Friday, June 29, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: China's War Against the Internet

As I sit here at my desk in Shanghai, China I am concerned by the war that is taking place inside China at the moment. For those who live here you know exactly what I am talking about, I am referring to the government's war against the internet.

Currently I am trying to upload images to my archive in NYC, I am getting a whopping 5.4KB/s and it's taking an average of 5-7 minutes per image to get this new work uploaded. When I was in Hong Kong last weekend for work I managed to upload about 100 megabytes of images in less than ten minutes; Hong Kong of course has free and un-censored internet access. China does not. But this isn't the whole story.

The government in China can be felt in every aspect of life, and that is to be assumed since China's ruling politicians continue to see the country as a "socialist" state. I use hyphens because sitting at my desk in Shanghai I can count no less than 17 buildings that seem to be greater than 40 stories high, and my apartment only faces north-east. It's clear that China's brand is a special kind of socialism.

But back to the war. The Chinese government owns and controls access to the internet. Meaning that they can block, slow down and shut down essentially anything they want. Sure there are proxies and such but they have been begun blocking the sites to download proxies. This all encompassing behavior by the PRC's government has lead to a mass of critical articles written by the world media, discussing things like "Net-Nannies" and "Cyber Cops"; and all these things are essentially true. There are rumors out there that some 40,000 people in China make a full time living from the government by surfing the web and fishing out "unacceptable" content. Sites like this one, are blocked, for example.

Now, let's move beyond that. Sure there will always be malicious content on the web that will be blocked in countries that rule in a one party system. There will be bloggers who disapprove of corruption, land seizures, web access, education, human rights and so on and so forth. All that, believe it or not, feels fairly standard for me after living in China for five years.

What I can't seem to tolerate is the government's heavy handed policy's on sites that don't directly criticize government actions. For example, the powers that be in China recently blocked But they didn't exactly block the site entirely, they just blocked the pictures - the website still operates and people can still log in and check their mail and contacts, etc. This is apparently in response to a some photographs that appeared on FLICKR after some police beat a woman selling food on the street in a city in central China.

So now FLICKR is being used as a political tool, perhaps not what its creators had intended. But let's look at who these creators are, oh that right. owns and operates FLICKR. And wasn't it just a few years back when Yahoo cooperated with the Chinese government and passed along secrete details about one man's email account that ended up getting that person imprisoned? Afterwards took an incredible amount of heat for their decision to cooperate, and now just a few years later this is how they are rewarded, by blocking the worlds most popular photo sharing website. It makes little sense.

Blocking sites, blocking pictures, slow FTP and obtaining personal information from web companies by threatening to shut down their China operations, are just some of the ways in which China is engaged in an all out war with the internet. Who will win, well I think the internet will win. People will always create new technology to stay one step ahead of Cisco System, the provider of most of China's Net Nannie equipment.

The real question, however, isn't who will win and who will lose, it's about the cost of this war. How many business suffer in China because of slow and impeded web access. How many good opinions are blocked when trying to isolate a few bad one's? How many beautiful pictures of China are blocked in relation to the one's from that protest and beating in Central China? Does all this just seem a little too paranoid? Does it seem like just a little too much? It does, I am sick of it. In the time it took to write this blog I have only been able to upload 4 images out of my batch of 30. Efficiency is king, and China is at the bottom end of that spectrum.

ps. I really hope this is the last time I have to write about my slow FTP problems in China.


Ryan Pyle

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Rules, What Rules?

I was witness to something last week that was shocking. And its my opinion that this incident, and behavior like it, is becoming more typical of China's elite.

Living in Shanghai, a bustling city of around 20 million, I am subject to witnessing a lot of different types of behavior. One type of behavior will be the subject of today's blog, my colleagues and I like to call it the "I'm above the law" syndrome. A typical description of this behavior might be when a member of China's new elite, a government official or wealthy business person, parks his new Porshe or BMW or Audi A6 in a "No Parking Zone". The problem with this is that there are police officers on every street corner in Shanghai directing traffic and the illegally parked car is quick to be ticketed. Should the owner or driver be in the immediate area when this is occurring a yelling match is often quick to follow. Emotions often run very high in big urban centers.

As I walk around this city on my weekends, doing a lot of street photography, I constantly see car owners yelling at police men. In many cases the car owners simply don't like being told what to do, they feel that because they drive a nice car, or any car at all, that they are above the law and can essentially do what they want. This is often the same for traffic laws as well. In all my travels in all the world I have never witnessed car owners (and drivers) yelling red-faced at traffic police officers. It's a new phenomenon in China, and it's my opinion that it's happening more often in China's larger cities where wealth flourishes.

Now, I frequently travel from Shanghai to Hong Kong. I do this for a variety of reasons from picking up camera gear to re-connecting with friends that I made when I was living there in 2002/2003. Because of my frequent visits to Hong Kong I am eligible for a Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) Frequent Visitors (FV) Card. It's nothing special, if you visit more than 3 times a year you are eligible and it essentially means that you don't have to wait in the passport check / immigration lines. It's a great service and its something it really makes my travel much much easier. I was in HKIA last Friday June 8th at 5pm. After checking in I was moving to the immigration section or passport checking area to depart Hong Kong. Upon entering the passport checking area I notice that the regular immigration line up was huge, luckily I reached for my HKIA FV Card and headed up to the desk. Just as I was about to enter the line I was gently nudged aside by 4 Chinese passport holders.

They seemed in a rush so I slowed my step and let them enter the line ahead of me. Things stayed calm until the attendant who administers the Frequent Visitor line determined that none of these Chinese folks had FV Cards. When the attendant asked the four Chinese passport holders to re-join the regular line for exiting Hong Kong the trouble started.

The HKIA attendant began to ask, in Mandarin, a series of questions very calmly. "Do you have a Frequent Visitors Card?" "Are you late for your flight?" "Why are you in such a rush?" It seemed like a very rational set of questions for a group of people who seemed most determined to jump the line.

The Chinese passport holders than began to ignore the HKIA attendant and as he continued to ask questions and try to demand answer the Chinese folks just snickered amongst themselves and one man was actually laughing. The only woman of the group actually raised her hand, as if to wave him off and get him to stop with the questions. This group of Chinese passport holders clearly didn't have the HKIA FV Card, and they didn't seem to care. It became obvious that they felt they had the complete right to jump the line.

After a few minutes the HKIA attendant gave up, and the Chinese passport holders jumped the line and passed through with nothing but a few dirty looks from the people in the regular line. I stood back in awe, what had I just been a witness to?

A group of four Chinese passport holders, dressed in business attire, had brought their "I'm above the law" attitude to the HKIA. In effect this attitude, which is all too common in China had just been exported to Hong Kong. I was disappointed. I feel its one thing for people to behave like that in their own country, but to export their air of superiority to a place like Hong Kong, which has a long and proud tradition of the Rule of Law, just didn't seem right.

Now the rule of law is weak in China and most people are aware of this. The law doesn't really protect human rights or property rights or really anything that matters. While the local governments have been quick to build massive court houses and legal administrative buildings, their actual capability to solve problems or administer law has been lacking. Now I agree that China's development has been the most rapid in human history and that when the economy grows this fast it's often the law that is left playing catch up, but what is troubling isn't that the courts are weak, it's that some people (mainly new elite) believe that the law doesn't apply to them or that they can throw money on the problem and it will go away.

A lot of you might think that I am making too much of this small incident at an airport, and perhaps I am. But if I am its because I am worried of an ever greater problem that I see just below the surface of incidents like this. I see a massive country producing wealth like there is no tomorrow. I see a country without any evidence of the Rule of Law. I see a small minority of the country who happen to be either politically connected or wealthy doing essentially what they want when they want and taking little or no regard for people around them. I see a country with a growing feeling of nationalism and an air of superiority that seems to be unchecked. This scares me.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Role of the THUG

The Chinese countryside is a vast and expansive place. Roughly 700 million people call the rural regions of China home and with most of the wealth and good jobs existing in the urban areas, a lot of rural people find themselves with a whole lot of nothing to do. So often jobs are created out of nothing, and people often sit around for weeks until something rouses their attention.

Enter the THUG.

A thug is, at least as part of my vocabulary, a Mafia-like term meaning essentially "The Muscle". The body guards, and/or guys who do the dirty work. We've all seen them before in movies like: Goodfella's, The Godfather and my personal favorite, Casino.

Thugs in China often operate within the gray area that exists between the government and private industry. They don't exactly work for the government but they protect the interests of government and private industry, which are essentially the same thing in the remote regions. Thugs in China can intimidate local people to move off their land, keep local people quiet of certain incidents or help run interference when foreign journalists visit to snoop around....among many other things.

A few weeks ago I found myself in a remote region of Shandong province, for those who may not be sure it's the large province that sits just north of Shanghai and south of Beijing. I was working on an assignment that was part of the large food and drug quality controls that exist in China.

When my writing partner and I arrived in a remote village in Shangdong we could tell right away that the thugs had arrived first, and succeeded in intimidating the locals. None of the local villagers would to talk with us. As we moved down the streets attempting to converse, people ran in to their homes and bolted up there front doors. It wasn't the friendly welcome I had been hoping for, and it made getting a decent quote difficult.

After snooping around factories, and talking to the few people who didn't run away from us, the thugs arrived. They were driving a black Honda with tinted black windows. (it's always usually a black VW Santana with tinted windows but it was clear that business was good in this village)

After they harassed our driver they turned to us. As they started hurling questions at us about who we were and what we were doing; we replied with only "Who are you?". And that question seemed too difficult to answer. The man in charge, looking eye to eye with me was wearing black leather lofers, white pants mildly too tight, and a snug white t-shirt that exposed a beer belly. He stood dumb founded. As we produced business cards indicated who we were and what we did for a living this man in white was silenced. He lingered on that he worked for the government but wasn't a government official, he could produce no business card - a true rarity in China. (Even taxi drivers have business cards!)

The lead thug then began with his mobile, a new Motorola Razor, talking to the propaganda department of the local country who's job it was to my life as difficult as possible. As he continued on the phone my writing partner and I decided to hit the road and get out of dodge, so to speak. The locals were tight lipped, the doors were bolted and the thugs were calling in back up. This wasn't going to have a happy ending.

As we drove away from the village we noticed that our black Honda was following us, in fact they were right behind us. As we paced along at 100km/hr our thugs were less than 20m behind us and didn't have the decency to leave at least one car between us, very clandestine. They followed us, for over an hour, until we left the county. And while they were intrusive and essentially ruined our reporting, they did not pose a real physical threat like the baseball bat and hammer carrying thugs in the movies.

I've been done in by thugs in the past, whether it was my assistant/translator getting detained in Kashgar for 24 hours, or getting stopped by 3 cars full of thugs in Sichuan province, and detained for a full day. It happens, sadly, too often. Rarely are they violent or aggressive. Mostly they just are there to deter or distract. Instead of carrying aluminum baseball bats they carry Motorola Razors and European Carryalls for men. They get in the way, make threats and scare the locals from talking to us. It's a brutal moment on any assignment, seeing that black VW Santana (or Honda) arrive and having two or three badly dressed large men get out of the car and walk towards we go, again.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Friday, May 11, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: China: Renewable Energy - Wind Power

China is sending a mixed message to the world, and the world is becoming increasingly impatient. While investing and promoting renewable energy within its borders, China has continually failed to make any progress in curbing its carbon emissions, which are set to move past the United States this year; making China the worlds number one polluter.

China's increasing energy needs are not slowing down, in fact they are increasing and in doing so they are beginning to catch headlines around the world as investment in oil rich Sudan, Nigeria, Venezuela and Iran are causing western countries to loath China's deep pockets, and their seemingly lack of investment conscience. But that is abroad, at home China is actually pursuing renewable energy, the problem is they haven't done anything to cut back on coal power or heavy industry. And therein lies the heart of the problem; China can develop as much renewable energy as it likes, but without serious policy on stopping the polluting that existing, nothing will really change.

While change is stagnant on the ground, China continues to grasp headlines stating that by 2020 China expects to supply about 10 percent of its energy needs from various forms of renewable energy, meaning: wind, solar, hydro electric and biomass. That is a significant increase given China's miniscule starting point. But more important than statistics and headlines is that Chinese law makers, while avoiding making missed pollution targets a serious offense, have passed a law in February 2006 that formalizes many incentives and clear targets for increased power generation from renewable sources. The most significant section of this new law may indeed be that China's provincial governments will be required by law to purchase a certain percentage of their required electricity from alternative providers, even when the cost is greater.

This law has essentially guaranteed the existence of the renewable energy industry in China, wind and solar power have been the biggest beneficiaries. Wind power farms are being erected throughout China at a dizzying pace and domestic suppliers are rushing in to the industry to supply this need but beware, there is a bottle neck looming. Currently China's antique power grid is incapable of handling this increase in energy production, its grid is incapable of automatically re-routing electricity from one region to another as supply and demand fluctuate. This makes taking full advantage of a large investment in renewable energy almost impossible in the short term.

Although there are barriers China, the country is still home to 16 of the worlds 20 most polluted cities and things must begin to change. Even with all the problems that exist, it's held that China has the most wind power potential of any country in the world, taking into account its inland and offshore sites; and that is enough to get the ball rolling. With that in mind I have begun a long term project on China's push to integrate renewable energy. With this report I will try to show that China is suffering from a multiple personality disorder, by promoting and offering subsides for re-newable energy on the one hand, and on the other missing pollution reduction targets and generally being unable to control general pollution and carbon emissions.

More on this to come. Watch this space.
In completing the start of the project I have visited the provinces of Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia with more work scheduled in summer 2007.


Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Interview: University of Toronto Magazine

I was recently the subject of a feature for the University of Toronto Magazine. They wanted to do a piece on a former graduate who had gone and done something interesting after graduation. The editor felt my story qualified.

The interview took place via email at the end of march 2007.

I am posting my question and answer session for two reasons: 1) I thought that people who read my blog might have similar questions for me, and this is a nice way for people to learn more about me and my work. 2) I don't know how severe the edit will be when the magazine comes out, and I want people to see my complete replies and the full interview.

Happy reading.

University of Toronto Magazine
Writer: Scott Anderson

Question 1: How long have you been taking photographs? Did you do any photojournalism while you were attending U of T?

I have been actively taking pictures since 2001. It all began when I arrived in China for the first time in the fall of 2001, after graduating from U of T earlier that summer. Before that first trip I had not had any real desire or interest in taking pictures. That trip was my first real experience with photography. Looking back I feel that China, both with its vast size and diversity, has motivated me to pick up the camera and try to tell its stories. Had I traveled to other countries or had other experiences I may not have decided to pursue this career. It is China itself that motivated me, and it is China that has become entirely my focus.

I did absolutely no photojournalism while I was attending U of T. While I was at U of T I played Varsity Basketball, and during those four years I lived in a bubble; which is the way most athletes live while they are in school. You go to class, you go to practice and you go home and study; and if you have any free time you sleep. I endured about four years of that, and while I had some incredible experiences as a basketball player, there wasn’t much of a chance to explore outside of that box I was in. While photography did interest me as a medium of story telling while I was at school, it wasn’t until after graduation and my first experiences abroad that I became interested in picking up a camera and making my first attempts at understanding life through the lens of a camera.

Question 2: Can you give me a quick précis of your career post U of T?

Photography can be a painful career to get started in. Essentially photographers are self-employed and most depend on media outlets (magazines / newspapers) to provide us with work. In the early going one can go for months without work, and paychecks are few and far between. My start in this industry was equally brutal. I traveled around China looking for stories, scrapped together enough money to buy cameras and film by teaching English every now and then; I shared apartments with complete strangers and basically had a very difficult first two or three years in the business. In 2004 I made my initial breakthrough with some travel magazines that were interested in features from China. In early 2005 I had my bigger break through when I began to cover China for the New York Times. Based on my work for the NYT I have been able to catch the attention of other magazines and newspapers including Foreign Policy Magazine, Sunday Times Travel, Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times Magazine and Der Spiegel Magazine in Germany.

Question 3: When did you arrive in China? Why did you choose to base yourself there? (Would you call China your base?)

I first arrived in China in September 2001. My first trip was one of absolute curiosity. After taking Professor Falkenheim’s Introduction to Modern China class in my second year at U of T I had always been curious about China. After reading a selection of Jonathan Spence’s books and coming to grips with the history, it just seemed like a place I could not afford to miss out on. So in September 2001 I packed my bags and did a three-month solo trip through China. I visited or transited through every province and had some of my most memorable journeys on that first trip; some of which will hopefully be published in a written book sometime soon. After that initial three month trip I returned home for one month, said goodbye to my family and moved to China. It was the toughest decision I have had to make, but my time working in China has been the most rewarding experience of my life.

I may be bias, but I think China is the most interesting country on the planet. I decided to live and work here based mainly on my early experiences in the country when I was traveling. The country is incredibly large and diverse. Each province has its own style of food, its own language dialect and in some cases even its own variations on religion. Actually traveling around China can feel like traveling in six or seven different countries, and some provinces are larger than Western Europe. That coupled by the fact that the country growing so quickly, I knew there would be difficulties or gaps in the advancement that would important to document, and that is what I have spent much of my time and energy working on since my arrival.

Lastly, I wouldn’t call China my base; China is very much my permanent home. Apart from being six feet tall and white, I feel rather well integrated in society. I live in Shanghai and travel from my home there to work on my documentary photography work in other remote parts of the country.

Question 4: What's it like living in China right now? What are the major challenges?

Living in China right now is a truly unique experience, it is a country filled with contradictions. Incredible growth and wealth coupled by incredibly poverty and inequality. Walking the streets of Shanghai on the weekends I’ll easily see 50 Mercedes’ Benz and a few Ferraris, all owned by local Chinese who have made their riches navigating the new form of capitalism that exists here. Then after that I can walk in to a small noodle shop and talk with a man who has just lost his job at a state owned factory and doesn’t have enough money to put his child through school. As I mentioned earlier, China’s rush to become a modern state is full of good and bad and there are many growing pains that pop up in the midst of this rapid advancement. These growing pains are what keep me here. They provide me with much of my professional interest.

On a personal level the major challenges with living in China is the noise, air quality and language. The entire country is under construction. Dust fills the air, new highways and apartment blocks are being built on a monthly basis and factories are working overtime to supply the world with manufactured goods. Apart from the noise and the pollution levels I have also found the language to be a difficult barrier to life in China. While my language study does continue progress it is a formidable initial barrier to living and working in China.

On a professional level the major challenges in China are government interference. The Chinese government in Beijing has basically accepted that fact that foreign journalists are going to travel around rural China and unearth corruption, illegal land seizures, AIDS, and pollution. But unfortunately Beijing has little or no control over the provinces, and the harassment by local government officials, local thugs and local police out in the provinces makes working in China difficult from time to time.

Question 5: Many of your photo stories have a political bent: migrant workers, 15th anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre. Does this reflect a personal philosophy or intention? Does it have anything to do with your academic work at U of T?

The domestic media in China is not free; in fact there is no freedom of the press in China at any level. This basically means that if it weren’t for foreign journalists, and small handful of very brave local journalists who defy the rules, there would be almost no news about what is really happening in China. Let me try to clarify exactly what I mean. First of all, I am not out on a witch-hunt. China is implementing a lot of great policy as it develops, but with that being said there is also a lot going on beneath the surface that is less flattering and doesn't get reported on in the domestic media.

For example, the world’s biggest shopping mall gets built in China, the domestic media is covering the story and talk about what a great achievement this is for China; but they forget to cover the fact that 100 farmers were kicked off their land to build the shopping mall and those farmers have not been compensated properly, because of government corruption, for their loss of land and loss of future income, and now they are begging in the streets or working manual labor jobs to support their children’s educational fees. That is where the foreign journalists have a responsibility to try to tell the complete story in an objective way.

I focused on the migrant worker story because I thought it was important to look at the effects on farmers as the Three Gorges Dam reservoir as it began to fill. A few million people have had to relocate because of the rising water levels and I wanted to take a look at where were these farmers were ending up and what were they doing. It turns out many of them were living on the streets in big urban centers doing manual labor for US$2 a day.

As for the photo story on the Tiananmen Square, I wanted to look at life in Tiananmen Square 15 years after the government crackdown on student protestors. The images themselves are not very political at all, but when you realize that the government in Beijing has still not yet openly acknowledged that the attacks or massacre even occurred, and that scores of students were killed, the pictures can take on a different meaning.

My academic work at U of T taught me how to think and see issues or stories from different angles, and that is critical to my work today. I graduated with BA as a Politics Specialist in International Politics; and while I am still trying to understand exactly what that means I basically covered classes in Political Theory, Domestic Politics, International Politics, History and Economics. I feel my academic work at U of T prepared me very well for my experiences in China. There are a lot of Machiavellian government officials in rural China at the moment, and having a context to put them in is very helpful.

Question 6: You certainly get around: Iran, Tibet, China, Hong Kong. Do you choose these places or are you sent there on assignment? How do you choose where/what you want to shoot?

I would say my work at the moment is about 70/30, about a third of the time I choose where I want to go and the rest of the time I get sent places. The 70% that I get commissioned is great, I know I’ll get an interesting story to work on, I know I’ll get to work with a great writer, there will be an operations budget and I know I’ll get a paycheck at the end of it. The other 30% of the time I find and develop stories on my own, I bankroll them myself and I gamble that at some stage the images and the story will be strong enough that someone out there in the media world will feel, as I do, that this is something important and needs to be published.

When I first started my career I thought it would be exciting to travel around the Middle East, Africa and Asia shooting great assignments for magazines. But I grew out of that pretty quickly, the world is big and I am not interested in trying to photograph everything I see everywhere. In fact all I want to do is document life in China. While I do travel extensively in China, I rarely leave the country and I choose assignments within China over assignments outside of China.

Question 7: Tell me about one of your favorite assignments? Is there one you're most proud of? Which has gotten you the most recognition?

I would say that my favorite assignment was also the one I am most proud of and it earned me to most recognition. Let me explain:

I was headed to Anhui province in central China with the New York Times. The objective of the trip was to come out with two strong stories. One story was to cover the poor quality of rural health care in the region and the other was to be on bird flu in China, which was a topic of interest at that time (Nov.2005). Just to put it in context Anhui province is about 500 km west of Shanghai and it is a notoriously corrupt and dodgy place. Not so friendly to foreign visitors looking for a story.

After arriving by plane in the capital Hefei and hiring a driver we were out in to the countryside quickly. Our first task was to find a village in a remote area of the province that was carrying out bird flu vaccinations. A week before we left to do this story the Chinese Government came out and said that they were going to inoculate all of their 14.2 billion birds against bird flu; that sounded a bit fishy. Throughout its history China has embraced the grand scale project to solve “the problem”, while smaller projects with more localization would have been more prudent. Needless to say on the ground things were a mess. We found that un-trained men were inoculating birds using the same needle. That’s right. Several hundred birds were inoculated with the same needle, insuring that any bird that didn’t have bird flu would have a much higher chance by the end of the ordeal. The reason was that the government didn’t give the local county enough money for one needle per bird. Also there was some discrepancy about where the medicine came from and whether or not it was even real, or whether it was actually the medicine suggested by the World Health Organization. After we reported on this and interviewed some of the people involved we were detained by local officials. One of the farmers had called a local official to tell him a bunch of foreigners were snooping around taking pictures. The local officials tried to detain us and take our passports but they didn’t have the authority to do so and we wrote them off and left. Later that night we were detained again after coming back from dinner, the police officers were waiting for us in our hotels rooms. But through all that government interference we were able to come out with a Front Page story for the New York Times, which showed China’s inadequate and disorganized response to this incredibly serious global issue.

The second story was much more personal. It was the story of Jin Guilian. A man who was lying in a bed dying because good health care wasn’t available in his town. The building he was in was said to be a hospital but it was anything but, it was essentially a place people came to die or recover. There was no health care being administered at all. Jin Guilian suffered from a Ventricular Septal Defect, which is a curable heart ailment, but he could not afford to travel to Shanghai to get the treatment he needed and he was dying, and his family was there to comfort him. The idea of the story was to remind people that with all the money being pumped in to China, with the record-breaking height of new office buildings, the new five star hotels and Olympic stadiums being built; hundreds of millions of people in China live without adequate health care. And the story of Jin Guilian was used to emphasize this point. The gap between the rich and poor in China is a potentially destabilizing factor that China needs to take much more seriously. People in the cities are getting rich while those left in the rural regions are falling further behind. The story of Jin Guilian was also Front Page story for the New York Times.

These two stories, and their tough reporting style helped me earn some recognition among photography editors at other magazines and newspapers. It showed that I could approach difficult subjects and produce strong photojournalism stories. The forty-eight hours I spent in Anhui province taught me a lot about life in China, and the experience kind of put me on the map as being a dedicated photojournalist living in China.

Question 8: Why do you take photos? What are you trying to capture in your pictures?

This is always a difficult question to answer. I want to take pictures to record a moment in history. I try to walk a fine line between art and journalism, attempting to produce images that are composed in way that makes them pleasing to look at as well as important as a larger part of a story.

I try to capture a moment. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but if I can capture a still moment amongst the chaos of everyday life that someone can look at and draw some kind of emotion from then I will feel as though I have done my job as a photographer.

Question 9: Who are your best-known clients? Your web site lists New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, Der Spiegel Magazine. You do both corporate and editorial work. Do you have a preference?

My best-known client is the New York Times, they have given me a fantastic platform to show my work and develop as a photographer. I also do some corporate work from time to time, large corporations often need images from China for various advertising or internal purposes and I also provide these services. But I much prefer my journalism work, it is much more rewarding and leaves me feeling like I have really accomplished something at the end of the day.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Nachtwey's TED Talk

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design.

Essentially it's a prize funded by the Sapling Foundation which was funded by a media mogul, you can get the full story here:

Every year TED (a US$100,000 prize) is given away to 3 people, or better put, 3 unique story tellers or innovators.

In 2007 James Nachtwey was nominated and was one of the three winners.

If anyone out there takes our profession seriously, I think his acceptance speech is worth watching. But that's just my opinion, and I am known to be highly opinionated.

You can view, via streaming media, or download Nachtwey's acceptance speech at

Like I said, it's well worth a view - and a few minutes of reflection after its finished.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Brave New World: USA Today's New Day Rate

Good day,

USA Today just introduced its new day rate today, along with its new contract. See below.

My comments: It's an increasingly sad world out there for photographers who believe in working and keeping their own copy write. Big Business is taking over and squeezing the photographers right out of the business. This is essentially because of an increase in the supply of imagery. Digital photography combined with an increase in the sheer number of photographers that exist today have flooded the industry. That is coupled by the massive increase in media outlets and the diversification of advertising budgets among many mediums, no longer just print. Is the end is near? Is the future really this bleak?

The last 10 years has generally seen an increase in the number of photographers working worldwide. And this has essentially been a good development. Because consumers of news see more, understand more and generally more photographers pointing their cameras at more issues is helpful. BUT, I bet you in the next 10 years people will start walking away from the industry completely. With grossly un-favorable contracts being the norm these days, why should someone with a University Education struggle to make US$20,000 a year dealing with editors, who are being squeezed by management, and obscene contracts. In a lot of ways, it just isn't worth the trouble.

The USA Today Contract is below:
A new USA Today contract increases the day rate for freelance photographers by $100, but in return demands the right to use photos in any medium forever, including and any other Gannett publication.

The action reflects a scramble among newspaper and magazine companies to make their content available in electronic formats, including Web sites and mobile devices. But as part of the change, Gannett is asking freelancers to green-light the use of their images in any of the 90 newspapers, 23 TV stations, 130 Web sites and hundreds of other publications the publishing giant owns.

"Our new agreement reflects the multiplatform world," says Frank Folwell, the deputy managing editor who oversees photography and graphics at USA Today. "Newspaper companies are media companies now. We have to proceed for the future....We tried to put together an agreement as fairly as we could."

Among the publishers who have made similar changes to their contributor contracts this year is Nielsen Business Media, owner of PDN.

Some photographers have already responded sourly to the USA Today contract. "I would not sign it," says Mark Loundy, a photojournalist and multimedia editor who has seen both the old and new contracts. He says USA Today is taking a "major step backwards," adding, "The publishing industry wants the control they get with full time staffers without giving them job security or benefits."

Photographers who debated the new contract on a message board weighed the downside of a "rights grab" against the upside of the improved day rate, which compares favorably to other newspapers.

However, because of a reduction in other fees, the new day rate may be less of a benefit than it seems.

The new contract, which went into effect April 1, pays a day rate of $375, up from $275. The old contract also paid a $100 transmission fee for up to six digital images plus $10 for each additional image, but that fee has been reduced to a flat $25 in the new contract.

Under the old terms, USA Today paid freelancers an extra $100 when their photos ran on and between $50 and $200 each time a photo was reprinted in the newspaper. The new contract pays no extra fees for online use or print reuse.

As before, freelancers retain the copyrights to their photos and can license them to someone else after a period of exclusivity. The old contract asked for 60 days of exclusivity while the new contract lowers that period to 30 days.

Here is the most significant language added to the new contract for assigned freelance photography:

"You grant USA TODAY, Gannett Co., Inc., and their respective affiliated companies and licensees the right to reproduce, distribute, display, alter, retouch, adapt, modify, transmit, edit, crop and otherwise use and reuse the Works for any purpose and in any manner or medium throughout the world in perpetuity without additional compensation in connection with any publication, website, television station broadcast, or other product or service offered, operated and/or owned by a Gannett Entity. For the purposes of this Agreement, a 'Gannett Entity' means Gannett Co. Inc., USA TODAY, and their respective subsidiaries, affiliates, and affiliated companies, including, but not limited to, their publications, websites and television stations."

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Destruction of Xishuangbanna

Deforestation & Global Warming in China's South

"Xishuangbanna is known as a beautiful, abundant place; if the forests are destroyed then in the future it will become a desert, we Communists will go down in history as criminals, and later generations will rebuke us." Zhou Enlai, 1961 in Jinghong City.

Xishuangbanna is a very small autonomous region in China's southwestern Yunnan province. The district of Xishuangbanna makes up China's portion of the Golden Triangle, a large jungle and opium growing region that includes Laos, Thailand as well as Burma. Xishuangbanna has always been a remote place. It was home to one of the most pristine rain forests in the region; home to many unique species of plant and animal life living in a carefully balanced environment. But that was the past and things have changed.

In the 1950s the Communist Party began looking at Xishuangbanna for economic development. Roads needed to be made for cross border traffic with Laos & Burma. The minority people in the region needed to be lifted out of abject poverty, and so begun the policy of slash and burn agriculture. Jungles were destroyed (burned) en-mass, replaced with cash crops like sugar cane, tea and rubber trees. Over 50 years after this policy began, I made my first visit to the region, and it was devastating.

After landing in Jinghong, the regional capital, I made my way south to explore the remote areas near the border of Burma. Previous areas that had shown on my map as jungle were anything but. New highways, new tea plantations, new rubber tree plantations are everywhere. There was no pristine natural jungle to be found. Everywhere I turned I was witness to mans assault on nature.

At night after dinner I would walk around in small villages and witness the new found wealth: farmers with mobile phones, every home at a motorcycle and one family even had a 25 inch television, floor speakers, and a new DVD player. While it is true these people deserve the right to improve their quality of living, the engine for their improvement must be sustainable. It is clear now that the cost of this development is just too great, as is the same with other parts of the country.

After my early evening walks I would sit on the front porch of the home I was staying in. As the sun began to set the early evening burn would begin. With the light fading the hills around me became ablaze. By morning most of the fires had already gone out, but left hanging in the air was an all consuming smoke clogging up the valleys and suffocating everyone and anything that lives in the region.

As early as the 1961 the central government in Beijing knew that burning the jungle in Xishuangbanna who lead to massive deforestation, soil erosion and temperature rises. Zhou Enlai's comments during an official visit in 1961 are evidence of this knowledge, but recognition never means action and Xishuangbanna has suffered.

The devastating effects of government policies on land use have endangered the tropical rain forests beyond repair. Temperature rises, soil erosion and dust are now evident almost everywhere. While the government has roped off certain protected areas for national parks, they are small and their motivation is completely tourist driven offering such services as elephant rides and cable cars rides through the jungle. Besides, the nature parks won't last long if everything around them gets slashed and burned, because as the regional temperature increases the environment within the protected areas with also change dramatically. But that seems to be beyond anyone's forethought.

Xishuangbanna is an excellent example of the devastation government economic policy can cause. And while local farmers are enjoying increased revenue from cash crops, they lack the education and experience to understand that in 30 years all of Xishuangbanna will be a dust bowl. I'll be sure to go back and do the story in 2037 about the Chinese government tourism bureau offering up camel rides on the sand dunes of what was once a topical rain forest. Buy your ticket now.

You can view the photo story at Enter the archive.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Three Gorges Dam Policy

I recently returned from the Three Gorges Dam in Central China. The dam is perhaps the most talked about dam in the history of dams. Which is why I thought I would share some of these findings with you.

First of all the dam is huge.I don't want to bore you with monster statistics, but the dam is setting records in almost every category there is for dam building, dam use and dam electrical production. It's turbines are the biggest, it's reservoir is the longest, it's daily electrical output is the most of any other dam in the world. The Three Gorges Dam, however environmentally damaging, is an impressive engineering accomplishment.

Most of all that I already knew. What I didn't know is an interesting pice of policy about the dam, and that is that all the ships that go through the dam must be empty. Meaning that boats need to empty there cargo before entering the locks. To my knowledge this is the only dam in the world that has this policy.

The reason for this policy is that the regulators are afraid of possible explosions occurring near the dam, the bottom line is that the Chinese are paranoid about domestic terrorism. And this fear may be valid, a lot of people who live in China are not necessarily the most happy people in the world, but that doesn't mean they maintain the capability to blow up a dam. But then no body thought airplanes would be used to bring down the World Trade Centers.

So all day and all night boats unload there cargo, pass through the locks and re-load there cargo on the other side. Trucks then race through villages at all hours transporting the boat cargo back and forth; is it a waste or the future of dam security?

Boat operators don't seem to mind too much. Some say that they don't like the delays but in the end, for those traveling up stream, the trip lasts about the same amount of time, because once they pass through the dam they can usually make up a lot of time because they don't have to fight the currant any longer. For those traveling down stream, it can be a significant delay.

Well that's all I have for today. A bit of Chinese policy to chew on.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Corporate Media or Corporate Agent?

I got an email in December '05 about a corporate job. It was for a large multinational company (MNC) but the person who contacted me was not from the MNC but from a European Corporate Media company who was in charge of putting together the project, from hiring photographers to putting together the layout and getting it all printed. They were basically a one stop shop for corporate projects.

Anyways, a few emails go back and forth and we begin to lock down a date and price. I was offered a one day rate of US$550 per day, plus an extra US$250 for make-up and studio rental. It was a one day shoot and the job required me to organize a series of portraits, requiring a studio, lights and make-up and the whole nine.

So I started thinking. Corporate Media + MNC DOES NOT = US$550 per day. Something must be up. Jobs like this, where you don't have to travel to other cities should be in that US$1500-2500 range. Add the Corporate Media and a monster MNC, and I reckon I was getting ripped off. The bargaining began.

I bargained hard enough not too insult. I got the price raised up to about US$800. Still well well well below market rate. But I decided to take the job. It was corporate, I could use the practice and my schedule was wide open. I have never really felt very comfortable in the studio so I always jump at the chance to confront my fears and get over it. Had I been busier I may have passed but cash is cash any way you cut it.

So I took the job, it went smoothly. Corporate Media was happy and massive MNC was happy. I felt a little shunned by getting low-balled on the fee but I shook it off and moved on to my next project.

A few weeks later someone working in Asia for the MNC contacted me personally. This was not someone who had dealth with the Corporate Media company, that was all Europe based. But, that's right, someone from the massive MNC who had got my contact details from the web. They wanted to thank me for all of my work and they insisted that I travel to another city in Asia to complete another shoot of similar style. This was a job offer that had not gone through Europe, it was Asia based. I stopped for a moment to think, should I be dealing directly with the client? Is this a no-no?

Is the Corporate Media company that first contacted me my agent for this large MNC? Should all contact with the large MNC go through them? I had signed no contract, there was no 70/30 or 60/40 split for assignments fees negotiated. I thought to myself what should I do.

I decided that a Corporate Agent is someone who you have a contract with, as well as pre-negoiated terms. For example, people who work with Getty and Corbis will be on a 70/30 or a 60/40 split for the photographer. Meaning that the agent will bargain high: US$2500 per day and pay the photographer 70% of that fee, while the agency retains the rest. This usually does not include expenses which are extra.

But a Corporate Media company is an institution who brings me a job, with an incredible client, but there is no contract and no talk about a revenue split or percentages. This is a Corporate Media company that initially offered me US$550 per day when they were hiring me out for about US$2500 per day. That is about a 20/80 split in favor of the Corporate Media company.

So, my dilemma. Do I deal directly with the massive MNC, negotiate my own contract and get paid properly while keeping a large MNC happy, OR do a stay loyal to a Corporate Media company that profited from me, but introduced me to the client in the first place?

My basic question is: Does a 20/80 split in favor of a Corporate Media company include client exclusivity? Without a doubt I respect the client exclusivity for my Corporate Agents who I have a 70/30 split with. But this job came through Asia not Europe, it was from someone outside of the loop with the Corporate Media company and the head office of the MNC. It is a difficult and delicate situation.

But can this European based Corporate Media company claim WORLD WIDE client exclusivity offering up prices/rates/splits like that? Even when the job is asian based and not Europe based?

What should I do? What would you do?

Your thoughts?

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Comfort Factor

I was reading another photographers blog last week and he was going on and on about how he likes to approach each of his assignments. He first mentioned that he liked to find a story that meant something to him, then make all the calls and get everything set up so he is nice and comfortable; so that everyone understands exactly what he is doing and then he just has to worry about the shooting.

Wow, in an ideal world. What a life. Sounds like heaven.

I couldn't help but being blown away but this guys statements. Now before I go on, I am mentioning this because I envy this person with every inch of my soul. When we all grow up and want to be photographers first we all want to run around the world shooting in every which way - then finally we slow and settle and try to work as this above mentioned blogger.

In China however, there are several factors that don't exactly add up when trying to sort out a job and shooting schedule. First of all, I can count all my assignments on just one hand where I have actually been able to call ahead an arrange a visit. Second, in most cases I am thrown out of where I want to shoot after a few minutes - or I am detained immediately without even a shot. Lastly, if I am lucky enough to get an uninterrupted 10-20 minutes of shooting time I have the fear that the local thugs are just around the corner once I exit - so they can administer yet another passport check. Painful.

It's almost when I walk in to a location to shoot, it's like jeopardy. That clock just starts ticking away, "don't stay too long", "keep moving", "everyone here has a mobile phone, I am going to get caught up for sure".

Out of all the countries in the world that we (photographers/writers) choose to work in, I have heard that Russia and Central Asia are horrible. A close second is Africa, a good writer friend of mine often says that he used to get fined use for breathing when he landed in rural airstrips; and lastly is China.

Now, we all have our niche. We all have different tolerance and comfort levels and we all pursue different types of work. A lot of people think it is really rough working in China, and that the levels of bureaucracy just wear you down and shorten careers (and life expectancy!)....but to be honest, it's not that bad. After 5 years of working in China I have become used to the "normal" interruptions. But I don't pretend in a minute that I could handle working in Africa or parts of the Middle East; that falls well outside my comfort level. For example, I can't tolerate guns of any sort. Comfort basically amounts to what you know and what you have grown up with, and my career has mainly been in China. This is where I have learned, and this is where I feel most comfortable. Asking me to work in Africa may yield lovely images, but my ability to work and operate there could never be as good as someone who started there career and continued to work there.

I would love to hear from a few people on their horrible experiences while traveling - and where they think there comfort level is at?

As I move out of my "hitch hiking around china with a camera" phase and move in to my "hire and land rover and take my time" phase it's interesting to hear from other people what their ideal or regular working situations are like.

And no matter what anyone says on this blog, I still envy that guy's blog whom I mentioned at the opening. I would love to be able to call up an AIDS Clinic in Henan Province in Central China, hop on a plan and shoot without interference for days on end. But that kind of stuff just doesn't happen here. What's it like in your neck of the woods?

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: Shenzhen: The Death of a Dream

The dream is over. I repeat, the dream is over.

For those of us who grew up studying American history, we can all remember back to those lazy days in May. School was almost finished for the year and your teacher was busy mumbling something about Manifest Destiny. We sat in our stuffy history class rooms, starred out the window and dreamt of summer bliss. Ah, Manifest Destiny and the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. A brief: in the mid-late 1800s hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people moved from the east coast of the United States to take their chances in the wild west, basically anywhere west of Virgina, were mythes of free land and gold wealth circulated like wild fire.

Ah, free land is good, but it was the gold that really caught people's attention, while it was true that you could make a decent living mining or prospecting for gold - it was most often the case that unless you struck it big or had some connections, life was most likely better back in the east or settling and farming somewhere on the interior where the government was giving away free land.

Oh, but the excitement of possibly striking it big. What is it about human nature that makes us love to roll the dice?

I recently made a trip to Shenzhen in an effort to better understand this bizarre city and designated Special Economic Zone of China. Shenzhen was essential created out of thin air in 1980 during an Opening and Reform period led by Deng Xiaoping a reform minded Chinese leader who wanted to set the country in a new direction after years of mismanagement by Mao and his followers. Before that Shenzhen had just been a sleepy fishing village on the border of a British held Hong Kong. In fact, prior to 1980 Shenzhen had been purposely underdeveloped by the Chinese government for fear that the British would attempt a further land grab. The building began in 1980 and no one really knew what to expect.

Fast forward to 1990. Shenzhen has become a manufacturing hub and it's close proximity to Hong Kong has made it a location that international businesses are willing to use to manufacture products and ship them around the world suing Hong Kong's first class port facility. Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese investment was massive. Suddenly, labor became the biggest problem as these companies couldn't find enough people to work for them. It was at about this time that the rumors began.

The 1990s will really be remember as the hey-day of Shenzhen, because this is really when Shenzhen became China's wild west. Rumors of people going from rags to riches began to circulate among the farming villages in rural China, as far as Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

Everybody had a friend who knew somebody who went to Shenzhen and got a job as a factory worker, was promoted to a manager and then made it big, bought a house and maybe even has a driver. And so the masses fled. Anyone over the age of 17 who could scrap together enough money jumped on a bus to Shenzhen to roll their dice. The results have been mixed of course.

With money clearly flowing in to Shenzhen much of it was not re-invested on people: workers were cheap and exploitable and there were daily bus loads of people arriving willing to replace anyone doing anything. The result was working conditions were brutal, where ever money could be saved, it was. People were hurt on the job and given no compensation, perhaps maybe a bus ticket home if anything. People quit and some in search of other alternatives turned to crime. With so many migrant workers in and around Shenzhen, theft and gangsterism were easy career choices for those with loose morals. Shenzhen really was beginning to look like the wild west.

Enter 2006, the year I visited Shenzhen with the intention of getting under its skin. I had visited several times before but never with enough time to really learn about what's going on.

Shenzhen is a growing metropolis. Skyscrapers are being built in every direction and five star hotels are littered throughout the city. This is a far cry from the fishing village that existed 26 years ago. Shenzhen has a lot to boast about, and an interview with the mayor proved that, the city was flooded with investment, numbers were up and things were running smoothly. Shenzhen is also home to China's largest middle class and the city has the highest average salary of anywhere in China. Those are incredible statistics for a city that was created out of thin air, or as the locals call it "A city with no history".

But with the growing middle class come representation and that is causing a problem that I will save for another discussion.

What wasn't addressed by the mayor, or his followers is what is happening to the low class migrant workers. Well they are still turning up by the bus load, even though the good times have past. Most migrants who show up in Shenzhen now have to borrow money to leave their village, and borrow money to live in Shenzhen for a few weeks while finding a job. Then they have to borrow more money to pay a "job agent" to get them an interview with one of the big factory bosses so they can get that long awaited job. By the time these young men and women even start working, they can often be in debt US$200-500 which can be more than 6 months salary once they start working. It's safe to say the situation is bleak.

Once in the job most workers don't last long. Hours are long and conditions are harsh, but the excitement of moving away from the family and having a chance to live one's own life is thrilling, for a time being. After 6 months or a year, sometimes two, people move back home or move in to other industries or are lucky and find office jobs in the city center. But there are many who fall between the cracks and begin a life of crime or, in an increasing number of cases, a life of prostitution.

Howard, my writing partner, managed to speak with a woman who had come to Shenzhen with dreams of gold rush riches, but her reality was much different. She had worked for a factory at the beginning, her job was fairly easy to find but her boss was impossible. She hated it. A combination of debt and limited work opportunities lead to prostitution, and this is where we found her. In Shenzhen there is a neighborhood that is exclusively for prostitutes and in fact it's called "prostitute village". She was a virgin when she began, and had no idea of even how to use a condom or even have sex for that matter. She had been working there for a year now. She wanted to go home.

For the people in rural China, the harsh life in Shenzhen hasn't affected their spirits. They still want out, anything is better than being at home on the farm, where in many cases they can't even find a wife let alone a job. As for the gold rush, other cities in the Pearl River Delta and along coastal China are now becoming mini gold rushes. Shenzhen is no longer the only game in town, and that is a good thing. As cities and companies compete for China's massive labour market, they will have to increase the standard of working conditions, which will hopefully mean less people falling through the cracks; it will also mean more expensive shirts, shoes, lighters, watches and just about everything we touch, use, read or program in our day to day life.

After my stay in Shenzhen it was clear that among the low class migrant workers, the sense of euphoria had long passed. All that was left was increased debt, no savings, poor working conditions and no prospects at home to return to. In a country growing at 10.5% its amazing that there are so few options for the migrants workers from rural China; enter the complete neglect of education and healthcare in the countryside since 1980.

China's economic boom is now moving in multiple directions and manufacturing is just one of them. While Shenzhen's best days are far from over, it's time as being a buzz word for wealth and prosperity amongst those in rural China is fading fast. Shenzhen is no longer a mythical place where anything can happen. It's just a city, and for someone who is un-educated and un-skilled, it can be a brutal place; just like any other normal big city.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: SLOW FTP


I thought I was going to leave behind the topic of slow internet connections, but alas I have been screwed again.

I am living in my own communications hell.

I am not sure if the problems I am experiencing these last few days are still related to the earthquake in southern Taiwan almost a month ago, or if the Chinese government tech geeks are getting smarter about blocking FTP transfers. Let me explain:

I woke up on Wednesday January 17th with an exciting email. It was from a magazine in the USA that needed a few shots immediately. This kind of opportunity is great, to let a reliable client know that you can shoot an assignment on short notice, nail it and then get everything edited, captioned and sent off within their deadlines. Even the subject matter was really interesting. Like I said a great opportunity.

So I get out and complete the shoot. It all went well and I was pleased with the results. Another hour or so to caption everything and edit a bit, then it comes the time to upload them to my archive. I keep an archive that is hosted in the USA. This allows me to upload it once, and FTP the story out many times if it is purchased in multiple markets. And therein lies the problem, I can't FTP anything to the USA or Europe. It was shocking. I tried to FTP about 20 megs worth of images and the completion time indicated that it would take about 1 day and 14 hours....for 20 megs....nothing was making sense.

Then I tried to upload something else directly to a client just to see if the problem was with my archive or not, and I got a similar response.....for a 1.2meg Jpeg file it took 52 minutes to upload. Amazing.

So I was in a tight spot and had to get these pictures to my clients. Luckily I was able to zip them and attach them to email files and deliver them that way.....I was lucky there was an alternative.

Now, I know there must be some of you out there reading this who work in Pakistan or Sri Lanka or parts of Africa who think 52 minutes for a 1 meg file is great.....but let me remind you, I am sitting in my modern/western high rise apartment in Shanghai, China......supposedly China's most developed and advanced city, hell the city has a MagLev train that can travel 430km/hr, but I can't upload a dam picture in less than 50 minutes.

I am at a loss for words. Today I was planning to upload some more images to a client, this time about 100 megs and to attach all of those to emails would take hours. I have found an alternative by using a file transfer service called "" - it has been a life saver. I recommend it to everyone.

But the real point is that I've been sidelined, today I was all prepared to write a blog about China's renewable energy push, to which it should be commended for, a nice positive blog for once, but instead I end up bitching about the internet.... again.

The more time I spend in China, the more I realize how much is wasted in this country, especially time. But I guess that headache is the price we pay for living abroad and trying to document things that the government (who controls the internet) doesn't want to have exposed.

Until next "time".

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle

Monday, January 15, 2007

Ryan Pyle Blog: The State of the Industry

This is my blog, and sometimes I need to address certain issues that come up from time to time. Today's topic is not a happy one. As we begin 2007, it is difficult to be positive about being a photographer in this day and age, in fact the current state of the photography industry is a mess.

Photography is an art......and that art is getting trashed.

It's pretty sickening what's happen to OUR industry at many levels, below are just a few cases in point:

1) Lower Rates:
Rates continue to drop and this is nothing new. And when I say this I am not talking about some small travel magazine in Singapore, I am talking about TIME, Newsweek, Spiegel. The big ones. Now, I don't blame the magazines for this. In many cases they are being squeezed by advertisers who are diversifying their advertising dollars away from PRINT MEDIA to ONLINE MEDIA, but clearly something needs to be done to stop the bleeding. One of my clients pays less than US$300 per day. For that price, they expect you to fly to another city and work in excess of 12hrs a day and share your copy write with them. Another client is pays less than #Euro 300 per day and expects much of the same, and wants me to pay for my own food while I am working.

To those of you who are new to photography or don't know much about the industry, you may think that these deals are not too bad at all, but I can assure you, this is shocking turn of events. I think many would agree that the 1990s were the heyday of photography. Digital had yet to make it's mark. Magazines would send people on assignments for weeks on end and really take care of them, paying 2 or 3 or 4 times as much as they pay now. Photographers had the incomes to push the envelop on personal projects and really get their teeth stuck in to stories.

These days all anyone wants is fast, which often means cheap. Cheap quality, cheap rates, no paying for film, developing or scanning. There is less planning, less editing, less time. And in many cases a poorer quality final product. I am beginning to feel like corporate America (and Europe) are ganging up on photographers, pushing us to our limits. In many cases being an editorial or documentary photographer, and really making a career out of it, is fast becoming unattainable. The wire services are taking over, and companies like the big stock agencies are making all the rules.

2) Contracts:
Contracts are scary things for photographers. I am a old school photographer. I believe firmly that a photographer should keep the copy write of every editorial image that he/she produces. But that is so far from the case these days. Just a few months ago I had a newspapers in the USA ask me to do a shoot for them in China. They offered me US$200 and they insisted that they keep the copy write, so that they won't have to pay me royalties if the story gets re-sold on their wire press service. Shocking. I declined. Easy enough, they found someone else in Shanghai to shoot the story and that's the end of it. No lesson learned. My moment of protest passed in silence.

The furthering of un-favourable contracts, where the publications keeps the copy write so that they can re-sell the images without paying you royalties, seems to becoming an industry standard in a lot of cases. And the scary thing is that photographers everywhere are accepting this. Giving up an image, for eternity and get 200 bucks.

Contests, and companies/publications that decide to operate like this are really crushing the industry and taking the "professional" right out of Professional Photographer. If this kind of behavior keeps up we'll all be a bunch of poor guy/gals - shooting in our spare time because we have had to take a 2nd job.

If things keep progressing this way photography will become a career only for the wealthy. It would be a real shame to have such an important profession available to only those of a certain income level.

3) Un-professionalism + Supply & Demand:
There is a big supply and demand problem occurring in the photography industry at the moment. If you think I am lying, just go to Perpignan, France in early September. Or sit in a bar in Bangkok and start talking to anyone in the bar, you'll see that just about anyone you run in to is a photographer. I don't begrudge anyone for wanting to become a photographer. In fact, I encourage it. Feeling passionate about documenting something you feel is important is a very satisfying way to live your life. They problem is, it is now just becoming a numbers game. With magazines going out of business, and page numbers shrinking - it is tough to see how the industry can sustain itself as it is, let alone with twice the number of photographers.

Un-professionalism exists at every level, and more so now than just a few years ago. And when I say this I mean both with the photographers and editors. I actually had a magazine editor in Asia ask me a few weeks ago if he could run one of my pictures on the cover of his magazine for free. Imagine that. He said it would give me a lot of exposure and that he didn't have the budget to pay me. I refused. It was a pretty tough deal to swallow. Free pictures. He didn't seem to care at all about my side of the story, and before the end of the conversation he was already looking online to find another email address for another photographer who he would contact next should I decline. A fantastic level of ethics.

And without a doubt, photographers are part of the problem as well. Unprofessionalism is growing. I have, over the years, become good friends with some of my editors at various agencies and magazines, and their horror stories are shocking. In many cases, photographers are taking their work less serious, missing deadlines, writing poorer captions, disappearing, not returning emails and generally going about their work in an inappropriate fashion. This is painful, and only hurting the rest of us who put in a lot of effort and care to each assignment.

4) New Technology:
This is a catch 22. In one sense the internet and web news is creating a new market for photographic products. Websites that have news content are buy pictures at incredible rates, but most of the beneficiaries are wire services and not freelance folks like myself. On the other hand, my website, my ability to advertise on the internet and host my archive online has introduced me to thousands of new people (some clients) whom I would not have otherwise met. I am for new technology. I am just not a huge fan of digital cameras.

5) What needs to be changed moving forward in 2007?
It's a tough question. In most cases I am blessed with editors who are understanding and compassionate to the story. But something is clearly wrong. I think the industry is getting even more difficult for editorial and documentary photographers. Magazine advertising is shifting away from news to celebrity magazines - because that's what people want to know more about these days. Magazines, and the general public are putting up with lower quality writing and imagery in their magazines - in fact fewer people are even reading. What we need is more people reading demanding better imagery. Better professionalism from photographers and editors alike. And we'll need advertisers to grow a conscience, if news magazines die, there will be a significant fallout that will crush many more people than just a few photographers.

As the year progresses I'll be sure to write an end of year summary in Dec.2007 so that I can put this blog entry and that blog entry together and see how poor my judgement was - or whether perhaps I was spot on.

What I don't want is for people to take this as a rant. It's not. It's just the truth. And a believe that a lot of photographers who make 100% of their living shooting, will agree with most of what I have laid out before you. And if you are reading this, and your disagree........please post a response. I would love to hear your comments.

All the best in 2007.

Ryan Pyle
Skype: ryanpyle