Sunday, March 08, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Full PDN Interview


Early last week I had a notice out that I was very honored to be included in the PDN 30 for 2009. The process for being included in this prestigious group involved submitting a portfolio of work and conducting an interview. Above I've included a series of images from the portfolio I entered, and I thought some blog followers would be interested in seeing the "full interview" that was conducted; it can be found below.

PDN 30 Interview
Questions by: Daryl Lang

1) Please tell me how you got into photography and photojournalism.

I didn’t have an interest in becoming a photographer until I first traveled to China after graduating from university. Up until that point, my life had mainly involved studying and playing Division 1 basketball for the University of Toronto. During my schooling year’s hobbies outside of school and basketball (3 hour practices per day!) just didn’t exist, there was barely time to breath. But once my university athletic career was over things began to slow down and I began seeing the world in new ways. That, as well as some classes I took on Chinese history and politics, is what led to my first trip to China at the age of 22.

China was the only destination on my maiden trip to Asia. China was (and still is) crowded, vast, complicated and misunderstood – it was exactly the type of challenge I was looking for. Thinking back to that first trip I can remember my senses tingling, the country was a complete sensory overload. The sights, the smells, the noises; it was all vastly different from what I had experienced up until that point.

My first trip to China lasted 3 months and involved mostly hitchhiking through China’s remote Xinjiang and Tibet provinces. I had a little point and shoot camera and instantly became obsessed with trying to document everything I was seeing and making efforts to relate those details to friends and family back home. When I returned to Toronto, after my first trip to the mainland, I immediately told my family I was packing up moving to China. Two weeks later I was on a plane with my used Canon EOS 1 (film) camera and 50mm lens. I had left Toronto for good. The spirit and the idea of being a photographer and documenting China had been born on that first trip. China, my adopted home, had stirred up something inside of me that I didn’t know existed, very much acting as my muse for an entirely new way of thinking and viewing the world.

2) Did you have any particular breakout moment? Some work you did that made you (or your clients) say “a-ha!” and suddenly doors started to open?

To be honest I don’t think I’ve had a breakout moment, or if I have had one I might not have realized. I haven’t won any awards or had an assignment for a big magazine that created a buzz. In fact being included in the PDN30 may very well be that breakout moment that, up until this date, has eluded me. The development of my career, as I see it, has just been a steady ongoing process of making strong images, to the best of my capabilities, and trying to show that work to one client at a time; in an attempt to build a reputation and a name for myself amongst the competitive landscape that exists for foreign photographers in China.

What began opening doors for me was, without a doubt, my steady collaboration with the New York Times in 2005 and 2006. My relationships with several editors at the NYT, and Shanghai correspondent Howard W. French, led me down a road that was instrumental for both my development as a journalist and photographer. That collaboration also gave me a regular credit in a strong publication. When I made my first visit to New York to meet with potential clients many had already known of my work through the NYT, which made editors more approachable and surely opened doors.

3) Why China? Are you still there, and for how much longer?

While I was at the University of Toronto I took a variety of classes that dealt with Chinese history and politics. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I was instantly captivated. From those initial classes I began searching out for as much information about China as possible: the intrigue of Tibet, the unknown of Xinjiang and the Silk Road, the 150 million migrating workers, the cities being built over night, the deserts, the mountain ranges, the rivers, and the 800 million famers…I could go on and on. Coming from a relatively quiet place like Canada, China seemed otherworldly and I desperately wanted to experience it.

I am currently living in China, and many of my colleagues and editors often give me a strange look when I tell them that I intend to live and base myself in Shanghai for years to come. Saying that I’ll spend the majority of my career, if not my entire career, in China doesn’t faze me in the least. Now with that being said, I’m open to interesting opportunities anywhere in the world. I’ve really enjoyed working in India and I hope to work on several more projects there in 2009. But China where I feel most comfortable, and it is here where I know the landscape and can apply my vast experiences to my work. However, if I ever felt that my photography experiences were being repeated or duplicated in China I think at that point I would have to focus on a new path; but with the country being so large and diverse I honestly can’t see that happening any time soon.

As an aside, a photographer whom I really admire is Marc Riboud. I’ve spent hundred’s of hours pouring through his incredible images of China from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Imagine that, he documented China for five decades during its most turbulent times. It is Mr. Riboud, and his vision and his dedication to China, and image making in general, that are inspiring to me both professionally and personally. In many ways it is his work and his focus that keeps me positive during some of my more trying times.

4) You freelance for a couple of different major publications, right? How have you found assignments or let people clients know about your work?

I feel very fortunate to have contributed to the China coverage of several large, well circulated, magazines both in Europe and North America; and I hope these relationships continue to develop as my vision and photography grows.

Being based in China, far away from London, New York and Paris, has both its positive and negative aspects. The positive side of being based in a far off land is the isolation. I thrive on that. No industry news, no friends in the business, no drinks with other photographers. It’s just my family, my camera and China. No politics, or who is shooting what for whom. It’s quiet, and I relish that.

The negative aspect is the distance, and it can be difficult getting people involved and interested in your work. Based on my personal experiences, a strong Internet presence is crucial. An editor 5000 miles away in New York, who has never met you, has to feel confident enough to in invest a significant amount of time and money on you to do a story; your personal website has to be strong. I’ve gone the extra mile and I also host my own archive. This allows clients to take a look at new and old work, so that they can purchase stock, commission a future story or just see what I am up to. The archive is time consuming but I find it irreplaceable to both my workflow and my business.

After having a personal website I have found the next most important step is making occasional trips to visit with regular clients and potential future clients. I find there is no substitute, even in our digital age, for making a strong personal connection with someone face to face. I believe that having an opportunity to meet with my clients in person has helped them understand me better, first, as a person, and, second, as a photographer. Furthermore, it has given me a clearer sense of what expectations editors have for photographers they work with.

After those two points of making a website and meeting clients face to face, I feel that basic business practices apply: be confident, be a strong communicator, reply to emails from clients immediately, if possible keep clients up to date when on assignment for them, as well as generally staying organized and being easy to contact. In such a competitive industry every little step you make to improve your professionalism will help gain and retain clients.

5) I know you do mostly photojournalism. Do you do any other sort of photography work, such as commercial assignments?

I consider myself to be a documentary photographer, and that generally lends itself to journalism. But I feel that the scope of my work goes much beyond that. For example, I’m in the process of producing a fine art black and white project on Chinese Turkistan (or Xinjiang, China), which will hopefully show in galleries and potentially become a book in the near future. I also work for several large multinational corporations, with operations in China, helping them prepare imagery for annual reports and internal publications. The corporate work has been both challenging and exciting, leading me to jobs that have taken me inside the Three Gorges Dam and on the scaffolding of China’s largest skyscraper.

I have not yet worked on any large commercial projects but those are opportunities I am open to. Beyond the actual physical act of taking pictures, I also lecture at several universities about China, and I also lecture at journalism schools on various topics including: working in countries that restrict journalism. I find these interactions with academia incredibly rewarding as it allows my work and my wealth of experience in China to go beyond photography. It provides me with a chance to share my life and work with future “China watchers” and journalists alike.

6) I just spent some time reading your blog, it’s good. I especially liked the note you posted following up on the face transplant patient you photographed. It’s nice to see somebody follow up on a subject they’ve covered years ago. Anyway, why keep a blog? Has it helped you in any way?

The blog is, again, an opportunity to combine my photography with my experiences beyond the camera. Followers of my blog get a chance to read about what it is like working in China, including both the rewarding and difficult experiences that come with that choice. I occasionally write about being detained and intimidated while working, other times I make references to experiences in my daily life.

Regarding the face transplant patient, the situation with him is very much a microcosm for the way I see all of my work in China. I live here. What happens here affects me. My work and my life in China is on a long-term arch. I don’t have a four year assignment. I don’t fly in for a few days and then fly out again. I live here. I watch the country. I feel the country. And the story of China’s first face transplant recipient was an example of that: it took me over a year of repeated requests to gain access to the patient, and I had scheduled a trip this year to go back and see how he was adapting in his home village, but that won’t be possible due to his death earlier this year.

With regards to my blog assisting my career, well, I don’t think any of my editors follow my blog or see the new work or slide shows I post there. I have also never had anyone read my blog and be interested in purchasing stock or commissioning me for an assignment. What I hope my blog accomplishes is to assist other photographers, writers, watchers, reporters and editors better understand who I am, why I am in China, and what motivates me to be a photographer. I’ve mentioned before in other interviews, I feel a increasing sense of responsibility being a documentary photographer in such a fast changing society as China, and that sense of change keeps me on my toes and gives me a strong feeling, and a growing sense of right, to express with others my experiences and work.

7) How old are you and when is your birthday?

Answer: September 20, 1978. 30 years old at the moment.

8) In what city were you born?

Answer: Toronto, Canada.

9) Where did you go to school/what degree did you earn?

Answer: University of Toronto. International Politics. Class of 2001


Ryan Pyle


  1. Ryan,

    I follow your work on your website and check in on your blog regularly. I'm glad to see you get well deserved recognition by PDN for the great China work that you do. I lived in Yunnan for a year, my daughter is adopted from Jiangxi and, like you, I am intensely curious about the country in general. Your philosophy of living and working in the country is compelling. I'll look forward to seeing your Xinjiang work as it develops--I'm very drawn to that part of China. If interested, I kept a blog ( while in Yunnan and have photos from China and elsewhere on flickr (e.g., Kashgar images at My family and I hope to travel in Tibet this summer. Best of luck with your ongoing work. I look forward to keeping an eye on it!

    Best, Ken Driese, Laramie, Wyoming

  2. It was great to "virtually" meet you. This was my first visit, I will certainly be back. You're images are amazing, something I am working towards. I hope we can keep in touch.

    Steve, Shenzhen.



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