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 "yousendit.com" - 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