Beijinger Zou Yi photographs the view from his window every day
Project provides at-a-glance record of China's smog problem
Zou wants to find a way to turn pictures from gray to blue
The view from Zou Yi’s window is fickle.
Some days he can see every detail of the Beijing Television skyscraper across the way. Some days he can hardly see it at all.
Such is daily life for the millions who live under Beijing’s polluted skies.
What makes Zou unique is his steadfastness in documenting the city’s air quality – every day for three years.
Each morning before going to work, Zou first takes a picture of the skyscraper from his thirteenth floor living room.
No matter whether it’s an endearing blue sky or a hazardous haze, he posts the picture on social media along with the air quality index.
“I want the pictures to speak for me,” Zou told CNN. He’s assembled each year of images into a single composite, an at-a-glance record of Beijing’s smog problem.
“I do think that our government should do more, but people in our society also need to contribute. They need to be aware of the pollution and participate in the monitoring and improvement of air quality,” Zou said.
Storm of discussion
Beijing, like much of northern China, is struggling to tackle dangerously high levels of smog.
In 2015, the city saw 46 days of “heavy air pollution,” according to state media. The city government issued its first red alert concerning air quality in December, closing schools and factories and pulling cars off the road.
On Wednesday, China issued a yellow alert for smog in its northern regions – its second highest pollution warning and the first this year.
There are some signs of progress – environmental campaign group Greenpeace says that levels of the most deadly particles, PM2.5, decreased last year – but also an increasing level of public outrage.
Zou’s postings have generated a storm of discussion on the Internet.
Over 24 million people on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, have viewed his hashtag #BeijingAirNow. During the climate change summit in Paris he posted during a day of heavy smog in Beijing. The post was looked at over 10 million times.
Back in January 2013, severe smog engulfed Beijing and the heavy haze lingered for two weeks.
It was so bad foreign residents nicknamed it “Airpocalypse.” Zou, like many other Beijingers, locked himself inside to avoid the smog.
“I saw the building outside my window looming in the smog. Sometimes it disappeared completely and sometimes it just showed up,” Zou told CNN. That was when he started to photograph what he was seeing.
Zou later posted his pictures and data on social media. His followers climbed and so did the attention for his posts. People commented and encouraged him to carry on.
“So I set the objective for myself to see if I could do it for long.”
When he put together the pictures of the first two months, he said, the results were striking and he decided to see for how long he could carry on the project, which he named “Beijing Air Now.”
He updates his social media accounts – Weibo and WeChat – with pictures every day and aside from the routine posts, he also holds a year-end meeting to share the photos and statistics he gathers.
In January, Zou shared his photo gallery and statistics released at Swan Port, a non-profit café known as a gathering place for environmental activists.
Huo Weiya, the co-founder of the café, told CNN that Zou’s premiere was meant to be the opening of a “Blue Sky” exhibition, where they planned to display 1,000 amateur photos not only taken in Beijing, but other places around the world.
However, the exhibition was canceled just days before the planned opening. Huo says he was given no reason why.
Air pollution is no longer treated as a taboo topic by the Chinese government and is frequently discussed in state media but ordinary citizens and activists like Zuo and Huo are still exploring the limits for public debate and participation.
Zou said he is looking for non-threatening ways for the public to cooperate with the government on environmental protection. He feels there is no point in simply complaining and criticizing.
“It’s not that we want a blue sky at the cost of development,” Zou says. “We’ve got to figure out a way.”
Until they find one, Zou will continue to his daily ritual of taking a photo. It’s his way of working to turn the pictures from gray to blue.