On Saturday I posted five photographs on the blog, and said that one of them was for a story I'd been working on. It was a picture (No. 3) of Wei Jinpeng standing next to the Yellow River, with his hands held behind his back. Just to the left of the frame was a cliff that dropped to the shore, and floating in the water was a jumble of human corpses.
Wei makes his living by collecting dead bodies and selling them to family members or friends. (The story about Wei and body fishing can be found by clicking here.)
It's not the photograph of Wei that I've been thinking about. It's the one below, of the bodies in the Yellow River, with ropes tied around their waists. I have seen a lot of dead people while reporting -- Iraq, Afghanistan, the war in Georgia -- but this scene resonated in a different way.
All the other times I've encountered a collection of bodies out in the open, there's been the wail of people grieving, or the very loud sounds of war. The scene by the sluggish stretch of the Yellow River in Gansu was totally quiet. The wood and cable bridge nearby stood still. There was no traffic, no crowds, no voices. A snapshot of Wei suggests nothing strange happening.
Of course, when families come and recognize one of their own, the scene is much different. China has a tradition of sweeping ancestors' graves, and to see a loved one rotting in the river is the opposite of that venerated display of respect.
"If it's the mother, son, husband or wife, they cry," said Wei Yingquan, another body fisher, who's not related to Wei Jinpeng. Another man, a relation of Wei Yingquan, added that: "It's very common that they cry a lot."
Looking down at the bodies in silence, I wondered how they died.
Both Wei Jinpeng and residents of the nearby city of Lanzhou said that many who end up in the river have committed suicide or been murdered. They spoke of a city in which laborers, especially migrants, get shoved around and cheated all the time. To live like that and then die like this, I thought to myself, would be a terrible thing.