In Conversation with Snub-nosed Monkeys Photographer, Xi Zhinong

Xi Zhinong is one of China’s pioneering wildlife photographers. He has been photographing and filming China’s wildlife for over 30 years. His latest work that will be playing on April 29th on PBS, is about Yunnan’s snub-nosed monkeys, a unique breed of monkey found only in Yunnan’s high mountain forests. For those in New York, you can catch a special pre-screening at the Asia Society on April 22nd.

snub-nosed family

We gave Mr. Xi a call to discuss what it’s like being a wildlife photographer in China and how his work has influenced China’s environmental consciousness.

Conversation with Snub-nosed Monkeys Photographer, Xi Zhinong

KP: The snub-nosed monkeys that you’ve been photographing for many years now also calls this region home. What is it that makes these monkeys so special?

This kind of monkey lives in the highest elevation in the world. His territory is in areas over 4000m and they can live in elevations of up to 4800m. All the existing snub-nosed monkeys live in one very small region of Yunnan. Maybe in the past you could find them in other places. But now that’s the only place you can find them.

KP: You grew up in Yunnan, and have done a significant amount of filming and exploring there. What do you think makes Yunnan so unique?

XZN: The thing about Yunnan is its very unique terrain and topography. The lowest point is less that a hundred meters and the highest peak is 6740m above sea level. So this rich landscape, creates a rich and diverse ecosystem.

The diverse topography has also produced cultural riches in the many minority communities living in Yunnan, each with their own language, architecture and in types of food.

This all begins with and comes from the diversity of the terrain and geography.

KP: Where did your love of nature first come from?

XZN: It’s always been who I am. I grew up in a town just south of Dali in Yunnan province that’s surrounded by nature. When I was young I raised ducks and sparrows and caught dragonflies — and near my mom’s school there were owls and sometimes at night you would hear wolves. So I had a very rich childhood.

In those years China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. My mom was a teacher and she would have to visit all her students, and the school required the teachers to attend political trainings. At that time too, every household had a lot of kids. So parents didn’t have a lot time to look after the children. It left me free to run around and explore.

KP: What does it take to be a good wildlife photographer?

XZN: First and foremost, especially in China, you have to have a reckless and unreserved love for nature.

And you have to have a learner’s attitude. You always have to be learning more. You have to learn from the scientists, from the locals who live there, from the park rangers. And you especially have to learn from nature itself. You have to always be learning, understanding all the aspects of the environment that you’re working in, and the habits of the animals you’re photographing. You have to always keep learning, always keep learning.

And in China, compared to being a wildlife photographer in other parts of the world, you have to have much much more patience, because wild animals in China are the world’s most fearful of humans. It’s hard to find your subject. Not being able to find it is the norm, finding it is a grand surprise. So you have to have plenty of patience.

And you also have to have a strong spirit because in China you’ll witness many things that will make you sad, angry, and hopeless: poaching, pollution of areas you love. In the face of all this, you must still continue filming.

In China, your photography can’t keep up with the degradation of the environment. Our job is a race against time. We hope that what we do helps the public have a better understanding of the environment and a greater love for China’s nature and wildlife. This way, your ability to protect nature increases. This is the most important thing.


KP: Before the actually photographing – what preliminary research goes into your work?

XZN: It goes back to the always-learning thing. First you have to go find out if there are any scientists who’ve studied this animal before. If not, you have to go find the local people there, find out if anyone’s seen it before. Find out if there are hunters in the area that hunt that animal. China has a lots species that haven’t been scientifically studied before. So to be a wildlife photographer in China, you first have to be scientist, and study your subjects.

KP: All that time sitting and waiting for the right shot – how do you pass the time? Where do your thoughts go?

XZN: How could I be bored? I’m so busy.

You do have to have a lot of patience. But to be a photographer is a joy, you breathe the cleanest air, drink the freshest water. And encounter landscapes that few people will ever see or experience. So how could you be bored?

Especially in high elevations, when springtime comes, ice is melting, different kinds of flowers are blooming. The clouds are changing everyday. You never run out of things to do and see.

And I have to make my food after shooting each day. In all my years, whoever I’m exploring with whether it’s scientists or locals, I never like other people’s cooking. So in the wild, I’m always head chef.

KP: But, what about when you’re waiting there for a shot all day long in the same position?

Sometimes, you have to lay on snow covered ground and hold the same position for 4-5 hours. When you leave, your feet and hands will have gone stiff. That waiting is just the standard process of being a photographer. But there’s a hopefulness in the waiting.

big snub-nosed monkeys

KP: How has China’s environmental consciousness changed over the last 10-20 years?

XZN: The public’s consciousness, especially among the youth is continually increasing. This is happening through the internet, media attention, and environmental protection groups, both big international ones and grassroots groups.

But when it comes to the government, it’s all just slogans and talk. 10 Years ago, when I wrote a letter to the government, they would send a team to investigate and we were able to stop the logging and save a whole forest. Today, much worse than that is happening in China. But now, you can send 10,000 letters and nothing happens.

So there’s a contradiction in China now. Public consciousness continues to increase. But on the government side, it hasn’t improved, if anything it’s gotten worse. It’s a very hopeless reality.

KP: How did your own filming have an impact?

XZN: My photos, and later film, brought the snub nosed monkeys into public view. It went from no one knowing of their existence to lots of people knowing about them. And in 1999 a major international convention in Kunming made the snub nosed monkeys their mascot. And that letter I wrote increased the forest reserve area of the monkeys from 190,000 hectares to 280,000 hectares.

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