Ryan Pyle is a Canadian photographer living in China. Despite his photos regularly appearing in some of the most well-known English-language publications, he doesn't like to call himself a photojournalist. J-Source's Rhiannon Russell spoke with Pyle about this distinction, how he balances journalistic standards when shooting for news and what it's like working in China.
Ten years ago, Ryan Pyle decided to leave Toronto and move to China. The country inspired him so much that he picked up a camera and began documenting its changing landscape. He now lives in Shanghai and freelances for several esteemed North American and British media outlets. He has no formal photography training.
Most recently, Pyle and his brother travelled by motorcycle around China’s perimeter, documenting the experience for an upcoming book and TV series, the Middle Kingdom Ride.
J-Source talked to Pyle about his work, why he doesn’t see himself as a photojournalist, and what it’s like working in China.
J-Source: You consider yourself a documentary photographer, not a photojournalist. Why the distinction?
Ryan Pyle: I just think that journalism is a limited medium of storytelling, and I think that hopefully my photography goes beyond journalism, or my photography has interest outside of the journalism realm. I think that that would probably be the best way to describe it. And the fact that I’m interested in photographing things that don’t have any journalism value at all, so I don’t want my photography to be narrowly viewed as just something that has journalistic value.
When I’m working as a photographer in China, one of the things I’m always trying to do is understand how it is that people are living, and I try to look at the way they live, they way they make ends meet, where they work, how far they have to travel every day, what they are eating, where their parents are from, where their ancestors are from, and then, all of a sudden, you stop and think about it, and what you’re really doing is just being an anthropologist. You’re trying to understand as much as you can about these people … and the idea is to capture that using photography. Sometimes I like to call myself an anthropologist with a camera, because, in many ways, that’s a lot of what I do. I try to understand as much as I can about people in a place.
J-Source: Your photos regularly appear in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, among others. If you’re not a journalist, how do you describe this relationship you have with news outlets?
RP: I think that news outlets are a fantastic way to earn an income if you’re a photographer, and a lot of the anthropological work that I do, or a lot of the documentary photography that I do fits very well into the journalism world … Just because you lend your photography to magazines and newspapers to make a living, doesn’t mean that’s the be all and end all of who you are and what you want to be and what you want to get out of your photography.[node:ad]
J-Source: And you don’t limit yourself to doing photography for media outlets?
RP: Recently, I’ve begun creating television shows, producing television shows, and then presenting television shows, and I’ve written a book about this as well. I’m kind of venturing into other forms. I do corporate photography as well. I work for large, multinational corporations that have projects that are going on inside China.
J-Source: There are standards that photojournalists have to abide by (like not manipulating their photos, for instance). How do you determine when it’s appropriate to abide by these standards and when it’s not?
RP: I’m very passionate about this. I think it’s very important. I don’t digitally manipulate or edit my photos in any way. I don’t even crop my photos. I’m very, very strict about this. From a journalistic standpoint, you never show anything that wasn’t there, you never take away anything that was there. This is a real rule you definitely can’t be breaking. For my black and white photography or for my anthropological work, this is definitely a rule I abide by. For corporate photography, sometimes you’re doing a portrait, and sometimes the client will cut out the person and put in a different room or something like that. You know, you can’t really help what they’ll do in their annual report. But that’s not the same style of journalism; it’s not going to be in the press, it’s not going to be taken as fact.
J-Source: The Chinese government is known for suppressing and censoring local media. Does this make your work there difficult?
RP: Because the Chinese government suppresses local media, that doesn’t really make my work difficult, it just kind of makes my work more important. Obviously there’s a lot of good journalists in China, but sometimes they are restricted by what they can and cannot report, whereas people like myself are less restricted. Sometimes there’s interference and things like that, but for the most part, we’re able to report on what we feel is important. Most of the time when I’ve had interference, it hasn’t been government-related. It’s been some wacky private citizen who just decided to hold us hostage. [Once, Pyle and a journalist visited a factory at which children’s toys were being painted with lead paint. Upon their arrival, the factory owner detained them for several hours.] These kinds of things can happen, because … the understanding of what journalists might or might not be able to do, or just what’s right and wrong, is different than what would be the norm in Canada.
All photos above courtesy of Ryan Pyle. Check out some more of his photography at his website.