Sim Chi Yin is a photographer based in Beijing, a member of VII Photo Agency. She is on the British Journal of Photography’s Ones to Watch list of photographers in 2014. She works on projects on social issues in the region, and since going freelance in 2011 has also done photo, multimedia and video commissions for TIME, the New York Times, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Le Monde, Newsweek, Financial Times Weekend Magazine, New York Times Sunday Magazine and more.
Young China Watchers (YCW): You wrote in Dying to Breathe about your hope that the story of Mr. He Quangui, a Chinese gold miner suffering from silicosis, might move people to action. I noticed that you had been quite active in your charity fundraising campaign through various media platforms including Facebook, Tencent, ChinaFile, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Could you tell us more about this campaign and your efforts to raise public awareness alongside Chinese and Western partners?
Editor’s note: We’re sorry to learn that Mr. He passed away on 1 August 2015. Through Tencent Charity in China, Sim’s Dying to Breathe photo essay and He’s story helped raise 100,000 RMB (USD $16,110) for his medical care.
Sim Chi Yin (SCY): Having an advocacy plan tied to a documentary project is not very uncommon these days especially in the West. It’s not perhaps as well practiced in Asia yet. I have a pretty well laid out plan in terms of reaching two levels of people: policy influencers and people on the ground continuing to go to these mines. Basically, I made a very straightforward video where doctors, sociologists, lawyers, and former miners talk to the camera and give advice on how to better their lung health and their labour rights. There were plans to tie up with doctors and NGOs to take this film and messages in the form of a mobile exhibition to the ground. The other plank of this plan was to tie up with a mask producer like 3M and talk to them through their Corporate Social Responsibility program and supplying good enough masks. Right now, all of this is on the backburner for various reasons. One is that it is a very difficult time in China’s political climate and civil society. The other is that I have not found a NGO in China, which I know would be effective in carrying out this plan.
There is a very poor knowledge of silicosis. I often get asked whether this is a contagious disease when actually it isn’t. The disease has existed for several years in the villages; they think it is contagious and that it is terminal but actually it isn’t. It is terminal only for the poor either because they either don’t get diagnosed or they give up thinking that it is too expensive to get medical treatment.
YCW: Could you tell us more about your relationship with your subject, Mr. He Quangui?
SCY: I don’t think it is a cut-and-dry relationship with clean lines. When you are documenting a particular person or family for as long as years or months it is impossible to have very clear lines. I don’t see him as a subject but as a collaborator in this story. I made clear to him that he had a role in the whole enterprise – as much as I did. At the start, he didn’t understand why I wanted to do what I wanted to do. But over time after a lot of explaining that this was about raising awareness on this issue and potentially helping other people like him, he always said to me that “even if I don’t live long enough to see the benefits of your reporting, I am willing to do this because it makes me a useful person.” So he kind of found a sense of purpose through collaborating with me as well. We also just genuinely enjoyed hanging out with each other. It became a bit of an issue when he said he tried to kill himself while I was in his house. So that was a bit unclear whether he wanted to let me document the whole cycle of his illness or be around to provide support for his wife. He never explained himself. I think it is one of those things in life that are best left vague I suppose.
YCW: Your project on Beijing’s Rat Tribe uncovers the stories of Chinese migrants and low-income workers living as underground dwellers in the city with hopes of attaining the Chinese Dream. Did you come across any similarities in your experience covering migrant workers in Beijing with your previous work on domestic workers in Southeast Asia?
SCY: Migration and labor have been long-standing themes in my work. Working on the Long Road Home was done in my so-called spare time as a reporter. I didn’t set out to do a book. I just wanted to do a photo project. I became convinced that I wanted to become a documentary photographer because I just enjoyed hanging out with people at the very grassroots and recording their stories.
Documentary photography is not just about the photography. It is very much about how you interact with people and how strong you are as a reporter on the ground. Quite often people get into photography to take pretty pictures. I don’t see the people stories in their pictures, but space and places and ideas and aestheticized series of images. Sometimes it’s a quick and easy way of doing stories because you don’t necessarily have to interact with the people or build relationships. Digging deep into people’s lives is always more time and emotion consuming and you have to give a piece of yourself back. Some people may think that investing four years in one project is silly or unnecessary, but I don’t see how else one could get a very deep story.
YCW: You made several interesting points in a previous interview on ethical standards in visual journalism. Has there been a similar level of debate amongst Chinese documentary photographers about the ethical challenges posed by staged or re-enacted photos being presented as reportage photography?
SCY: Overall, in China, I think journalism ethics are a little fast and loose – not just in photography, but written journalism as well. Take the Dying to Breathe story as an example. There were two Chinese outlets that asked me for Mr. He’s contact details and went out to interview him. One wrote a long feature story for a leading Chinese news magazine and the other made a short film. I was surprised to see both pieces published without any linkage or acknowledgement or attribution to my reporting when it was clear that they had just built off it. They basically got the best of my four years of reporting. And, there was no attribution or even so much as a weblink until I raised my concerns. When I raised it with the editor who published it, she agreed with me that it was ethically problematic but that this was just how it was in China. She didn’t really see the problem with it although she agreed with me that ethically it was problematic.
In terms of the photos and staging, there are internationally successful Chinese photographers who say that they don’t think it is wrong to enhance the truth. There is nothing wrong with posing portraits, but there is something ethically dodgy if you are directing people in your scenes and passing them off as ‘found’ moments. This is by no means a China specific issue. But I am not comfortable with it and I think to compromise on ethics is very tempting and makes for easier work. I just think that it is a slippery slope.
YCW: You come from a background as a print journalist, but have worked actively with multimedia in addition to still photography for your professional and personal projects. Could you walk us through how you determine whether to integrate multimedia or audio with still photography?
SCY: Well, every story is different. And, I decide how each story is best told. In the case of Dying to Breathe, I went in knowing that I wanted to do sound and still photos. But in the process of becoming very close to this family, I felt that stills and audio didn’t do justice to this story that I was witnessing and how close and intimate I had gotten. So, I turned on the video on my camera as well. In the end, I had accumulated so much video footage, it became an accidental short film that I had never set out to make. I was going to choose which tools that these digital times tell the story best. Given that I work in China and am interested in Chinese society, quite often the main audience has to be Chinese for there to be any impact or hope for some social change. The publications overseas work on two levels. One, it is still a piece of photographic work. Secondly, sometimes when something is published in a large international press or expedited as a piece of art in a large international venue or medium, it buys these subjects some sort of security and not meant to be politically critical or provocative.
YCW: How do you envision the role of a photographer covering social issues in modern China evolving in the future? Are we seeing a growing trend of more photographers engaging in social justice advocacy through their work as visual journalists in China?
SCY: There are different types of photographers who are doing photography for different reasons. Even for photographers with concerns for social issues, some clearly want to take on the role of advocacy and there are others who clearly think that it is outside of the limit of a photographer.
I am seeing many young Chinese photographers interested in social issues. How long they go down this road, and how much advocacy they feel they can do through their work is an open question given the civil society climate in China. There is no tradition of activist advocate photographers in China. While there are a few people who have raised awareness on issues that they deeply care about in China, there are very few who have gone as far as to craft an entire advocacy campaign around their life’s work.
In terms of advocacy, I think in the West and parts of the developing world where there is an active civil society, there is a much better acceptance of the language of rights. And, it makes for easier messaging in the campaigning. In some parts of the world, including closed places like China – and to some extent Singapore – there is a rejection of the language of rights because it is seen as a Western imposition. You cannot use the traditional methods of lobbying that organizations like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or even Médecins Sans Frontières do, so you have to re-think your strategy on how to reach your core audience and relevant policy influencers. Also, one does not have the same infrastructure like in America or Europe. I can’t just, as a photographer, make the images and hand it over to an NGO that has a well-oiled advocacy strategy and infrastructure and run with the image. I would love for it to exist, but unfortunately it doesn’t in China.
YCW: How would you say that your work as a photojournalist in China differs from your colleagues working in different regions?
SCY: China remains a very closed society. Chinese people are reluctant to let others into their personal space. They are overall less publicly expressive anyway. I have often been envious of my colleagues working in Latin America, Africa, or even India. You can obtain very dramatic images of, say, a drug addict shooting up next to a baby. It’s a kind of excess and visual drama that you won’t find in China. People are usually very reluctant to let you into their deep personal space. China is a bit of a slow-burn country to work in. For instance, if I go to Indonesia and Burma, I would get very dramatic pictures and several stories in a shorter time. In China, you work a long time to get your foot in the door and to gain access. And when you get there, the pictures are not necessarily as visually dramatic. But, it remains a fact that there are many important and interesting stories in China and therefore I have stayed on to tell these stories.