A walk through Wuhan: Fergus Coyle’s warm portrait of a city full of character and light
When the photographer’s brother moved out to China eight years ago, Fergus got to know the character, warmth and spiralling city of Wuhan.
For British photographer Fergus Coyle, his memory of Wuhan is made up of several different connotations and overlapping positive moments.
When chatting to him today, he recalls details like its sheer busyness, considering it has a greater population than Berlin, Milan or London. “Every corner you turn there’s a hive of activity,” he describes, pointing to the noticeably sociable nature of its residents, its “strong culture for eating out” at restaurants or markets, or simply how busy the roads are, filled with “cars, motorbikes and endless yellow hire bikes that end up in huge piles at their drop off points,” he continues. “It’s sad to think that it could forever be known as the source of a virus-turned-pandemic.”
As Fergus points out, before Covid-19, “Wuhan was relatively unknown to the West,” but became a visiting spot for the photographer after his brother moved there eight years ago. A few years back, in particular, Fergus took a month-long trip for his brother’s wedding; an opportunity “to get to know my new extended family, and the city in which my brother has chosen to settle,” and maybe, considering his medium of choice, make a series from the visit too.
The result of which is A Walk Through Wuhan, an expansive portrait of the city depicting its natural warmth, but juxtaposed against its towering architectural landscape. A praised body of work even out of the context of how we widely recognise Wuhan now – already featured in the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161, The Kuala Lampar International Portrait Awards and The Lens Culture Visual Storytelling Awards – the perspective from which viewers now comprehend this body of work has elevated, becoming overtly fascinating, considering recent events.
Initially, however, it was the urbanscape of Wuhan which attracted the photographer. Its specific location “at the confluence of the Han and Yangte rivers” reminded him of photographic references like “Nadav Kander’s eerie, industrial depiction of the Yangtze,” where people were reduced to “small figures dwarfed by the construction of giant bridges,” Fergus describes. This influence was also coupled with the equally expansive work of Zhang Kechun, whose endless eye, particularly in his “stunning series Yellow River,” can be seen inspiring certain viewpoints.
In coupling both these influences, Fergus’ depiction of Wuhan is vast. In some images, architecture shines, scaling up and up throughout the frame – whether it’s a purposeful focal point or fading out within the mist in the distance. This mist is also a consistent feature throughout every image bar a few, portraying Wuhan’s “high levels of pollution, with a thick smog often acting as a giant diffuser for the sun.” For a photographer who’s not “a great fan of blue skies” regardless, “the payoff is a warm, balanced tone that stays consistent on separate days.”
All shot on medium format film, “and slightly overexposed in camera to add to the effect,” the majority of the series was taken while Fergus would catch the ferry from the Wuchang District in the south to Hankou Bund, located over on the northern bank of the Yangtze.
Passing by, Fergus was able to spot possible photographic compositions, whether it be “groups of swimmers bathing in the silty waters near the terminal as giant cargo ships passed by,” or the sight of locals congregating “for group exercises, chess, dancing or to pose for photographs in front of the impressive skyline,” dominated by the Greenland Centre, China’s tallest building and the fourth in the world. “One of my favourite activities to observe was the bird kite flyers,” continues Fergus, “who skilfully manoeuvre their eagle-shaped kites close to the water, as if they were hunting for fish before circling upwards on a thermal.”
1 of 4
East Lake Wedding
In other locations, largely further up the Yangtze River and towards the outskirts of Wuhan, Fergus found photographic inspiration in Tianxingxiang Island. Consisting mainly of farmland, “apart from a giant sandbar on its west bank that makes for perfect 4x4 driving, and a shipwreck used for photoshoots,” upon visiting Fergus would often be met by a larger group of photographers than himself: “There’s a massive trend for elaborate pre-wedding photos in China and however remote an area of the city you visit, you’re likely to be met by a troupe of photographers, stylists, assistants and the odd smoke machine for ultimate effect!”
And while these more expansive photographs of Fergus’ depict a wider portrait of Wuhan, it’s the more detailed, quieter shots which feel particularly pertinent now. Away from the city’s major tourist attractions like Yellow Crane Tower or East Lake, further into the series, Fergus shows us the personalities of Wuhan.
From a man clutching at balloons, or the cheerful expression of two swimmers after a quick dip, some of our favourite shots are simply friends gathered together peering over something on their phones, or deep in discussion. In these images, Fergus gives a glimpse into another side of the city, such as how, amongst its large population, Wuhan also has one of China’s largest student populations, with there being over 20 universities in the city alone, with several foreign students too.
Greenland Centre Lake View
Witnessing the change in Wuhan from over here in the UK, it’s been saddening for the photographer to see the images, so different from his own, as Wuhan went into lockdown. Now, with his family slowly returning to normal life – just in time as his sister-in-law is expecting a baby next month – the photographer is most importantly looking forward to heading back to meet his nephew.
Photographically, “so far, this project has just scratched the surface of life in Wuhan and there are many stories I would like to develop upon too,” says Fergus, with the future in mind. He hopes that, at it stands, this body of work evokes an alternative view of Wuhan to what we may have seen portrayed in the media of late. “Through these photographs, I hope viewers can take a moment to have an unbiased look at Wuhan, away from the mainstream media,” he concludes. “To get a sense of the city's character and a brief insight into the daily lives of its inhabitants.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.