|Biographical information||The following text is adapted from a conference paper by Prof. Shen Kuiyi, U.C. San Diego and suplemented with information from Eliza Ho, Ohio State University.|
Sha Fei’s original name was Situ Chuan司徒传. Born in Guangzhou in 1912, his father, Situ Junxun司徒俊勋, was running a small business in Guangzhou when he was born. When he was young, his family was relatively secure financially, but in 1931, his father’s business went bankrupt. Sha Fei determined to learn some practical skills in order to support his family. In early 1926, he took a half-year course at a Guangzhou radio school. In July of the same year, he joined the National Revolutionary Army for the Northern Expedition, working as the army's telegraph operator in the Northern Expedition army. He traveled to Shanghai, Ningbo, Xuzhou, Jinan.
By the end of 1928, after the National Government had established its headquarters in Nanjing, Sha Fei returned to Guangzhou and was soon assigned to work at the army telegraph station at Wuzhou, Guagnxi province until 1931. From 1932 to 1936 he worked as a technician at the Shantou radio station. According to Sha Fei himself, it was during that time that he began to be interested in photography. He wrote that he had been deeply inspired by journalistic photographs he saw in foreign pictorial magazines of the period, which were so unlike the more lyrical or leisure-oriented photography practiced in China.
Unlike the field of contemporary literature, which was already well-populated, or cinema, which required major financial support, he felt that journalistic photography was an area in which he could make a contribution. In June 1935, when he was still living in Shantou, he joined the Black and White Photographic Society (Heibai sheying she 黑白摄影社), based in Shanghai, and showed his work in the third Black and White Photography Society exhibition. Although his early photography, especially that shown in the Black and White Exhibition, was more oriented to the modernist aesthetic and concerns for formal beauty, the experience of participating in the Shanghai exhibition must have opened his eyes.
In the middle of 1936 he decided to quit his job at the Shantou radio station and go to Shanghai to seek a career as a photographer. At that time Shanghai had the most active modern visual arts community in China. He enrolled in the Western Painting Department of the Shanghai Art Academy in the fall of 1936. Shanghai Art Academy had many alumni, such as Shen Yiqian, Yu Chuangshi, and Lang Jingshan 郎静山, who were active in art photography and journalism.
In the short period he spent at Shanghai Art Academy he had the opportunity to meet many people in Shanghai cultural circles. The most famous of them was Lu Xun 鲁迅. His October 8 photo of Lu Xun with young woodcut artists during the Second National Woodcut Exhibition (dierjie quanguo muke liudong zhanlanhui 第二届全国木刻流动展览会) became the most famous photo of Lu Xun’s last years. Lu Xun died eleven days later. Sha Fei took his last photos in the bedroom where he died, and actively participated in Lu Xun’s funeral. He also photographed the funeral in Shanghai, producing some of the most widely distributed photographs of the event. This group of photographs, published in Liangyou 良友, Shidai时代, Shenghuo Weekend Edition 生活星期刊and Zhonghua tuhua zazhi中华图画杂志, marked Sha Fei’s debut as a serious photo-journalist.
By the time the Lu Xun photographs were published, Sha Fei had already adopted the name Sha Fei, literally sand flying, to express his desire of metaphorically becoming a small piece of sand to fly freely in the stky of his country. (The pictorials that used Sha Fei's Lu Xun photographs credited him as Sha Fei already.) However, because of his active and public participation in Lu Xun’s, which was strongly backed by left-wing literary and art circles, he was forced to withdraw from Shanghai Art Academy. He returned to Guangzhou at the end of 1936, after only half a year in Shanghai. From December 3 to 5, 1936, with the sponsorship of his friend Li Hua and help from some of his classmates, he held a solo exhibition in Guangzhou that displayed 114 photographs. Among them 26 were in memory of Lu Xun. Twenty photographs depicted the frontier Nan’ao Island, then under Japanese occupation.
In September 1937, he arrived in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, with a hope to put his photographic skills into service for the Anti-Japanese war. He became a photo-reporter for the news agency Quanmin tongxunshe 全民通讯社, a communist news organization established in 1934, known previously as Zhongwai xinwen xueshe 中外新聞學社 (Fang Dazeng 方大曾, a.k.a. Xiao Fang, was also a photo-reporter for Quanmin xinwen she). He was sent by the agency to the battle front at Pingxingguan, a strategic site in northern Shanxi, in September, 1937, where he photographed one of the rare Chinese victories against the Japanese. In October he formally joined the Eighth Route army and went with the army to establish an anti-Japanese resistance base at the border of Shanxi, Cha’ha’er, and Hebei. En route he took many photographs of battle scenes and the Communist army. At this time, he formally changed his name to Sha Fei.
In November 1937 he was appointed director of the newly established editorial department of the military district political department propaganda bureau and head of the Resistance Daily Press (Kangdi baoshe 抗敌报社), the forerunner of People’s Daily. During this period he followed the army from battle to battle, photographically documenting the military life, engagements with the enemy, and local people who supported the resistance. In 1939 he held the first photography exhibition in the Eighth Route Army’s Jin-Cha-Ji 晋察冀base. In the same year the base established a department of journalistic photography, with Sha Fei as the founding director. He was also the founder of the first Communist pictorial, Jin-Cha-Ji Pictorial (Jin-Cha-Ji huabao晋察冀画报), which took two years of preparation before first appearing on July 7, 1942. During the eight years of the Anti-Japanese War,
Sha Fei took thousands of photos of brutal Japanese violence, battlefield scenes, local Chinese resistance, people’s daily life, and foreign and domestic visitors to the front. Of these, he published more than 200 in newspapers, journals, magazines, and pictorials, including Jin-Cha-Ji Daily (Jin-Cha-Ji ribao 晋察冀日报), Resistance Tri-Daily (Kangdi sanrikan 抗敌三日刊), and Jin-Cha-Ji Pictorial. He also organized nine training classes for photo-journalists to build a cohort of Communist photographers. In 1938, a Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune came to Yanan to help the resistance. Sha Fei became his friend and took many photographs of Bethune operating in his surgery, treating patients, and even swimming during his rare moments of leisure. Bethune even willed his camera to Sha Fei upon his death. Sha Fei’s photos of Bethune now serve as first-hand biographical documents which cannot be replaced by any surviving textual material.
Sha Fei’s photographic report of General Nie Rongzhen 聂荣臻saving a little Japanese girl and returning her to the Japanese side was also a vivid witness to the humanitarian ideals that lingered in this period of brutal warfare. Numerous photos Sha Fei took of activities in the Communist-controlled territories after the war also provide first-hand visual images of this poorly documented period. The portraits of the Communist generals, visitors from abroad, and anonymous soldiers and local people are very helpful historical documents even today.
Realizing the historical importance of his photographic mission Sha Fei took particular care with his negatives and their cataloguing, urging his colleagues to protect their negatives with their lives. Because of his effort, these negatives continue to serve as a crucial source for images of this period. Ironically, he always kept his most treasured negatives, those of Lu Xun, on his person, and they were unwittingly buried with him. After the war Sha Fei helped to establish People’s Pictorial (Renmin huabao) and in 1948 became director the North China Pictorial (Huabei huabao she), which merged Jin-Cha-Ji Pictorial and People’s Pictorial.
The long years of intense work and poor living conditions led to the collapse of Sha Fei’s mental and physical health. He was sent to the Norman Bethune Hospital in Shijiazhuang for treatment of tuberculosis in May of 1948 and was never cured. On December 15, 1949, while suffering from acute mental illness, he shot and killed a Japanese doctor who was treating him. Two months later he was executed for this crime at his age of thirty-eight.