‘Galway is a global village’: From Sichuan Province to Salthill

Chaosheng Zhang’s lockdown photographs helped him see his adopted county in new light

Connemara

Connemara

 

Amid the antagonism of Twitter, photographer Chaosheng Zhang is a reassuringly soothing presence. A simple caption accompanied by a glorious picture of his adopted county of Galway provides a pleasing antidote to online arguments. Throughout the pandemic, Zhang’s photographs were particularly welcome, offering serene views of some of the West’s most beautiful sights.

Zhang took up photography just four years ago, with local community groups promoting his photos on social media, and he quickly gained a following. But it was during Covid that his work received new appreciation. Locked in their 5k, Zhang’s pictures inspired people near and far. “One person wrote about the healing effects of my photos. And many people messaged me that I was making them homesick but happy, and I’m really delighted for that,” he says.

Blackrock, Salthill, Galway
Blackrock, Salthill, Galway
Galway Cathedral
Galway Cathedral

Last month, the self-taught photographer won the Mayor’s Award for Arts, Culture, Heritage & Cúrsaí Gaeilge by Galway City Council. “I just feel so honoured. I’m very delighted that people like my photos.”

The online world has played a part in Zhang’s photography and also in his decision to come to Ireland 21 years ago. He was trepidatious at first, coming from Beijing with a population of 10 million at the time. “If you go from a very big country, and then go somewhere that’s so small, you feel that you may be lost. If you go to a very small island you feel you will die there and nobody knows you.”

“The internet is one of the main reasons why I dared to come to Ireland. I knew that I will keep my social link to the outside world.”

Population size wasn’t the only change for Zhang arriving in Galway. “My hometown is very inland in the Sichuan Basin. In fact I didn’t see the sea I think, until I was 20 years old. Now I can see it from my window!” These topographical differences are especially fitting given Zhang’s day job as professor in Geography at NUI Galway.

Christmas lights, Galway
Christmas lights, Galway
Connemara
Connemara

Zhang’s background as a geographer brings a unique approach to his photography. An award he won for a shot of the Claddagh Basin illustrates how. “The basin is very nice when the wind is weak. You get perfect reflections. You normally won’t see very good reflection in a river because the water is flowing. But if you get the highest tide then the water is still.”

“You really need the right time, right place, but normally I’m always in the right time right place. I’m a physical geographer so I’m very conscious of those concepts. So it’s not really pure camera technique, it’s about your understanding of the environment.”

For him, beautiful photos don’t come by chance. “Based on my experience, it’s well planned. Firstly you will know sunset and sunrise time, the tide time, and how strong the wind is. And the weather condition. You will need to take all that into consideration. Sunrise and sunset direction changes every day.”

Chaosheng Zhang
Chaosheng Zhang
Wood Quay, Galway
Wood Quay, Galway

It’s not just photography skills that Zhang has gained through his move to Ireland. He now has three children, impossible in his home country due to the one-child policy of the time, something he sees as one of the main advantages of going abroad. “My colleagues in China, they’re jealous of me having three children. That’s the main benefit of me giving up everything in China. If I stayed, we wouldn’t have our two more at all.”

He reckons China and Ireland share a lot in common, despite their distance. “Both Chinese people and Irish people are hard-working, in order to have a better life,” he says. But Zhang noticed a difference in the way both countries faced Covid-19. “It’s really people’s understanding or their attitudes towards life and death. Chinese people are afraid of death, they feel if you die, you will go to hell. You will become a ghost. And here, when you die, you will think you are going to heaven. So it’s very different. Chinese people are much more afraid of catching Covid-19. Here, we are still afraid but not to that level. So the level of fear is different.”

“It’s much easier [there] for the government to do something. This can explain why such a strong action can be taken in China. I don’t think here in Ireland you can do that.”

Following the restrictions, Zhang is intent on enjoying the beautiful scenery in Ireland, with Donegal next on his list, and invites from followers to Dublin and Connemara. He is often recognised in Galway.

“Whenever I go out I will get quite a lot of people say hello to me. I already feel quite integrated but through photography I know more people here now and I feel more integrated locally. That helps me because even a few years ago I was wondering where I should stay when I retire. But now I don’t really worry!”

He thinks Ireland is more open than when he first arrived. “When I came here, everything was very localised and now it’s more internationalised. It’s more recognisable as a global village. Thirty years ago when we see a foreigner in China on the street, we see them as a rare animal. And now people [in Ireland] are used to it too. I think the whole world is just getting more and more similar.”

And the thing he missed the most when he first arrived can now be found in Ireland. “Now we can even get authentic Sichuan chilli sauce here in Galway, directly from Chengdu to here!”