Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Quake!

It is funny how just after I wrote a blog about the freedom and the speed of the internet in Hong Kong, the entire Internet infrastructure in Hong Kong fell apart.

On Dec. 26th at 826pm an earthquake struck southern Taiwan and severed all of the four large fiber optic cables that carry information (internet/phone) between Taiwan and Hong Kong. I was aware that these cables have been laid throughout the world under the oceans, but I had no idea that these cables could snap so easily.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I had no idea that the global internet was so vulnerable to nature.

I went a full two days without checking my email - something that hasn't happened since I was 13 years old. It was an odd sensation to say the least.

I have heard that mainland China has had some difficulty as well - but HK was hit the worst.

On a side note, and a more important note, apparently there was a lot of damage in southern Taiwan but loss of life was minimal. Exact numbers are not known. The big story in the reporting has been the reduced internet access. Second side note, the Taiwan earthquake occurred exactly 2 years after the quake that struck off the coast of Indonesia unleashing a tsunami that killed 1/4 of a million people and left over 2 million people homeless.

Glad to be blogging again.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Oh, The Freedom

I love living in China. No matter how bitter I get about the difficulties of working there, never forget that I love working there.

As much as I love it there, I need to get out from time to time and my favorite destination is Hong Kong. Good old HK will always have a special place in my heart. It was my first stop in Asia, it was my home for about 18 months, I made some incredible friends and spent a few too many nights drinking vodka red bulls in Lan Kwai Fung.

My friends in Hong Kong are family, and while the rest of my family is virtually inaccessible for the holidays due to extreme distance, a few beers and some good chat is always much needed after an intense few months of work.

Well today I just got down to HK and rucked up to my usually place where I crash. Even before un-packing I file up the wireless internet access and breath a deep sigh of relief, oh what a feeling.

It takes a trip to Hong Kong to remind myself just how slow and bogged down the internet in China really is. FTP'ing images is a nightmare, sites are blocked, blogs are censored, streaming video crawls and YouTube looks like a "still picture" portal.

A friend of mine from the US was in Shanghai with me earlier this year and he is a computer engineer, he was quick to open up my computer, boot the MSDOS and find out exactly how slow the internet in China really his. To his, and my, surprise it was clicking along at about 15% the speed that most residential broadband users get in the US.

Now, before we jump to conclusions - it's not all just censorship. It's true that emails and FTP's that go from China to Europe and North America have to pass through a censor that screens for key words (Thank you Cisco), most of the problems with speed actually occur at a more local level.

The problem lies with China Telecom, the state run monopoly fixed line provider. The big telecom company sells off a certain fixed number of broadband connections to local distributors who in turn sell this service to the end customer (me). But the local branches splice and often run as many as ten connections on one of the fixed lines on the main server. The final product is painful.

Just in the last year or two China Telecom has begun pumping broadband cables directly in to residential and commercial buildings and things have been getting better - but it's just not fast enough.

So I sit in HK surfing away. I filed about 400 images with my agency and uploaded a ton of stuff to my own site, why, because I can do it one hour in HK - a task that would take as much as three hours in Shanghai, maybe more.

Human Rights Watch, BBC, US State Department, my own blog - here i come. Let the information flow freely.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Followed: Zhejiang PSB

note: PSB = Public Security Bureau.

And, begin:

It is not often that I am followed in China.

I know that statement may not seem true to many of my readers who live in Western Europe or North America, but its my reality. For the most part, China is opening up, and I travel extensively, photographing various issues and generally enjoying freedom to point my lens at almost anything I choose. Who would have thought that I would get in to trouble in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Zhejiang Province is China's most progressive. Zhejiang Province was the first of its kind to allow private ownership and allow private industry. It's population is well educated and the province is home to China's most beautiful city, Hangzhou. For those who aren't familiar with Hangzhou, it is home to China's famous West Lake. It was Marco Polo's favourite stop, and for entirely different reasons it is my favorite city in eastern China. And above all else, it's home to Internet wonderboy Jack Ma, CEO of

So, tonight I arrive by car from Shanghai. The weather was bad and all I wanted to do was get in to the hotel, rest and relax; the next few days are going to be busy. I drift out of the hotel with my writing partner and pop accross the street for a Starbucks for a bit of food and a juice, and while I am sitting on the second floor engaging in a good chat, two men in bad wind breakers come in and sit at the table accross from me. They both have leather man bags, or European carry-alls, they both look at me no less than 3 times on the way past and when they sat down they just sat there and starred over at me. They hadn't ordered any food or drink.

So essentially China's very secret, secret police were sitting opposite us in Starbucks and they were acting like two undercover cops in a bad cops and robbers movie; straight out of a pirated DVD of Starsky & Hutch.

With these two police officers watching our every move, we get up to leave the Starbucks and sure enough they follow, less than 20 seconds behind us as we leave the door and exit out to street level. We make one more stop in a small noodle shop and then head back to the hotel. I head up to the room and it isn't 10 minutes before I am called down by the police. That showed a bit of class, usually they prefer to intimidate in the privacy of our rooms, not the lobby of a 5-star hotel. They wanted to check the passport, view the visa and see how my stay was in Hangzhou. I told them it was fine up until about 30 minutes ago.

When asked why 4 police officers had to come and ask for my passport, the reply was simply - "they work with me". Shocking. When I asked them why I they had to see my passport they replied, because we want to make sure your visa is valid. Shocking. After explaining that I had entered China legally and registared at the hotel with a valid visa, the police officer still insisted that I follow the law of Zhejiang Province in the Peoples Republic of China. Shocking.

I hand over my passport and he views it. And gives it back. I ask if we are finished. He says yes. I shake his hand sincerely and walk back up to my room and write this blog. Fresh from the scene. Less than 30minutes has past.

Disturbing as this first interaction was, for the 3 days that followed we were followed (day and night) so closely that it was uncomfortable and almost claustrophobic. When I stepped in to an elevator our minder stepped in with us. When we sat to have lunch they ate at the table beside us. When we hired a taxi for a tour around town, the black honda was just inches from our rear bumper. Imagine 3 days like that. Exhausting. The Chinese government just used their man power to wear us down, hour by hour, day by day. There was no being secretive, there was no hiding behind trees - they were in our face during the entire trip.

I have written a lot in pervious blogs how China is progressing. So when I visit Hangzhou to do a story about and Jack Ma, the last thing I am expecting is a "1985-like minder". I am trying to be positive about the direction that China is moving in. I even went to Hangzhou to do a really positive story about and there 5000 employees, and how this company is quickly become one of the most successful internet companies in the world. I wanted to write a blog today about Jack, but I was too frustrated about being followed at an obnoxious distance. The policed state of China shows its ugly face yet again.

The most hilarious part of this whole story is that just last week the Beijing authorities came out and told the world that they are going to ease restrictions on foreign journalists between now and the Olympics, in an effort to ease difficulties and allow freer movement. Apparently that memo never made it to Zhejiang Province.

I am curious to know what will happen before, and during, the Olympics in 2008 when 10,000 registared Foreign Journalists decend on China to report. Will this new policy of freedom hold up, or will there be shocking results. I wonder how many times I'll be followed and harassed between now and August 8th, 2008 at 8pm when the opening ceremonies kick off.

As is too often the case in China:
Beijing: One step forwards.
Provinces: Two steps back.

Welcome to China, open for business.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Mess we Leave Behind

Journalism in China is far from free. Local Chinese journalists are intimidated, fined and even arrested without Due Process and in some cases can remain in jail for months or years without ever being formally charged. Being a journalist in China almost as dangerous as working in a coal mine.

While the above statement may be true for local journalist, for foreign journalists living in China the rules are very different.

We have some restrictions, like we are supposed to report to various officials when we travel, but few people do. In a sense, we are basically free and clear to document China as we see fit. Of course there are obstacles and obstructions and delays and local thugs who try to intimidate, but for the most part we can go almost anywhere and see almost anything. Military sites, some border areas and anything to do with the inner workings of the government are still off limits.

However, in China, it is never as easy as it sounds. And while foreign journalists can get away from the bureaucracy, most often it is our assistants and translators and fixers that take the heat. This poses a lot of problems both professionally and morally.

Professionally its a shame. The governments puts a lot of pressure on our assistants and tries to intimidate them. And eventually it forces some people to just stop working with us. This has been become even more of an issue since the NYTimes assistant was arrested two years ago and is still being held on a bogus charge of corruption. Without due process and a just legal system in China, few local assistants are willing to push, and really who can blame them. They have have to support their families in many cases.

Morals come in to play a lot as well, specially on the road. Often in remote areas I rely on local fixers and translators who are knowledgable and who can speak the local dialects. They are innocent folks, often freelance tour guides and such who are keen to string together a few days of work, and practice their English.

On a recent trip to Kashgar my fixer and translator was a great help. He was a freelance tour guide and a local taxi driver. He had a wife and a three year old son. We worked together for about seven days. He assisted my writing partner and I on two stories: one about AIDS in the Kashgar region and another was a travel story. After that he traveled with me to the border of Pakistan in what was one of the greatest adventures I have taken in my five years in China. When I returned to Kashgar to catch my flight back out to Shanghai my fixer contacted me and told me that he had been detained by the local public security bureau. He was held over night, he was intimidated and was asked of everything that we did, everyone we talked to and everywhere we visited. He was worried, scared and angry.

I was furious. While the desperate actions by the Public Security Bureau are to be expected in China. I was perhaps let my guard down and thought that China was in many ways moving beyond this paranoia. When you live in China, like I have been doing for the last five years, you can often get caught up in how much the country is changing and how it is, in many cases, progressing; then an experience like this brings you back down to earth and shows you that no matter how glossy things look on the surface, it's still a big nasty mess just beyond the shinny skyscrapers of Shanghai.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Supply Problem

I am not afraid to say it.


I do, I love film. While it's true that digital technology has come a long way, I still believe there is nothing better than a grainy moment in black and white.

Now, I have all the digital gear, the 20D's, the 30D's the XPD's and whatnot, I use them - I am up to date with all of my technology. But if I have the time and I am working on something I really care about, then it's a film moment - simple as that, I prefer film.

The sad reality is that I am in the minority. And in China, where I live, I am a dinosaur. Which is funny because I have not yet hit my 30th birthday. Perhaps the best way to describe me is old fashion or a traditionalist.

Without drifting on a tangent, I have a problem - a supply problem. No I am not in to heroin or anything like that. I need film and lots of it. But I am suffering from local supply issues. While I could walk in to almost any store in Shanghai and buy a 4gig SanDisk CF Card, I have to wait days and days for "my people" to find enough 800ISO fuji negative film to make me happy. This problem has become so big that I have begun buying in bulk and my fridge is now full of film - everything from transparency 100ISO to black and white kodak to my beloved "I don't need a flash" 800 ISO.

I got an assignment a few days ago in central China and I have a few days to organize myself before I go. The first call was to my film delivery man - I needed one hundred rolls of 800ISO, he had ten only. When I asked him why, he said plainly: "You are the only one who buys it, and the last time you called me was a month ago". Right, fair enough.

I called about 3 different suppliers and they all had the same take, sorry - we only have a handful of rolls. When I asked when I would be able to purchase more they were clueless. The frustration is setting in.

So, will I be forced to go against my traditional ways and shoot an entire week long assignment in digital? Will I have to carry around external hard drives and endless batteries and cables, cords and laptops....or can I bring 80 rolls of film and a leica. Due to my supply problem, it seems my decisions have already been made - it's all so very China.

So, when photographers discuss the on going debate about film vs. digital I never hear the "supply problem" get brought up? Maybe not often enough. But let me tell you, I am buying a second fridge and I'm going to have stocks of the stuff from now on. A world without film, its a scary thought. I may have to hang up the camera and enroll in law school. Too serious? Perhaps, but don't back a wild animal in to a corner and think it won't fight. Anyone have the phone number of any of the executives at Fuji?

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Day I Was Blocked

This is my 8th blog, and I've marked it down in my calendar, November 12, 2006.

This is both my 8th blog, and the day the Chinese government blocked my blog. Now, if you choose to scroll down and read the rest of this blog you'll notice some very obvious things, there is really nothing critical written in this blog at all about China; and I am not a writer. So it boggles my mind why someone would want to block a blog about a photographer who works in China. What is the point? What is there motive?

Essentially, there no real reason why an English language blog like mine would be blocked. Only a small proportion of Chinese people inside China can even read my blog, who out there makes these decisions?

An interesting thing to point out is that the person who actually blocked this blog is most likely just a poorly educated University student in Shanghai. A colleague of mine, Howard W. French, wrote a great piece a few months back about Net Nannies combing the internet looking for anti Chinese or disturbing writings of any kind. These Net Nannies are University students who volunteer after hours to surf the internet and pick out the evil and devious minds that blog. So essentially what has happened is some 19 year old, never traveled outside of Shanghai, University student has deemed my blog inappropriate based on the fact that the title of my blog says: China Photographer. By this "net nanny" making a note in her activities log someone above her basically blocked the site without looking at, or reading, this blog.

Another point to make people aware of is that my blog contains my real name and my real contact information. How much harm can an honest person speaking objectively cause a government? This may seem like a trick question, and it is where the Chinese state and I seem to differ.

I am not a writer, I am a photographer, and yet the Chinese government has not blocked my personal website or my photography archive (both of which are listed at the bottom of each blog), they have just blocked my poor blog.

It's not even much of a blog anyways - I barely write in it and when I do it's hardly coherent and rarely has a point.

So this is my life, subject to the approval of the Chinese government (aka. the paranoid state).

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: What Time is?

I have been working on an assignment in Kashgar, China for the last few days and I am feeling a bit run down, my head just does not feel right and I can not figure out why.

At first I thought it must be the altitude, but Kashgar is only 1300m above sea level. Hardly high enough to cause any difficulties. And then it hit me, like a ray of sun light. As I took a moment and looked out my window, I noticed that at 800pm at night the sun was blazing through my hotel window and, as I was blinded, it dawned on me.

The problem might actually be that in Kashgar, the western most city in China, is the same time as in Beijing. At first that might not seem like much of a problem, but when you realize that Kashgar is 5000km west of Beijing one can begin to formulate the possible problems they could incur. It appears I was suffering from a bizarre case of non-jet lag.

China has 22 provinces, 5 autonomus regions, 4 Municipalities and 2 Special Administrative Regions. In short, its a vast country. When considering the entire country, China should span across five time zones, but instead it uses a single time zone. Some might ask, why is the this done. First off, China likes to be different. Second, it eases transportation schedules. Third, they adapted a single time zone for political reasons. Let's take a closer look at each one:

China enjoys being different. They love to buck the trend and pursue things at their own pace. A Canadian man in North America came up with the idea that the world should adopt time zones, this was in an effort to regulate the rail systems in the late 1800s. While most towns and cities across the world accepted their own "local time", the idea had never been standardized globally. China wasn't really interested in adhering to domestic time zones, or aligning their time zones with that of other countries in Asia, at this stage in their development. Furthermore, China is an incredibly proud nation and they often feel threatened when outside ideas are accepted above their own. Nationalism runs high in this country, and this has been a common trend for the country from the 1600s right up until about twenty years ago when China opened its doors to western investment and business practices. China today is still opposed to adopting domestic time zones because of mainly political reasons.

The easing of transportation schedules is a no brainer. The entire country has set its clocks to "Beijing Time' and catching at train at 20:00 in Beijing or 4000km west in Urumqi is all the same. There is almost no disadvantage. Traveling in China is a breeze because of their single time zone policy.

Lasty, China is held together by a series of lines. Indeed China should, by any account, actually be about 6 different countries. The territory is vast and the minorities and cultures that live within the borders are as distinct and has varied as any two nations. While the current government has fought hard for decades to bring the country together under one leader and one flag, the last thing anyone wants to do is give people an excuse to claim any differences which may lead to independence; like being in another time zone of having an excuse for being different from Beijing. While it may make less sense to a western educated mind, policies like this are at the heart of China's goal to maintain political stability in a country that is going as fast as it is.

So how does this affect me, well it's easy really. I just work double days. I still wake up at 730 in the morning and now I work until 8pm until the sun goes down, have an early dinner around 10pm and then head to bed around 1pm. It's a bit of a stretch from my regular routine, but as the saying goes, "when in Kashgar...".

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Mother & The Message

I had an odd experience a few days ago that I felt needed to be written about. Today's blog is about an English Language sign. This sign was bright RED with large bold YELLOW letters, and it read:

"Learn the socialist concept of Honor and Disgrace, Be a Model Citizen and make Preparations for the Special Olympics World Summer Games."

I felt that the sign was very much in line with many of the signs one will come across while traveling about in China. My problem with this sign is not the fact that it exists, my problem is that this sign - about 20 meters wide - was located in full view as people exit customs and make their way to the taxi line at the Pudong International Airport.

Now, I take offense to a sign like this, and let me try to explain. I live in Shanghai and I call the city my home. It's not my home away from home, it is home. I have no plans of ever leaving. My committment to documenting the country is most serious. And in many ways I feel proud of Shanghai and how the city has developed. Of course there are numerous problems, some serious, some not so much - but it is home none the less and most importantly, Shanghai is the show case city of China. What really gets under my skin is that the sign is embarrassing. As I stood in the Pudong airport arrivals terminal, my mother is making her first trip to China, I listened to people as they were arriving from around the world look up, point and snicker at this sign. I felt as though it was 1972 because the sign seemed to belong to something of that era. The economy of China is changing, but how are the thoughts of government officials and political leaders changing? And crucially, how could anyone put up a sign like that in such a crucial location? It boggles my mind.

Secondly, I take offense to this sign is as an English speaker. If you look at the wording of the sign it is obvious to see that someone has done an exact, awkward translation of the Chinese characters. It's a shame. China courts Foreign Direct Investment with a vengeance. The country is on a Public Relations mission like no other country in history and yet the first thing business persons and tourists see when they arrive in Shanghai is a sign like that, a throwback to the days of Chairman Mao. If China wanted to promote the Special Olympics in Shanghai in 2007 I am sure they could find a much more slick and interesting approach. But then again, the sign outraged me enough to blog about it - so perhaps then the sign is creating a buzz, but for all the wrong reasons.

To conclude, China is an odd country where things don't always make sense, and this sign falls firmly in to this category. It's a reminder that no matter how many flashy buildings are built in Shanghai, or even that the country will grow this year at 10+% again this year - this sign is a reminder that the thought process of those people who run this country lags at least 10 years behind the people you meet on the streets, and perhaps 20-30years behind the people who visit China for work or leisure. The Communist Party is finding itself ever more isolated in its thought and politics, and signs like this are just another painful example of that.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: China & A Nuclear North Korea

Mark it down in your calendars. Monday October 9th - around 11:30am. Today is the day the world did not change.

North Korea tested a nuclear bomb today. According to reports, todays occurrence was an underground test, which was essentially registered as an earthquake. So, what exactly have we learned today that was different from yesterday. The answer is nothing.

Yesterday it was widely known that North Korea had a nuclear bomb and it was more than willing to defy the United Nations, the countries involved in the 6 party talks and, most of all, the United States.

Yesterday we knew Kim Jong-il was an unstable ruler with impeccable timing and a master at dividing world opinion on how to deal with a nuclear Korean peninsula. Today he is much the same man, but today he most likely has a little more swagger in his step.

I rarely feel the need to comment on events outside of China, mostly because China is what I spend much of my effort trying to understand. But let there be no doubt, this nuclear test today is a complete slap in the face by Kim Jong-il to the Chinese government and this event has a lot to do with China. Let me explain more.

China has backed, both militarily and financially, North Korea since it's inception. North Korea's former leader Kim Il-sung ruled with an iron fist for the 40 years since the Korea Peninsula was split, the entire length of his rule he had the full backing of China. In 1992 when the "great leader" died, and his reclusive son - Kim Jong-il - took over power and the international community watched and waited for a change in policy. Would North Korea engage South Korea? The answer was a warm maybe.

In 1994 the younger Kim signed an non-nuclear deal with the Clinton administration that broke down several years later out of mistrust. Japan wants a tough line drawn in the sand, South Korea pursued a useless "Sunshine" policy of reconciliation and China continued to support this suicidal regime. Then came the test heard around the world. Japan is worried, South Korea has scrapped its "Sunshine" policy and everyone else around the world has condemned this behavior, even China.

Don't for a moment think that this is just a regional problem that Asia should deal with on its own. This problem goes well beyond Asia, this problem is bigger than just North Korea. In the 1990s pakistani scientist sold crucial technology to North Korea. Now North Korea is selling missiles all around the world, and to all the wrong people (Pakistan, Syria, Iran). Could North Korea also be selling nuclear technology as well, a problem that could end up on the front door of the United States.

The plot thickens as the threat of proliferation of weapons technology could potentially be much more dangerous than anything North Korea could come up with on their own. Should North Korea be stopped in its tracks, or should we wait until another terrorist attack in Asia or the west?

With these events are occurring in the foreground, in the background there is nothing but indecisiveness, indecision and politics at its worst. With the 6 party talks are a complete failure, only China still has the ear of King Kim, ruler of a starving nation, commander of a million-man army, possessor of a nuclear bomb. Throughout the last decade it has been China who has talked of diplomacy. It was China who talked of patience. And now this test, after China stood firm with the rest of the world and gave warning in the weeks leading up to it.

Kim Jong-il has insulted the world and shown everyone that he will do as he pleases. He has asked for direct diplomacy with the United States, most likely in an effort to turn the taps of trade back on - thereby keeping Mr. Kim in power for at least a few more years. But is it aid North Korea really wants? Or do they just want the United States to bend?

And what about this aid that North Korea gets from China. Is this a potential bargaining chip? Most likely not, as North Korea is poor and hungry with or without Chinese aid. And without it there would almost surely be a collapse of the state sending millions of refugee's flooding over the Chinese border in search of nothing more than food.

So there lies the dilemma, a neighbor that won't talk, won't listen and who sits on a nuclear weapon. Of all the countries out there who have already had a say in this issue, including the useless United Nations, I firmly believe only China and step up to the plat and play ball with North Korea. Forget today's slap in the face, forget the past.

China, this vast neighbor to North Korea, has been proving for much of the last decade that it wants to be a player on the world stage. It wants membership to the big clubs. It's wants a larger piece of the say in world politics. Well, this is the best chance for China to earn its stripes. To step in to the ring and get a knock out, to bend the ear of young Kim and talk some sense in to him. In every big problem lies an bigger opportunity, and this is China's chance to show people that it can be listened to - that is has sway.

Now is indeed the time, with the Middle Kingdom propping up regimes in Sudan, Nigeria and Iran with financial aid and bundles of cash for natural resources, it would be nice to see China do something to prove to the international community that it is trying to make the world a less dangerous place. North Korea is that something, now is the time, this is the place.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Camera Shy: China's New Middle Class

There is an interesting phenomenon going on China with regards to picture taking. For the most part, China is a photographers dream. It would seem that you can't miss when looking for nice images here. In fact, all of Asia is fairly camera and image friendly. But that is not the whole truth.

With China on the rise, vast amounts of Chinese people are beginning to make some serious money, and privacy is slowly becoming a very big issue in the larger cities of Mainland China. Let me explain this further.

In China publicity and exposure are almost never a good thing, privacy seems to reign king these days. For example, in 2002 Forbes Magazine came out with a 100 Richest People in China. Immediately after the list was published the Chinese government followed with a crackdown on tax evasion and criminal charges for various folks who were "lucky" enough to be one of China's top 100. China is opening up fast, and for people to take advantage of the break neck speed of development, a significant number of people are making millions in the "gray" economy. With that being said, one can see how people who are making money and enjoying a luxurious living prefer to stay out of the media and keep their money hidden. I think there is a Japanese proverb that explains this behavior, it goes something like: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down".

The upper class and the newly developed middle class are acting in much the same way, both are incredibly camera and publicity shy. While the growth and development of China's middle class could be one of the biggest and most important stories of our generation, I am constantly asked by photography editors to try to document examples of the middle class. This is a task that, as a photographer, always creates problems for me. Shopping that sell luxury brands, luxury apartment complexes and luxury car showrooms all have signs that say "no picture taking", and most signs are often backed up with absurd amounts of security guards who have one mission - to kill any photographic opportunity. With that being said, there are ways around this but they can be painfully tedious. I can often respect someone's wish to enjoy their life instead of being part of some photographers dreams of piecing together a great feature, but recently I have been caught off guard by people's responses to why they don't want me to take their pictures. One woman in a teahouse a few weeks ago asked me not to use "photoweb" to cut and paste her head on to pornographic pictures used for the internet; this was after I spoke to her explaining that I was working for a well know magazine in the UK. In fact, it turns out most people I ask to photograph, get denied and then try to reason with have little or no idea about the western media's interest. Often the most common response is that "I'll get in trouble", but the from whom, by who and afraid of what never seems become a definitive concrete person, association, group or thing.

While I am a China watcher of sorts, I am by no means a Psychologist or a Philosopher. Many people could interpret this in many different ways, but I still see plain and simple fear. I see this type of behavior as being a hang over to the Cultural Revolution and China's backwards education system. It is truly a reaction to being uncomfortable, and I am still amazed at how uncomfortable some Chinese people are with the thought of other people knowing too much about what they do, where they live or what they look like. Of course their are exceptions to the rule, but often people are just afraid for the sake of being afraid - big brother still looms large in this part of the world.........and "they" aren't going to relinquish their grip anytime soon.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Assistant

It occurred to me, almost immediately upon my arrival in China, that if I was to ever work efficiently in this country I would need to help of an assistant. That realization came to me five years ago.

I have yet to hire an assistant.

Most of the reason for this has been financial. It took me a few years to learn how to be a journalist and establish myself as someone who was based in China and working on strong features. With that being said, it is also serious business interviewing people and offering them any sense of job stability - or at least conveying a sense of the fact that you will at least pay them at the end of each month.

The job of journalism assistant is a tough one, let there be no doubt about it. The job itself offers almost no chance of advancement or substantial salary increase. A local Chinese assistant working for the New York Times Bureau in Beijing will surely never rise to the point of becoming the Beijing Bureau chief. So, the job requires someone with a motivation unlike most.

In China's big cities the economic growth is dizzying. Getting a job, for a bright University graduate can be as simple as breathing. Most young Shanghai residents switch jobs as often as two or three times a year - opting to take a new position for as little as US$20 more per month in salary. The growth is there to support this type of behavior. In this new economy money seems to rule, few potential employees care about being part of a team, or building something special. There are few that will sacrifice now for something greater in the future. In a very broad and general sense, these are the employment conditions in Shanghai.

So you can imagine my pitch: You are going to work long days, doing difficult work and I'll be paying you less than you can make working for someone else. But I can offer you a bit of excitement, some travel and you'll get to see a side of China that you didn't learn about in high school classes. If only that pitch could generate some interest.

By the way, this is not simply a problem I have. Most of my journalism friends or people in the publishing business have similar difficulty. Compounding the problem is finding someone who doesn't always take what they are told for truth. Open mindedness, critical thinking and having opinions are also important for a job like this; but these qualities are not exactly stressed in the Chinese educational system. In fact, a student who shows the kind of behavior and mental capacity that I am looking for would often be reprimanded if in the class room.

So this is where I stand today. I am assistant-less, but still fairly efficient and working hard. Assignments are starting to pick up again after the summer lull that seems to fall over the entire industry.

More interviews next week.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: Home Sweet Home

It’s been 5 days since my last blog. Speaking about "the father", has anyone been watching the news and seen the hot water the Pope has gotten himself in to after a very brief quotation. These are difficult times we live in.

Right, I have been too busy to write, in saying that, I have a great excuse. I am tired and jet lagged mostly, and after nearly a month on the road, taking in stops in London, New York, Toronto and Perpignan - I am finally home and my body has crashed. Most of my time, during the last few days, was spent going through the business cards and notes I had made during the week that I atteneded a photography industry festival in Perpignan, France.

Perpignan is essentially a monster networking event, attended by all walks of life – from established professional photographers, to keen amatures. And then there were people like me. I am a professional photographer, but I am far from being an established house hold name. Guys and Gals like me were out there trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to show our portfolio's and trying to generate some contacts. For me, living in China, networking is a one a year opportunity - since the photography editors don't ever make the trip to China. So it is an essential part of the game of generating interest in the work I am doing in China. It is always and uphill struggle.

Now that I am back in China, and generating new story ideas, I am as motivated as ever to start working again. Today is Sunday and my body is finally coming around. I got a decent sleep last night - I spent most of the day researching on the internet - pulling together new story ideas.

I am also in the process of hiring my first assistant. It's always a difficult task, finding someone who can tolerate me on a full time basis. I wouldn't say that I am cranky, but I am very intense and I take my work seriously - and that can scare some people away. The resume's have begun to flood in. I've been going through each one with care. I am trying to weed out people who just seem to be drifting and thought that being a photographer's assistant for a few months would be exciting. I need someone long term, to build a solid working relationship with - no drifters need apply. I'll keep you posted on how the process goes.

It looks like I'll have a busy fall season. Magazines have started contacting me regarding scheduling and lining up work for October and November. Everything should fall in to place nicely. But more importantly than that is my personal work - what will I do with my spare time and how can I build an important story that I feel passionate about. That will be a true test for my journalism skills.

It's a Sunday night. I have written enough. My goal is that this blog will become much more interesting as my work picks up. I can report from the road on my adventures and mis-adventures.

Stay tuned.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, September 11, 2006

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Introduction

Hello. This is the beginning.

I have begun a blog to tell you a story about life in China. The "life" that will be described in the following blog will be both mine, and of my subjects. The word subjects referring to those whom I document.

In this initial blog, I will introduce myself and my purpose. The reason for the introduction is because I want you (the reader) to know who I am, to know my background and my reason for being here. My hope is that this knowledge will better prepare you to follow my story.

I am a Canadian born documentary photographer based in China. A documentary photographer basically means that I photograph real life in order to tell social, environmental, and political stories. I take my job very seriously. China is perhaps the fastest changing country in the world, billions of dollars of foreign investment are pumped in to the country each year, it's important to understand as much as possible about how that money is spent, who it is reaching and who is being left behind.

Another reason why I take my job very seriously is because the Chinese Media (local media) is restricted and censored. That simply means that the Communist Party, the single party that governs China, controls the media and has final say over what exactly is published. With that being said, the local media is getting more aggressive and starting to take more chances with reports on corruption and environment disasters, but in the end, they can only go so far before risking jail sentences. It is, therefore, essentially the job of foreign media to tell the stories of China, and its citizens; to help those who are unable to visit the country better understand what exactly is happening. I am proud and honored to have such a role as a journalist covering China. I personally feel there is no greater story in our time as the rise and development of China. The country's growth and development will have an incredible impact on life in every country around the globe; from coal miners in Sudan to oil rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico.

I was born in Toronto, Canada on September 20th 1978. I spent my entire youth living and being educated in Canada. I graduated from the University of Toronto (International Politics) in 2001, I specialized in Asia - focusing intensely on China.

After graduation I traveled through Europe and then in September 2001 I made my first journey to China. It was a solo mission. I spent three months wondering around China's most extreme environments. I journeyed through the French quarter in Shanghai, I strolled through the hutongs of Beijing. I snapped pictures in the airport hanger that houses the terricota warriors in Xi'an, I ventured to the heavily militarized border area of China and Kazahstan where I was arrested and spent four days in custody. Fresh from release from jail, I hitch hiked in to Tibet where I walked from Shegar (4000m) to Everest Base Camp (5200m) (about 90km) and then back out again to the town of Tingri (another 75km).

Needless to say, that initial trip to China inspired me in ways that few things in this world can. Within two weeks of returning home I had my bags packed and was headed on a one way ticket to Hong Kong - which was to be my base for further exploration in China. The stories from that first trip, including my arrest and hike to Everest, are currently being put together as part of my first written book. I first person travel narrative, about people and places in China. Fingers crossed, it will be out sometime in 2007.

Back to my story, in November of 2004 I made the decision that Hong Kong just wasn't close enough. So I packed my bags again and moved to Shanghai, my current base of operations. It wasn't until my move to Shanghai that I could properly call myself a photographer. While my stay in Hong Kong was fantastic, it was simply too expensive, offered too many distractions and at the end of the day - it just wasn't China.

My move to Shanghai left me isolated and focused. I began to work on producing features and promoting my work to magazines and newspapers around the world. My first few sales were to local expat magazines based within China. The pay was horrid, the edit was always bad and the experience left me frustrated and feeling hopeless. But I kept working at it and things got progressively better, a few jobs from the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and then a break through - a gig with the New York Times.

From June 2005 to August 2006 I had a part in producing about 30+ stories for the New York Times working with such excellent journalists as Shanghai based Howard W. French and David Barboza. The NYTimes is a great newspaper with perhaps some of the best international news coverage in the world. It was a fantastic experience working for them, and my 14 months being associated with that publication was like going through a four year bachelors degree in journalism.

And this takes me to where we are today - sitting in a hotel room in Paris, blogging. It is September 11, the five year anniversary of the attacks on the USA. I have the live broadcast from ground zero buzzing in the background while I work. I am exhausted after having just spent the last 8 days enjoying a photography festival in Perpignan, France - making contacts and promoting my work. I am excited about returning to Shanghai. My experience in Perpignan has left me incredibly motivated and ready for more work. My work schedule for the next few weeks is filling up. I'll hopefully blog often, but please be patient if a few days go by. Today has been good.

As for what tomorrow holds, watch this space.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle