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


  1. Thanks for posting this. Being able to hear about how you approach working in China and some of the hardships that you have overcome is very helpful to me. As difficult as it must be sometimes to tell stories in China I think its great that you see the country that you report in as your home and not just a place that your stationed in. It is also very interesting to hear about how difficult it is to report on stories from the countryside.

  2. Marco, I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the read. A lot of photographers email me and ask me a lot of these same questions, so I though posting it would be a valuable reading experience to anyone interested in learning about journalism or photography in China. I hope it adds value to the blog.

    Ryan Pyle
    Skype: ryanpyle

  3. Anonymous05:51

    Hey Ryan,

    Congrats on this man. You really are doing some amazing work...and to think what we were doing 8 years ago :)

    Take care & keep in touch.




This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle