Ruijia Zhang

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Honorable Mention

Anchell Scholarship for Documentary Photography

Family Along the River

The story “Family Along the River” is a photo story I did when I was back in China for 2016 Summer. The Jiang family consists of 5 members, the mom, Chuanfang Zhang; the dad, Laiquan Jia; a mentally disabled son, Qiuwei Jia; son-in-law, Yongnian Wang, and a long-term employer, Benbing Li. Jiang’s daughter teaches in town so she comes back only on holidays.

It is a quiet and vast farming area surrounded by mountains. The family lives along the Heilongjiang River which is the border river between Russia and China. The family is isolated from other families living in town, but they drive to downtown and shop for groceries sometimes during weekends. The winter here is harsh and intolerable, so the government subsidizes an apartment for them living in the winter. The mom Wang told me she, however, prefers living in this rough house during winter because she gets used to living here. The two individual rough houses were built with bricks by the family after a flood in 2013, which damaged their old houses. A large stove lit by wood that warms the brick walls is excellent in keeping the house warm. The family also made a special “refrigerator,” which is an underground storage space propped up with a huge ice cube they broke from the river during winter time. The huge ice cube could last for almost the whole spring and summer until it melts.

Fishing and farming are their main income sources. The family gets up early every day at around 3 a.m. to collect fishing nets in order to have the fish ready in a bucket by 5a.m. when fish buyers come to buy fish. The fish buyers usually sell what they got later in the market in town. In addition to fishing, the family has a large area of land to farm. They grow different crops every year. They changed the crop from growing corn last year to beans this year mainly because wild animals such as bears and deer came down from the mountains eating the corn last winter. The family didn’t get a good sale in fall time because of the bears and deer.

Each family member has their own job. The son-in-law collects fish every morning and does the farming during the day. The long-term worker usually helps with the son-in-law on fishing and farming. The mom cooks three meals a day for the whole family using vegetables they grow themselves in a small garden. The son doesn’t make contribution to the family, just playing with dogs and watching television because he is mentally disabled. He understands people’s talking but can’t express himself with words.

The family’s electricity is solely based on the several solar panels outside the house, so when it’s cloudy and raining if there is no stored energy, then they will have no electricity for television.

Even though the interior decoration of their houses is poor and the Jiang family obviously doesn’t live a luxurious life. But it is such life they are living now that makes them simple and unadorned. They live on themselves and by themselves. The mom, Wang, said she is satisfied with the current life, if there is anything she could have during childhood, it would be education because her family was too poor to afford her to school back in 1970s.

Ruijia Zhang - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Ruijia Zhang - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Ruijia Zhang - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Ruijia Zhang - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Ruijia Zhang - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill