Photographers' Blog

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.

Moving along the belt, we came across a group of women actually flicking the condoms over and onto the rods. Now the speed at which these women could do this was simply frightening. You could not see it with the ‘naked’ eye. The first few attempts I tried at capturing this was with a shutter speed of 1/250th. Nowhere near fast enough. Let’s try 1/800th. Nope. Surely 1/1250th. Wrong. Now I was getting in trouble. It’s dark, and my ISO (I so want to use ASA but that would be showing my age) is already at 4000, and any higher the images will start to be to ‘noisy’ (this is not a pun, just a way of saying how the higher the ISO speed, the more blue pixels become evident in the shadows). So, I had to accept some movement on the condoms.

The next place was really hilarious, the testing room. Every 20 seconds or so, a condom is taken from the production belt, put inside a small glass container, and blown up. They reach about one meter in height before exploding with a great ‘bang’. Next to this, was a testing apparatus using liquids, aimed at seeing how much the condoms would stretch when filled. Again, they exploded after what seemed like a massive amount was emptied into them.

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.

Stepping into the endless abyss

By Jason Lee

According to official reports, there will be 780,000 HIV-positive people in China by the end of 2011. As drug injection is one of the main causes of AIDS infections, the Chinese government has to face the situation and come up with appropriate solutions to help those estimated 1.8 million drug users in China.

Yunnan, a province located in southwest China at the border of the Golden Triangle, is a hot zone for AIDS infections. It took great effort to apply to the Yunnan province judicial and public security offices to receive permission allowing me to photograph a compulsory drug rehabilitation center and a drug addicts recovery community in provincial capital Kunming.

Most people think that drug addicts are a group of people who are full of lies. This shows how drugs can change a person’s humanity. I have heard so many painful stories from drug addicts. What we need urgently is a good solution to help them get back to normal lives. Because of China’s large population, I believe it is the government’s duty to help. After I finished transmitting my pictures from Yunnan, a picture editor commented “They seem to be pretty good over there.” I replied, “Yes, and I think if ever my friend becomes addicted to drugs, I will personally suggest that he goes there.”

One step at a time

By Carlos Barria

When I was a kid in the south of Argentina, we used to say that if you dig a very deep hole to the other side of the earth, you will end up in China. In my case, China was literally on the other side of the planet; about as far from Patagonia as you can get. Thirty years later, I made it here. I didn’t come through a tunnel, but on a plane that flew over the North Pole.

I moved to China one year ago in the position of staff photographer in Shanghai, China’s biggest and most cosmopolitan city. The challenge was enormous: a foreign culture, and a very foreign language.

I spent my first couple of days walking around the city, just wandering; something I hadn’t done in a long time. Before coming to China I lived in Miami, where I didn’t have much of an urban experience, unless you count sitting in traffic for long periods of time.

Probing plastinated life

By Sheng Li

I was totally amazed when I first saw the exhibition of the plastinated human body specimens. I couldn’t believe that inside our human skin we all look like that! After visiting the exhibition several times, my photographer instinct pushed me to do a story on it, focusing on the production process of the specimens.

On September 13, I finally received permission to visit the workshops of Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co., Ltd. I was very honored as according to the founder and chairman of the company Dr. Sui Hongjin, I was the first photographer allowed to photograph the whole process of the making of the specimens.

Founded in 2004, Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co., Ltd. specializes in the production, preservation and exhibition of plastinated biotic specimens of human and animals. Their workshops and the Mysterious Life Museum are located some 50 km (31 miles) from the center of Dalian city, in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.

Unmasking the masked boy

By Jason Lee

Last Thursday, I left Beijing for the village where the “Masked Boy” lives.

It took me seven hours by train and then by car to reach Mijiazhuang village. When I first saw the boy from a distance, I could already tell how lovely he was. He and his father Wang Shouwu were standing waiting for me. The boy waved at me as I approached. It didn’t take much time for us to get along. His fearless and caring heart comforted me. In fact, he even offered to carry my suitcase when we first met.

I’m not the first reporter to interview Wang Gengxiang. I went to the village because I sincerely wanted to help him. Although the money I donated to the family was relatively insufficient, his story was recognized and spread by many “netizens” on Weibo (Chinese Twitter), many of whom offered their help to the family, who has an income of nearly zero.

Vacation in North Korea?

If you are planning to take an exotic vacation, maybe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is your place.

A week ago I joined a group of foreign journalists and a delegation of Chinese tourism agents on a trip highlighted by a cruise that left the port area of North Korea’s Rason City and headed south to the country’s famous Mont Kumgang resort. To get to the ship, we took a bus from China to a border crossing in Hunchun. Before we arrived at customs, our Chinese guides collected our mobile phones. North Korean authorities don’t allow foreigners to carry any type of mobile communications.

When we crossed a bridge over the river Tumen Jiang, which marks the border between China and North Korea, we passed from a modern highway to an unpaved country road.