Our latest interview features China-based photographer Ryan Pyle. I was introduced to his work by a colleague back in 2006, and have been following his photography ever since. If you read the New York Times, chances are you have seen his pictures. Ryan has been shooting in the Middle Kingdom for about 10 years now, and his story reveals how he has coped with the ever-changing publishing industry, how he keeps his passion for photography alive, and how he comes to terms with being a representative of China to the West. Read on, to learn how Ryan has resiliently transitioned from photojournalism to documentary work and film-making.
Name: Ryan Pyle
Hometown: Shanghai, China. (Born in Toronto, Canada)
Tell us about yourself? How did you end up in China and how did you get started in professional photography?
After taking a few courses on Chinese history and politics at the University of Toronto I developed a curiosity about the country that was always lingering just below the surface of my consciousness; but I was never able to act on it. Once I completed my degree in May 2001 I proceeded to follow the herd and visited Europe for a month and backpacked around Spain and Portugal. While Europe is lovely, I was bored by the experience; everything was too similar to the life I had been living in Toronto. I was, in hindsight, looking for something radically different. Soon after returning to Toronto I worked for a few months and saved up enough money to make my maiden journey to China, thinking that it would fulfill me with the challenges I was looking for. Needless to say, I was inspired by China immediately. Its sheer size, complexity and culture intrigued me. The atmosphere, the air, the smells the colors; life in China was completely different than anything I had ever been confronted with; it was exactly what I was looking for. My initial ninety-day trip to China was almost exactly ten years ago, and I’m proud to say that I’m still obsessed with exploring and understanding China and all it’s complexities.
My photography career developed in a very un-orthodox way. I really didn’t have much of an interest in photography growing up and I never formally studied how to be a photographer. But when I made my first trip to China I was mesmerized by how visual the country is; so much so that it inspired me to pick up a camera and start making images. After a few years I was able to start working for some of the major publications and build a career out of my passion for image making. It was very much China, and my early experiences exploring the country, that helped build my desire and passion for image making and documentation. I feel very lucky to have found a subject matter that inspired me so much at such an early age, and I believe that has been the largest factor in shaping my career to this day.
Favorite camera and lens? Why?
I’m a purest in many ways, so my favorite camera is my Leica M6 and my favorite lens is the 28mm f/2.0. It’s a film camera. It’s small and silent and allows me to drift amongst the crowds and focus in on people without raising too much attention to myself. I do commercial work with a Canon 5D2, which is the standard issue camera these days. I usually use a 28 1.8 and a 50 1.4 on that.
What is the best thing about being a photographer? Worst?
I think the idea of being a photographer, and controlling your own schedule and dynasty, is a romantic one. Sure, you have your freedom but if you don’t work you don’t eat. With no job stability there are certain pressures that need to be realized on a day-to-day basis. So, in one sense the best thing about being a photographer, the freedom, is also the worst thing: the stress of not working and enjoying too much freedom!
What was the best experience you had on the MK Ride?
The MKRIDE (www.mkride.com) wasn’t a photography job or a photography tour at all. It was a 65 day – 15,000 mile – motorcycle adventure which was also a television production and book project. The television and book will be out this coming summer 2012. As for the best experience of the journey, it was having a chance to ride our motorcycles to Mount Everest Base Camp (18,000ft above sea level). There was a road called the G219 highway, running from western Xinjiang into Tibet, along the border of India and Pakistan, with a high altitude of about 16,000 feet. It unbelievable. It was about 1,000 miles long, took about 4 days, and there was nothing. We rode it on our motorcycles, truly in the middle of nowhere, no villages, just a bit of Chinese military. It was very pretty, and we’ve named our new company G219 Productions. That road stuck with us so much that we wanted to name our company after it. We are looking at another ride around India. Another venture that I’m doing more of as well. That’s another tangent in the career as I try to diversify.
Are you able to get by on photojournalism alone? Do you also do a bit of commercial work?
I also do a lot of commercial photography in China. There are a lot of international companies that have operations in China that regularly need their staff or facilities photographed for annual reports or internal publications, so I am also involved in this type of photography which can be very rewarding. Some of my most exciting imagery has come from inside the Three Gorges Dam and from the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center, both of which were corporate assignments.
What was the most memorable assignment you had in China?
I think the most memorable assignment so far in my career was when the New York Times sent me out to Anhui province to get to grips with what was going on with Bird Flu in the Chinese countryside. My first thought was that we were all going to end up getting bird flu but the story took some interesting twists and turns along the way, and we ended up being on the front page of the New York Times. It’s was strange to get a phone call in the middle of the night. Obviously there’s a little bit of apprehension about the disease and all these birds dying. We heard that the Chinese government was going to vaccinate100 million birds, and thought “can they really do this?” They were giving vaccinations to all the birds in one county, but they were using the same needle to inject hundreds of birds. Eventually, we got chased out by the police, or local thugs.
Have you often had problems with authorities while trying to cover sensitive issues?
I wouldn’t say its common but it definitely happens, especially in more remote places, like Anhui where things are a little bit backwards. There is no real way to deal with it. When you get kicked out you get kicked out. Sometimes you’re with a fixer or writer and let them do most of the conversation. Maybe you get kicked out and go back under the cover of darkness. I don’t do too much of that kind of work now anymore. I’m mostly working in fine art and documentary and less journalism. I’m branching out more into other aspects.
How has your career direction changed over the years?
Part of my change of direction has been of my own doing. Part of it was the publishing industry which completely fell apart. It’s just been horrible. It was leading to a downfall prior to 2008, but thats when it hit a wall. It got really bleak really fast. It was partly my own growth, and partly a necessity; in order to survive in this industry. I was once getting 40 assignments a year from the NYT. Now I get 4 or 5. They’re still doing the same amount of stories, but more are without imagery. That’s an example of how things are changing. Everyone has been cutting back, magazines and newspapers, and many have even gone bankrupt.
How long do you see yourself being based in China?
I see my term in China being open ended. I have no interest in leaving the country, and the country still has plenty of stories to keep someone like me busy for the next 50 years. I enjoy living in Shanghai and as long as that continues I’ll be here for the remainder of my career; and perhaps longer.
Is there a line between your personal and professional work?
Not all of my work I get paid for is the work that I’m the most excited to do. Sometimes you kind of lose your enjoyment with what you’re doing. You have to balance what fills your soul and what fills your wallet. Sometimes in corporate photography industry there are quiet seasons. The summer and Christmas time for example are very quiet. I like to branch out and do some trips in China, pursue some stories, or some longer term projects. That’s kind of my soul food, and it rejuvenates my interest in photography.
Do you use off-camera flash at all? What’s your approach and how do you make it work?
I don’t use any flashes, unless I am doing a corporate assignment. My main documentary work is all natural light and mainly film work. Once again, I’ve been educated with an “old school” philosophy of working in traditional ways with traditional equipment.
If you could shoot anything, what would it be?
My dream camera is a Lecia M6, and I’m lucky enough to have one; and I use it constantly. I don’t get very excited by the new digital equipment. My personal dream would be to drift around China aimlessly by bus or public transportation with a small little Leica photographing people in black in white, on film. That’s my dream scenario, but it’s probably not possible. From a financial perspective you can win grants that can fund this kind of photography. It might have been likely to happen 10 years ago, but not now.
Where do you see your photography career heading?
I see my career moving away from assignment photography and more towards long-term projects that will lead to photographic and written books. This long-term analysis and investigative documentary photography is much more rewarding and satisfying to me than 1-2 days assignments week in and week out. My hope is that my first book, on my six-year project in Chinese Turkestan, will lead to several more publications in the near future.
What have you learned after all your time in China?
I think the thing that I take away most from my experience in China is the way I look at the world – it is a messy place. Development is also very messy. I feel like a lot of people don’t really come to terms with that. When a country grows as fast as China does, there is no way of making that growth even or sustainable. People are in a headlong push to make a better life for themselves and their family. I think that’s a global phenomenon. These arguments you hear in the West, about slowing down the machine that is China; its not really possible. A lot of times the Western world holds China to an unfair status as being a developed nation. But anyone who has been here and traveled here knows that China is far from being a developed nation. A 30 minute taxi ride out of the city center, and it’s a different world. As for the image of China, I’m partly to blame for that. I think the West interprets China in a very unfair way, and I help portray that image, which is taken in soundbites, and not a full length understanding. This is why I started doing a lot of lectures and lecture tours, and share my experiences about China, instead of just showing my photography which is not always a complete story.
A few of Ryan’s photographs (click through for more)