Choreographing our China congress coverage

November 23, 2012

Beijing, China

By Petar Kujundzic

Is there anyone against? – “Meiyou” (There is no one)

The last time I covered an important Communist Party congress was in my own country almost 23 years ago. I was the only photographer for Reuters there, shooting black and white and sending a few pictures to the wire using a drum analog transmitter. The last congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party, which ruled the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 until 1991, ended with a split within the League of Communists and ushered in years of violence and civil conflict… but that is a totally different story.

Last week’s 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, by contrast, was a highly choreographed affair — no drama. In fact, during the preparation, the question arose: How do you cover one of the world’s top stories when it’s considered visually “boring.” At the same time, how do you deal with the difficulties of restricted access, especially if you are a foreign journalist in China?

On the other hand, the congress represents a rare opportunity to cover a once-in-a-decade leadership swap in one of the world’s superpowers, just a week after the dramatic and colorful presidential election in the United States. This time, as Chief Photographer in China, it was my turn to organize the coverage.

China, a single-party socialist republic, covers an area of 9,598,094 square kilometers with a population of more than 1.3 billion people, of which only 6 percent are members of the CPC. The Communist Party of China says this is a collective leadership and in theory the congress was due to choose seven men from among equals to serve on the Standing Committee — the pinnacle of power. Even though these decisions are made behind closed doors, there was nothing secret about who would take over as party chief — Xi Jinping.

With a small but hard working and well-motivated team of photographers, we had to find ways to use the latest technology to be quick and comprehensive, while also coming up with ideas that would differentiate our coverage from our competitors. Preparation included selecting which cameras and lenses we would use, who would be inside and outside of the Great Hall of the People, and what kind of story did we want to tell.

In addition to our standard gear, we used extremely long lenses, like the 800mm, for zooming in on leaders from a far-away balcony in the cavernous main auditorium of the Great Hall. We used super wide 14mm and fisheye lenses for mingling among thousands of delegates, and panorama cameras such as the Hasselblad Xpan and the Russian-made Horizon–perfekt, as well as the GoPro Hero for video clips, like the multimedia above. Editing was done with our remote editing software from a car positioned in Tiananmen Square. Our 3G connection was occasionally jammed, but that’s nothing new in China.

Jason Lee, who was shooting from the balcony with 400mm and 800mm lenses, was helped by Beijing picture desk photo editor Barry Huang, who woke up at 3 a.m. to hold a place in line outside the Great Hall and ensure a good position. He also fed Jason’s pix into the server while Carlos Barria was shooting both panoramic and regular pictures inside and outside the Hall. David Gray was freezing in Tiananmen Square, which by the way is his favorite spot in Beijing, shooting features.

I shot some GoPro videos and some stills before running to the car to edit while Iris Zhao and Muyi Xiao processed our pictures from the office and sent them on to the desk in Singapore for a final check.

Tiananmen Square was packed with security personnel making sure everything was in order before delegates started arriving. The hunt for images started right there. Regular and paramilitary police, and special security units, offered good opportunities to capture some security illustrations. Often they are not happy about being photographed, but we did our best to get them.

We were not the only ones taking pictures. Most of the delegates used digital cameras or mobile phones to record this historic moment, posing in front of the Great Hall or on the square, and even taking pictures of the foreign journalists in their midst. The square and the Great Hall’s courtyard were full of black luxury cars — mostly the Audis favored by China’s political elite, who have also been known to show up wearing designer shoes and jewelry.

The Great Hall is massive, with 171,800 square meters (1,849,239 sq ft) of floor space, and there are security cameras covering almost every inch. Security personnel also guard entrances to the rooms where important decisions are being made and where only the “privileged” can enter. After days of bombastic speeches and displays of party unity, the congress unanimously approved a work report by raising their hands and a military band launched into The Internationale — the traditional Communist anthem.

A day later, the new party bosses were officially presented. The room was packed with journalists from all over the world, phone signals were jammed, and no one except the official Xinhua news agency and CCTV were able to report on the new Standing Committee before leaving the room. Seven men walked onto the stage, led by the new boss, Xi Jinping, and stood in a line, hands by their sides. They had all held top positions in the Communist Party for years — no surprises. Everything went smoothly, with no drama, just as expected.

Our team did very well, all angles were covered better than planned. During the week-long congress we moved hundreds of images to our global clients ensuring everybody would have what they needed. Everything worked well, no drama – better than expected.

2 comments

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No great work on photo-journalism here. You should have spent your time covering Hollywood or war/conflict zones to get real exciting shots.

Even though the whole event was choreographed, traditional & very boring, there are always many moments where the photographers could have captured interesting shots, like expressions on faces.

The author here erroneously suggests that similar events in the West are not choreographed, security is lax, internet is not monitored & no censorship in photos.

The Chinese made their political decisions last August in the sea-side resort town of Beidahe. Where were you guys then ?

Yes, the Chinese government ceremonies are extremely boring, no Hollywood Stars there, but they have an advancing economy & infrastructure that puts us back into the Dark Ages.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

I just wanted to reply to the comment above. I agree with you in that our american government is just as staged and that we are all being watched by our government. The only thing being put into the dark ages though would be chinese peoples human rights. It’s easy to build a great economy and infrastructure on the shoulders of slave labor. Trust me I’m american we did it quite well here too. Should china be proud of success they garnered by enslaving it’s people? I think not. by the way, the painting in the las picture is freaking massive.

Posted by americanidiot13 | Report as abusive