In preparing PDN’s issue on Ethics and Photography (July), editors interviewed five photojournalists about the choices they’ve made while working on long-form documentary projects. Photographer Sim Chi Yin, who is based in Beijing, shared her perspective of working in a country without a tradition of a free press. She also discussed the relationship she formed during the four years she photographed He Quangui, a former gold miner afflicted with the lung disease silicosis, and her intervention in the life of He and his wife.
Sim’s photos and multimedia have been published by TIME, The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde and The New Yorker, and she has also shot for NGO clients. She began her journalism career as a foreign correspondent for The Straits Times in Singapore, was a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellow and is a member of VII Photo. After her project on Mr. He, “Dying to Breathe,” was published internationally and on a web portal in China, it helped raise about $16,000 for his care.
PDN: When you’re covering a subject, or seeking access what kind of relationship do you hope to establish? Have you ever been asked for things in return, or found that subjects have certain expectations? How do you respond?
SCY: Ethics is something I feel is important to talk about especially in relatively closed societies where news is sometimes propaganda. And in a place without a strong tradition of journalism education, which is true of many places in the world I work in. In China, I’ve given many talks where it’s clear that the students, even when they’re far along in a course or workshop, they’re confused about when they’re allowed to set up and not set up.
PDN: So when you’re trying to explain to someone why you want why you want access, how do you explain it?
SCY: It is difficult to explain to people in this part of the world what you do as a documentary photographer or why. In the case of Mr. He, it took many, many months before he understood why I was there, what my intention was and what his role was. When I first showed up in their lives, his wife thought —she said this in a BBC interview—“I thought she was just another reporter, and most reporters who come stay for an hour and two and we never see them again.” She said, “I realized this person was different.”
At first [Mr. He] … thought his story had already been written and thought there was no point in doing more. But I explained to him what long-form documentary photography is. I explained to him I wanted to capture him in his natural state towards the end of his life. Why are we doing this? Because this is China’s number one occupational disease. I said: We need to make this story strong and moving because even if it doesn’t help him and his family, it might help the 6 to 10 million other people in China who suffer from this disease. He completely got this.
I think one key thing I learned transitioning from newspaper photography to documentary photography is that there are slightly different ethics governing the two. When I worked at the newspaper [The Strait Times in Singapore], I was always taught Objectivity 101 from Day 1. You’re supposed to have this veneer of objectivity. But when I started doing long-form documentary photography, especially with the silicosis story, I realized that that was not possible. Objectivity doesn’t exist. I’m impassioned about something and therefore I choose to go long and dig deep. I’m not objective about the fact that 6 to 10 million people in China have silicosis. I don’t strive to be objective. I strive to be fair.
PDN: So you told him that you thought the photos might help him or help others?
SCY: I never go in and say: I can help you change your life. Never. I think it’s very dangerous. I often caution young journalists not to do that because you carry their hopes and it’s a kind of subtle exploitation.
I just wanted to make it clear that I wanted to show the end of his life, to show people what it actually looks like. It’s one thing to understand a huge number of people suffer from silicosis in China, it’s another thing to see the actual impact on the person’s body and the impact on the family around him. I think he understood that.
Early on in the process, I completely intervened. I went on the first trip, [then] I thought visually it was an undramatic story. He’s too ill to do much, there’s no visual drama at all. I put the story on the back burner for six months.
Then very early one morning [in 2012] my phone rang. It was the wife wailing, saying he’s dying, you have to help him.
I automatically called an NGO I knew in Beijing and they raised money for his surgery, they wired the money directly to the hospital. I flew out there and took him to the hospital. That whole week in hospital, I was his second caregiver. I bought all the meals.
Of course then the dynamics of the relationship completely changed. The story really turned on that week, both visually and in terms of my relationship with him and his family. Because in their mind I was their savior. They think I saved his life.
I think I acted as a human being first and a journalist/documentarian second. We talk as documentary photographers about wanting to bring about social change on some issue. I think if you are in a position to be able to bring about change in one person’s life and you don’t, it’s unconscionable. Why wait to complete the story and do a piece of advocacy with it, and walk away from someone right in front of you who needs help? It doesn’t make sense. I did what felt natural and necessary. But of course this is complete intervention.
PDN: You had told him you wanted to capture his “natural state” during the progression of his illness. Can anyone behave naturally in front of their “savior”?
SCY: I think we became so familiar with each other, it wasn’t really an issue. He and his wife were pretty natural in front of me in their bedroom before that.
If anything I intervened more in their daily life because they enjoyed so much having me around. We were kidding with each other all the time. He called me little sister, I called him big brother. He’d get so enthusiastic about the fact I was visiting, and he always wanted to chat, sometimes I’d have to say: You have to forget that I’m here. I’d say, “Right now I’m a glass person, you can’t see me.” You can’t pretend that you’re a fly on the wall and having no impact, you can only minimize it. It was quite simple. He had no idea there were NGOs or people outside his village who were helping people like him. He had no idea how many other patients there were in China. I became like a window to the outside. I got him a laptop, he learned to type, he learned to use a phone. I completely intervened. But I think it was a necessary thing to do.
PDN: So it sounds like you were trying to be honest with him about what you were doing?
SCY: I had to counsel him when the piece was going to come out in Chinese [in China]. I did a 5-minute video of him speaking directly to the Chinese president. It was a risky thing to do, but it was one of his last wishes. I spoke with him many times both in person and in text message about the possible consequences of getting that out. It was with his adamant approval that we eventually said, OK let’s do it. We got it out from outside China, and it got looped into China via social media.
The most vulnerable people are not you; the most vulnerable people are the subjects who continue to live under the censorship and surveillance that are unique to each society. In the case of the “Rat Tribe” project [about people living in basements in Beijing], I said, “I want to show that you’re regular people with aspirations for upward mobility, and sometimes my work is picked up by magazines and broadcasters.” Some people said, “I’m ok with this coming out in English outside of China,” but I had people who asked me to remove their picture when it was published in Chinese in China. So I did. You have to listen to what subjects ask of you, and act on their requests.
Of course [Mr. He’s] neighbors got jealous that eventually I raised money for them when the story came out. There were a lot of people who spread nasty rumors that they got a windfall, there were people who badmouthed him to the authorities, saying he got help from foreign NGOs, trying to get him in trouble.
The story went viral in China. Another consequence: The wife had a ton of suitors just waiting for Mr. He to die. These men were pursuing her, and some were coming to the house, then the neighbors started saying bad things about her. It was one of the less good consequences that came out of it. But one of his constant worries was that the family would be heavily in debt when he died. I hope he died without that worry.
PDN: Photographers find that in some places, people either think photographers will pay them for photos or that photographers can provide things in return. Has that happened to you?
SCY: People would say, ‘When this newspaper came, they paid us X. I’ve sometimes had to say, ‘This goes against professional ethics’ in Chinese. I say: If I have to pay you, I can’t do that. They’ll be befuddled. I’ll say well, different journalists have different standards, I only work with the best. If you won’t participate, I’ll go somewhere else.
With expectations of help, it’s more subtle. I say I’m just a photographer and a documentarian, all I can do is to tell your story as well as I possibly can and put it into the world. If after it’s published, people are moved to take money out of their pocket and give it to you, that’s their position. But my role is to document your story as well as I can. Are you game or not? I won’t promise anything.