Wang Gengxiang was five when he fell into a pile of burning straw in a courtyard at his home village of Mijiazhuang on the outskirts of Fenyang, Shanxi province, in north China. Most of the skin on his head was burnt off, meaning he has to wear a full surgical mask to prevent infection of the scarring.
The mask is itchy and makes it difficult to breathe, but doctors are unable to continue his skin-graft surgery until his damaged windpipe is strong enough. Even then it will cost almost £100,000 to complete the procedure – money his family may never be able to afford. Furthermore, since his trachea was hurt by the smoke, he has more saliva than most people – hence his chewing on a towel, to manage the excess.
Yet Wang, now six and known as the Masked Boy, is anything but disconsolate. Although not allowed to attend classes at his local kindergarten – both for his own safety and concerns about how his presence might affect other children, according to his father – he cut a cheerful figure when Reuters photojournalist Jason Lee visited him last September.
"I was surprised to see that Wang lives a happy and relaxing life," wrote Lee in his blog about the project. "It took me seven hours by train and then by car to reach his village [from Beijing]. He and his father were waiting for me. The boy waved at me as I approached. It didn't take much time for us to get along. His fearless and caring heart comforted me. In fact, he even offered to carry my suitcase when we first met.
"I went to the village because I wanted to help him," added the 35-year-old. And help he has, not only by donating money, but also by documenting, and thus drawing attention to, Wang's daily life. Already many on Weibo – China's Twitter – have offered assistance.
'Reuters: Our World Now 5' is published on 2 April by Thames & Hudson, priced £10. For more: reuters.com/ourworldnow