people he encountered, Zhang believes the experience of traveling there helps people discover the beauty of human nature.

"In Africa this time, I visited six bird protection zones," he says. "I was very lucky to meet a British professional bird photography team called TEES. They even invited me to join in during part of their trip and I learned a lot from them. It is in Africa that you will find people dismantle their social labels and reveal primitive goodwill."

Zhang has put names to most of the species of birds, including some of the rarest such as the Merops bulocki and Euplectes orix, and has formed them into a narrative in pictures.

"In the civilized world, reality is often blurry, there is no distinct line in-between and there is always a gray zone. But when you look at these photographs, the world renders you its heart and soul," he says.

"During this six-month trip, I didn't sleep in a bed even for a single day. I cooked using common local ingredients. Besides taking bird pictures, I drank ox blood once with the locals. I went bungee jumping, rafting, gliding, surfing - I tried them all in Africa.

"Travel there gave me an opportunity to set aside my social identity for a while and when you get used to the traveling habit, different people and landscapes begin to feel like a breath of fresh air."

Inspired by the French documentary Le Peuple Migrateur, Zhang is now planning a trip to South America where he hopes to take pictures of birds in the Amazon rainforest.


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