Singapore-born, Beijing-based photographer Sim Chi Yin spent four years documenting the life and slow death of He Quangui, a former gold miner afflicted with the lung disease silicosis, and his wife, Mi Shixiu. Sim’s photos were published in the U.S. and after her video “Dying to Breathe” was published on a web portal in China, it helped raise about $16,000 for his care. Here she explains in her own words her decision to intervene at a crucial moment in He’s life. (This interview has been edited for length. Read the full interview here.)
Sim Chi Yin: It is difficult to explain to people in [China] what you do as a documentary photographer or why. In the case of Mr. He, it took many months before he understood what my intention was and what his role was. I explained what long-form documentary photography is. I explained I wanted to capture him in his natural state towards the end of his life. 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 [silicosis]. He completely got this.
When I worked at the newspaper [The Strait Times in Singapore], I was always taught to have this veneer of objectivity. But when I started doing long-form documentary photography, I realized that that was not possible. 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.
Early on in the process [of Mr. He’s story], I thought: 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 called an NGO I knew in Beijing and they raised money for his surgery. I flew out and took him to the hospital. That whole week in hospital I was his second caregiver. I bought all the meals. Of course 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.
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.” 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. If anything I intervened more in their daily life because they enjoyed so much having me around. He always wanted to chat. Sometimes I’d have to say: “You have to forget that I’m here.” 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. 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.
Of course [Mr. He’s] neighbors got jealous. There were a lot of people who spread nasty rumors, people who badmouthed him to the authorities, trying to get him in trouble. 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.