The most wanted photograph in China

August 29, 2013

Jinan, China

By Carlos Barria

As the morning approached, reporters, photographers and cameramen from national and foreign media organizations gathered outside the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court to cover the final chapter in the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

The stage for this story was Jinan, in the northeastern coastal province of Shandong. This story had all the elements of a great thriller: power, corruption, romance and murder. With no access to the courtroom itself, the foreign media and the general public relied on images provided by the court for glimpses of the trial. Also, for the first time China’s judicial system provided court transcripts, published on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

The opportunities for photographing Bo Xilai stood at about zero. Authorities only allowed media to stake out the courthouse from a fenced area across the street, and even there we had to go through a security scan to get in. Some journalists complained that during the first morning of the trial police denied them movement in and out of this area to cover protests that were going on nearby.

With little room to move, photographers started to think about how to photograph Bo, who hadn’t been seen since March of 2012 during a political event. The only chance we could see was his arrival to and exit from the court. But all the vehicles coming and going from the building used tinted glass.

There is a way to take a picture through tinted glass using a flash and holding the camera right against the window, but considering the tight security around the convoy, that seemed impossible. So the last resort was to shoot with a zoom lens right through the front windshield, which was not tinted.

Basically we had only one photo opportunity a day, when the vehicles left the court, right in front of us. However, it was difficult to figure out which of the dozens of vehicles leaving transported Bo. We noted that one convoy in particular had more security that the others. The first day we concentrated on the biggest and most expensive van, a silver Mercedes-Benz. After photographing every single car in that convoy, I went back to my hotel and started looking closely at the pictures.

I realized that one in particular showed a man who looked like Bo, seated in the back of a van, not the Mercedes-Benz. But I could only see half of his face. I was intrigued by the seating configuration inside the vehicle. The person that I believed was Bo had two policemen sitting on either side of him, and another officer facing him. I went to the Reuters archive and downloaded a picture released by the court, of Bo sitting before the judge. I compared the part of his face I could see with the court picture. And I did the same for the policeman sitting beside him. After close examination, I was sure that the black van behind the silver one was the vehicle transporting Bo. We decided not to send this picture but to wait until we had a better one, with a clear view of his face. But at least I knew which van to photograph.

After the second day of court proceedings, I tried again. This time, unfortunately, the picture was not very clear. A policeman was blocking the view of the individual’s face with his hand as the vehicle turned out of the courthouse grounds. But there was no doubt that the man inside was Bo Xilai.

The picture went viral on the Internet, and many websites showing the picture were blocked in China — a sign of the tight government control over the images coming out of the trial. The next day, when Bo’s van turned onto the street in front of us, a curtain obstructed our view of the vehicle’s interior.

My picture was not the only one. Colleagues from two other media organizations also got similar pictures. Depending on sentencing, these photographs might be the last public images taken by independent media of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

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