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