Four Questions for Ryan Pyle
Ryan Pyle is a Guinness World Record holder. He’s also a documentary photographer whose work has been published in Newsweek, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times; a presenter; an author; an entrepreneur; and the owner of a production company that makes “insane adventure films.” Just don’t call him a photojournalist.
Pyle is also a Torontonian, born and raised, and went to school at the University of Toronto. He played basketball and planned on becoming a banker. But then he took a trip to China and fell in love with the country’s vibrant and diverse culture. He is now based in Shanghai, where he has spent the last decade establishing himself as a freelance photographer.
One of his most powerful projects is a black-and-white photography series on the Uyghur people in Chinese Turkestan, one of the most isolated places in the world (watch the slideshow below).
When he is not behind the lens of his (analog) Leica, Pyle is planning his next motorcycle trip: last year, he and his brother became the first people to circumnavigate China on motorcycle, a grueling 65-day, 18,000 km journey documented in the upcoming film The Middle Kingdom Ride (www.mkride.com).
Brigitte Noel had coffee with Ryan during one of his recent visits to Toronto, then promptly harassed him with these four questions, which he answered by email.
Thought Out Loud: You don’t call yourself a photojournalist, but rather a type of anthropologist. Yet your photos give a voice to some of the world’s most underrepresented or misunderstood people, a noble achievement most journalists strive toward. How would you define the mandate of your work? What are you hoping to accomplish through your photos?
Ryan Pyle: I try not to get too tied up in titles, but I can tell you as a photographer it is very important not to get too focused on being a journalist, as you’ll end up missing out on some image-making opportunities. Photography has a journalistic purpose but it is also a medium in its own right, and very much exists in its own space. My goal is pretty simple, to roam the lands of China looking for unique and interesting image making opportunities that share information about the way people are living and the way their lives are changing, or not changing. If that has a journalism element, so be it. But I feel the importance of the work and the long-term focus of these projects goes well beyond magazine and newspaper articles.
TOL: As news organizations tighten their belts, foreign bureaus are becoming somewhat of a rarity. This means an upsurge in “parachute journalism,” assignments in which reporters are catapulted into a country and expected to report on the goings on. As someone who is now integrated into Chinese culture and deems himself an expert on the country, what are your thoughts about this move away from resident foreign correspondents?
RP: Parachute journalism has a real importance in the world, because most parachute journalists bring with them, in the destination they are reporting, all the same baggage and stereotypes that their readership also possesses. And that’s why people like reading stories about Chinese people spitting on the streets and Chinese folks eating dog in restaurants. But it doesn’t take too much to see that there are deeper and more important stories going on, and as a long-term resident of China I feel that the important issues about how China is changing and developing are very much under-reported and this will only continue to get worse as budgets shrink and foreign bureaus close up shop.
TOL: A few weeks ago, radio program This American Life officially retracted an episode of their show, which was an excerpt from Mike Daisey’s theatre show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The episode was called “Daisey and the Apple Factory” and described horrid conditions at a Foxconn factory in China. Daisey has since come under fire for exaggerating the facts, though he maintains his work was theatre and not intended as journalism. This sparked a debate about the misconceptions surrounding Chinese working conditions and the country’s treatment of human rights. As someone who has been inside these factories and interacted with their workers, what can you tell us about the realities of the Chinese factory worker? What should people know?
RP: I can’t comment too much about Mike Daisey’s work, because I’ve never heard of him before. But unless he was inside one of these factories and actually spoke with some of the workers, I don’t know why anyone would take his report as fact. There are a lot of misconceptions about China, and as long as the country continues to grow and develop there will be a lot of people misreporting facts without seeing and experiencing events first hand; and even when some people see events first hand they need to have some basic knowledge and background in order to put those events in proper context. From my experiences factory workers in China work and exists in a variety of working environments that range from horrible to fantastic, and some work eight-hour shifts and others work 12-hour shifts, and some make shoes, and others make iPhones. When looking at the electronics manufacturing industry as a whole in China, Foxconn are one of the better employers and manufacturers in China; there are far more factories operating in bleaker conditions than Foxconn. It is tough for them because they get most of the attention due to their contract with Apple. If they made Nokia phones most people in the western world would never hear of them and wouldn’t care.
TOL: Your next project is another excursion with your brother, this time a motorcycle trip around India. Anything you’ll be doing differently than on your journey around China?
RP: Our motorcycle journey around China was an epic adventure and a fantastic brotherly achievement. We made a television series, wrote a book, and set a Guinness World Record.
Embedded inside all of that goodness were a lot of hard knocks, lessons learned, and personal growth. As we build our television program and expedition around India later this year, we’ll focus on many of the difficulties we had in China and we will adjust a lot of the filming and television aspects of our production. But to be honest, with all the complexities of film production and multiple month expeditions in remote countries, at the end of the day the single most important thing is to “keep the rubber down”. In other words, make sure you stay on your bike. As long as we are physically safe, all other challenges can be overcome.