Photographers' Blog

The dissident’s residence

By David Gray

Blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng grabbed the world’s attention in April when he refused to leave the U.S. embassy in Beijing after escaping from his village where he was under home detention. The end result was that he and his wife were put on a plane to New York. Over the next few weeks, the Chen family that still lived in the family home were subjected to beatings and house raids by local plainclothes security personnel. During one of these raids, Chen’s nephew tried to stop the invaders, and as a result is in detention for attempted murder – a crime that carries the death penalty in China.

Just three weeks ago I photographed Guangcheng’s elder brother, Chen Guangfu, who had managed to slip out of the same village as his brother in an attempt to obtain a good lawyer for his son’s case. As I was photographing Guangfu he recounted the beating he had suffered as retaliation for his brother’s escape. He said he no longer has any feeling in his left hand. When the interview finished I thought I would probably never see this brave man again but when we received word it might be possible to visit his village, we headed straight there.

Myself, Royston Chan of Reuters Television, and text correspondent Sui-Lee Wee, boarded planes and flew to Shinyi in Shandong Province, some 600 kilometers (372 miles) southwest of Beijing. A driver was waiting for us when we landed; a good contact as a result of Royston’s previous attempts to visit the village. We drove the 70 kilometers (43 miles) or so to Dongshigu village. As we approached the turn-off, we had our cameras ready and drove past to determine what we would do next.

“Did you see anyone?” all three of us said at once. We had not, so we turned around and slowly made our way down the road. Just short of the village, we saw some farmers harvesting their wheat crops. We pulled over and asked them where the Chen family home was located. “Wo bu zhi dao” (“I do not know”) they barked back at us, seemingly very agitated that anyone would even ask them. We moved on slowly through the village and every time the same answer came back to us. Of course, something was very wrong if a village that has a population of just 500 did not know where the house of a blind lawyer who had been arrested, put in jail, released, held under house arrest, beaten, escaped on foot, caused a massive diplomatic scandal upon entering the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and who was now living in New York was.

So, we walked the small alleyways that made up the village, and finally got a hold of Chen’s brother Guangfu on the phone. By this stage, we were really worried about who we would encounter around the next corner. Previous visits by journalists trying to enter the village had resulted in them being physically removed and being driven directly to the closest airport. Some had even had their equipment damaged beyond repair. Guangfu arrived on a bike, smiling and very happy to see us. We walked with him to the family home, just five minutes away, and discovered of course that it was at the exact spot where we had first asked someone after entering the village. Guangfu said he was certain that all the villagers had been told not to talk to any foreigners, because normally they would all be out of their homes watching them.

An Austrian clone, made in China

By Tyrone Siu

An elegant black swan sliding silently on the lake, cutting into the reflection of European style wooden houses and church clock tower in the water – the rare image radiated a moment of peacefulness in my mind until it was disrupted by a loud thundering sound of a truck passing by. It was not until then that I paid a closer look to the bird and found it to be a dark duck – another small replica, as part of a massive copycat project from China.

The $940-million-dollar project, conceived by a Chinese mining tycoon, is to clone Austria’s most picturesque village, Hallstatt. Even though it’s in the largest replica-industry county in the world, it still keeps people wondering how such an extensive scale of copying can be done, and whether it is even possible for the SIM city to be materialized into a dream village. I soon find out my answer.

SLIDESHOW: CHINA COPIES AN AUSTRIAN VILLAGE

Like the black duck I saw, other parts of the village gave me a similar kind of awkwardness. The structures and facilities look almost the same as the Austrian village I saw in photographs, but the spirit and taste of the complex is so typically Chinese. The supposedly peaceful atmosphere with relaxing background music is spoiled by the frequent shuttling of trucks carrying materials, bringing up dust and releasing the smell of gas. Rubbish and bags can be seen piling along the artificial lake, while the village is surrounded by construction work. You can occasionally see Chinese builders carrying bamboo sticks and wooden ladders across the little European town that would only be used by the East. The images are hilarious.

Gay and out in China

By Aly Song

As society in China modernizes, its gay community is less mysterious and increasingly part of the country’s fabric, pursuing dreams and happiness like other citizens.

Before setting out to document this story, I had a somewhat stereotypical image of gay Chinese – that they lived colorful and comfortable lives, with prominent members often active in the fashion and entertainment industries, that they wore exquisite clothes and were in top physical shape. I imagined two men sitting in a bar smoking cigars and drinking wine, possibly discussing fashion trends or gossiping about showbiz stars.

But working on this story for more than three months changed my view. The reality was less romanticized, and reflected many people’s search for love anywhere, same sex or otherwise. In China, when seeking same-sex companionship, one way is to spend 20 yuan (3 U.S. dollars) for entrance to a gay bathhouse to find others sharing the same desire. Or you can pay 7 yuan (a little more than $1) to get into a gay dance club to find someone you like.

72 hours in Shanghai

By Carlos Barria

Occasionally, along with covering the news stories like the economy, politics, sports and social trends, we (Reuters photographers) have time to do something really fun.

Weeks ago, over a couple of beers, a friend from the BBC had the idea of putting a camera on the hood of a car and shooting a time-lapse sequence for a story he was working on. I’d never done a time-lapse project myself, so when I was asked to come up with an idea for Earth Hour on March 31— when cities across the world switch off their lights at 8:30 pm— my colleague Aly Song and I thought we’d give it a try. We decided to shoot sequences during the three days leading up to Earth Hour, ending with the dimming of the lights in Shanghai’s city center.

(View a full screen version here)

It was also a good opportunity to buy some new toys at Chinese prices, such as suction cup camera holders used to secure the camera on top of a car or any other surface.

Diving, not a sport for wimps

By Stefan Wermuth

I had the opportunity to cover a training session of Britain’s future Olympic diving hopefuls at the Crystal Palace Diving Club in London.

When I arrived the session had already started in a dry diving gym.  It was a room full of trampolines, diving boards, mats and mostly young girls performing somersaults or other flips. “Quicker, quicker” shouted one of the three Chinese coaches.

China’s divers are currently dominating the sport.  They won all the gold medals at last year’s world championships. The British diving club decided to recruit Chinese coaches seven years ago when London won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics.  Now, 15 of the approximately 460 children in the program are in the top England talent squad.

The long and the short of it

By David Gray

The Safedom condom company’s factory is located in the town of Zhaoyuan, located 100 kilometers south of the city of Yantai, Shandong Province, China. Safedom turned its back on the low-margin, guaranteed-business sales to the Chinese government’s family planning program 11 months ago, and decided to shift to where the money is: the higher end of the general public market. Claiming to be the fourth-largest condom maker in China by revenue, after three foreign brands, they are hoping to sell one billion condoms this year with the launch of its “Take Me” condom, aimed at women consumers, and partnerships with French, Italian, German and UK condom makers.

I was led into a rather unassuming building and greeted by the company’s executives. Here they told me during a brief introduction, that I was to ‘behave’ when touring the production floor, and not disclose any company ‘secrets’. This made me chuckle, though I certainly didn’t show it, as I thought this was how you may talk to a child – the very thing their product was aiming to prevent.

We were then given the appropriate disinfected clothing for ‘protection’, including mesh to cover the ‘rubber’ on the soles of my shoes. Then we were put into a room which blew strong air over us to remove any unwanted dust. From here, I was led into the first area of the production line, which involved a belt containing thousands of phallic-shaped metal rods with condoms placed over them traveling at a hefty pace around the factory floor. Now when you first see the size of these rods, you have to ask the obvious question – Who are they making these condoms for? Dirk Diggler? However, it was explained to me that the rods help stretch the condom to see if they will break.

The dragon’s year

By David Gray

Xin nian kuai le!! To get around China, it helps to have a basic knowledge at least of the Chinese language. No question. And these four words will help you greatly at this time of year. What does it mean? I hear those not so knowledgeable about Chinese customs ask. Well, it’s Chinese new year. And wishing someone a Happy New Year will aid you in many ways. But saying it this year is an even bigger bonus, because this year is not just any year – it’s the year of the dragon. What exactly does this mean to Chinese? Well, for one, apparently, it’s the year to have a baby. I have heard this only whispered by my Chinese colleagues over the past few months. Why? Well, apparently, a dragon year is a seriously good year to be born. The Chinese horoscope says that Chinese Dragons (you could call them Dragon babies I suppose) lead a complicated life, but have beneath their stubborn exterior, a soft heart, and are born leaders. Good attributes you would have to say, especially when you consider other animals included on the list are a pig (full disclosure, that’s my year so I am not being nasty when saying this), a rat, an ox, monkey, snake and even a sheep. So, even though its the only fictitious animal on that list, you would have to say, a dragon is pretty cool. I mean, it breathes fire…..cmon, that’s cool!!

So, back to my big tip, especially useful upon your arrival in say Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or even Chengdu, when you jump in that taxi after enduring more than an hour of being jostled by boisterous fellow travelers, lean over to the driver and yell with zealous – Xin nian kuai le – and he will return your friendly gesture with a speedy ride to your place of abode. It will make your trip all the more pleasant and hopefully one to remember, in the Year of the Dragon.

Lipstick security

By David Gray

When I was told about this assignment late last Friday in Beijing, the brief was simple – a group of young female Chinese college graduates training to be bodyguards; sounded interesting. Little did I know how interesting it would actually be.

Myself and a Reuters television crew were met in a shopping mall car park by two obviously former military-trained men wearing army fatigues and dark sunglasses. This for starters was an unusual scene in China; a foreigner being driven by what looked like army personnel as shoppers did ‘double-takes’ as we drove away. Thinking we would be driving to a distant, secret location I settled in for the long ride. Five minutes later, we pulled into a driveway. In front of us were soccer fields, complete with mini-goalposts. What were we doing here?

Sitting at the side of one of the small fields was a group of women eating lunch. As we got closer, I could see they weren’t your usual group of young Chinese girls. Looking like catwalk models but dressed in army fatigues, one of our two male escorts barked an order at them. They quickly finished their food and stood up in formation. From a small hut out walked the head instructor. He was short, but noticeably fit and strong. Almost instantly, he had the girls running laps around the soccer field, yelling at them constantly with words of encouragement, but mostly abuse. After a few laps, the girls formed a line again, and one girl was asked why she wasn’t wearing any gloves. I couldn’t make out what her reply was but the next moment she was on the ground doing push-ups. This was going to be an interesting afternoon.

Breaking into confinement

By Aly Song

After finding out that I was going to do a story on “Zuo Yue Zi,” or “confinement period” in Mandarin, I realized that although I’m a Chinese man, I knew very little about this tradition. So I asked around and found out how unusual “Zuo Yue Zi” was.

I was told that in general Chinese women lie in bed for the first month after they give birth. Usually the mother-in-law or a skilled elderly woman takes care of the mothers and helps them throughout the month. During this period, the new mothers shall not take a bath, wash their hair and some are not even allowed to brush their teeth. (It is believed that when new mothers go through physical changes after giving birth, their teeth may loosen.) In the past this must have sounded very scary, however, things are different nowadays. This brings us to the modernized luxury “Zuo Yue Zi” center – CareBay.

Walking into the lobby felt like stepping into a five-star hotel. All the employees were in clean and neat clothes; always ready to provide service to clients. The center is able to hold more than 30 new mothers, each living in individual rooms. The new mothers don’t need to do anything here, and they barely even leave their rooms. There are about 120 employees at CareBay including maternity care experts, health consultants, beauticians and nutritionists who look after the new mothers as well as their babies. The cost for a one-month service is between 79,800 yuan ($12,600) and 380,000 yuan ($60,000). This expense covers food, accommodation, slimming exercises and yoga lessons for the mother and nursing services for the child. At CareBay, new mothers can take showers and do some limited exercises three weeks after giving birth. The new babies take sun baths and do swimming exercises on a daily basis, which must be pretty relaxing.

China’s deserted fake Disneyland

By David Gray

Along the road to one of China’s most famous tourist landmarks – the Great Wall of China – sits what could potentially have been another such tourist destination, but now stands as an example of modern-day China and the problems facing it.

Situated on an area of around 100 acres, and 45 minutes drive from the center of Beijing, are the ruins of ‘Wonderland’. Construction stopped more than a decade ago, with developers promoting it as ‘the largest amusement park in Asia’. Funds were withdrawn due to disagreements over property prices with the local government and farmers. So what is left are the skeletal remains of a palace, a castle, and the steel beams of what could have been an indoor playground in the middle of a corn field.

Pulling off the expressway and into the car park, I expected to be stopped by the usual confrontational security guards. But there was absolutely no one to be seen. I walked through one of the few entrances not boarded up, and instantly started coughing. In front of me were large empty rooms and discarded furniture, all covered in a thick layer of dust, along with an eerie silence that gave the place a haunted feeling – an emotion not normally associated with a children’s playground.