Beijing’s blue-sky diary

China’s capital has just endured a week of particularly hazardous pollution. In one year, how many good-air-quality days does the city see? Chen Zifan spoke with two residents who captured the visual evidence.

Over the last year, two young Beijingers have roamed the streets and lanes of the city, taking a photo of the sky every day to form a “Beijing Blue-Sky Visual Diary”. Their photographic record shows that from May 31, 2009 to June 1, 2010, Beijing enjoyed 180 days of blue skies – 100 fewer than in figures published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The people of Beijing are dubious about the veracity of the official figures, believing themselves to have “been blue-skied”.

The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau was quick to explain that their “blue-sky day” refers to one on which air quality reaches a certain standard. An air-pollution index is produced by monitoring of pollutants, including inhalable particles sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NO2), and anything under 100 is classed as a “blue-sky day”. So come rain or snow, if the air quality is good enough, it’s a “blue-sky day”.

“We didn’t start out to disprove official figures,” said Lu Weiwei. “We just wanted more people to pay attention to Beijing’s blue skies and protect them.”

How important are the figures for the people who live in the city? “Your mood when you get up in the morning doesn’t depend on whether or not the newspaper tells you the air quality is up to standard – it depends on whether or not you see a blue sky when you open the door. A picture of a blue sky is more convincing than any data.” She and photographer Fan Tao decided to take matters into their own hands and record the reality of Beijing’s skies.

Every photo in “Beijing Blue-Sky Visual Diary” includes a Beijing road sign –large and small — from Dongzhimen to Douban Hutong, from Beitucheng Xilu to Shuiduizi Zhongjie. If the sky was grey, they just snapped the road sign, but on a blue-sky day they would invite a passer-by to put on a pair of sunglasses and appear in the photo. They used a traditional 35mm camera that recorded timely data on each photograph, thereby demonstrating continuity.

The sunglasses indicated that the sky at the time was clear, Fan told chinadialogue. Their round frames have a strong oriental touch and the mirrored lenses reflect the bright blue skies.

Lu may seem a little unorthodox to some. Born in Beijing, she has lived in Europe and the United States and worked at the World Bank headquarters in Washington on development financing. She quit the bank and went to Italy to study design, before returning to Beijing in 2004. Fan, a Beijinger born-and-bred, is a freelancer specialising in architectural and structural photography. He and Lu are nostalgic for the days when they used to cycle to school. “The sky was really blue then, and the air clean,” he said.

“Some photos of the environment are too harsh and depressing; they create a sense of aversion,” according to Fan. “We hope by taking pictures of blue skies and white clouds to let everyone participate and pay attention to the skies. Just do something small – environmental protection doesn’t mean making a fuss or great sacrifices.” The duo think that for a lot of people environmental protection means getting many people involved, but they sought to do something very ordinary. Using an old camera was part of this: it’s recycling and environmentally friendly. Expensive equipment isn’t needed to photograph the environment.

For 365 days they visited different parts of Beijing and asked strangers to let themselves be photographed. Lu and Fan each had a camera and pair of sunglasses, and took it in turns to go out. They planned locations carefully, aiming to photograph as many different areas as possible. The photos also include many different types of people – old men and women, teenage girls, migrant workers, white-collar office staff. “Beijing’s a melting pot and we did our best to choose different people, to show the city’s diversity and international nature,” said Tao.

At first the two had to overcome their apprehensions about stopping strangers in the street and persuading them to be photographed. If things went well, it might take only 20 minutes to find someone and take the photo. At other times, they might stand in the blazing sun for an hour without any luck. Sometimes Lu would see people trendily dressed: “You’d think they’d be environmentally aware,” she said. “I’d do everything I could to explain and be sure they’d be supportive, but they’d just say they didn’t want to. I’d say it would only take two minutes, and they’d say they didn’t even have two minutes. They didn’t even have a reason. It’s really discouraging when you aren’t trusted.”

White-collar workers were rushed and wary, often declining without explanation. Fan described the China World Trade Centre junction, in Beijing’s central business district, as his nightmare. It was particularly difficult to get someone there to photograph. According to Lu, “That’s where the elite are gathered. A lot of environmental policy decisions are in their hands. Maybe they’re under a lot of pressure, but a lot of them just keep rushing about with their heads down – they won’t look at the sky!”

Unexpectedly, Fan and Lu found through the year that the most positive, encouraging responses didn’t come from the trendy white-collar workers, but from old people and children. “The old folk are usually very enthusiastic,” said Lu. “They were happy to be photographed and often asked us about ourselves.” A young boy Lu photographed wished her good luck with the project, a moment that moved her. Fan once photographed an elderly retired engineer who told him: “As long as it’s environmental protection, I’m for it.”

Lu and Fan plan to publish all 365 photos in succession and would like to hold an exhibition so visitors can count the number of blue-sky days for themselves. “We counted 180,” Fan said. “Maybe some will find 185 or 200. People have different ideas about what a blue sky is, and I hope everyone will make their own judgement. It’s really interesting, and gets more people involved. Our intention was to share and, in sharing, guide people’s behaviour.”

Chen Zifan is a Beijing-based reporter.

Homepage image of a worker outside Dongzhimen Station, courtesy of Lu Weiwei and Fan Tao.