Friday, July 02, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: Global Times Interview


I was contacted a while back by a reporter from the Global Times, an English language daily newspaper in China. They wanted to do a story about what it was like being a photographer based in China. I thought it would be an interesting story and the reporter seemed genuinely interested in knowing about what life was like for freelancers in China.

The interview lasted about thirty minutes. And the article was posted in the weekend edition of the paper a few weeks back. I never saw a hard copy, but below is the online version I found on It's not too exciting but I thought it would make a semi-interesting read and blog post.

The original story on can be found HERE

When we think of how the 20th century's most important events are best remembered, it's usually as images as opposed to stories. Be it a starving African child covered in flies, a girl fleeing a napalm attack, or a destitute family of the Dust Bowl, each of these epoch-defining images were captured by photojournalists in the field. Our perception of such people can be clouded by romantic notions of daring, intrepid risk and adventure. To find out about real life in the industry, the Global Times sat down with two of Shanghai's most prominent foreign photojournalists to discuss their lives reporting on China through a lens.

Romantic? Think again

Ryan Pyle from Toronto has been working in China as a freelance photojournalist since 2001. Despite having no formal training, the 31-year-old has worked with publications such as the New York Times, News Week and the Sunday Times. During his time in China, Pyle has covered major events such as the Sichuan earthquake, an experience he describes as "very emotional." But he is quick to dispel any preconceived notions about his job. "A lot of people think this job is romantic because you get to travel and see interesting things. But believe me it's not. Not many people realize just how tough it is."

One of the most demanding aspects of the job is having to remain on alert day and night and to be ready to take off whenever a news story breaks. "You might just be given a day, a few hours, or even just half an hour before having to set off." He went on to say that, "we usually stay in cheap hotels where the KTV is on downstairs and you don't get a wink of sleep. I've had many nights like this although hotels in China are getting better."

In addition to being vigilant, Pyle's working hours are often irregular because many of the publications he works for are based outside China. "I wake up at 6 am and deal with people from the US. In the daytime I shoot pictures and then in the evening I talk with publications in Europe. At night I'm back dealing with people in the US again."

Stiff competition

According to Paris-born Tim Franco who works for the French newspaper Le Monde, competition is becoming ever more fierce among photojournalists in China. Franco, 27, believes this is a result of China being increasingly placed under the media spotlight, and as more and more journalists pour into Shanghai every year, assignments are harder to come by.

Ryan Pyle told the Global Times that missing just one phone call from a newspaper can make the difference between getting and losing a job as there is always another photographer instantly available. "Unless you are 60 years old or have won 10 World Press Photo Awards no-one is going to wait for you. Even though I'm 31 years old and fairly experienced, newspapers won't wait for someone like me all the time."

Unfortunately, even for those established in the industry, earnings are relatively low and the work is irregular. While waiting for work, many photojournalists do corporate photography to make ends meet.

"Photojournalism is not a lucrative career - if anything it's a dying profession," said Tim Franco. "Publishing has been squeezed by the recession and photojournalists are the first to be dropped. Clients can use cheaper photo agencies instead. I know people who are published regularly in Time Magazine and they still can't pay their bills. Even the top guys will do advertising work. They have to."

Ryan Pyle agrees, but insists that corporate work isn't necessarily the "cop out" it's painted to be. "It is much more highly paid than editorial work and it can often take you to more interesting places than news assignments. I've been inside the Three-Gorges dam, for example, doing corporate work."


A key element to the work involves collaboration with writers as newspapers prefer the photographer and the writer to share the experience in order to achieve a balanced, coherent narrative. Franco told the Global Times that this bond can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. "I love the relationship between myself and the writer. It's like a voyage of discovery." Ryan Pyle said of this alliance between writer and photographer, "When you're on assignment, it's the writer who controls the schedule, but most of the writers I work with are very understanding about the photos. It's mostly an easy-going, collaborative experience."

Photogenic China

Despite the hardship and stiff competition, working as a photojournalist in China presents many attractive opportunities. "It is probably the greatest country in the world to do photography in right now," said Ryan Pyle. "I think the changing social economy of China makes for such rich imagery.

I feel really lucky to be here at this time because in 30 years I don't know what China will look like so I want to document it now. China is such a fascinating country; the diversity of people here alone is probably greater than anywhere else on earth."

Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle