Issue #14: Minimize Harm: Covering Protests in China with Discretion and Empathy
Our urgent suggestions to visual journalists/editors working in/on China
It’s Yan, Beimeng, and Charlotte here.
Frustration over China’s draconian zero-Covid policy has been simmering for months, but the demonstrations across China over the last few days still caught most by surprise. After a fire in Urumqi that killed ten people, people took to the streets to mourn the dead, raising blank white papers to demand freedom of speech and the end of lockdowns.
While the blank paper is arguably the most powerful visual coming out of the demonstrations so far, we’ve also seen much media coverage and live footage. Some, in which demonstrators' faces are clearly shown, raised concerns for us. While we understand the journalistic responsibility to document what happens in public spaces, we’re concerned that those photos may create openings for retaliation, from doxxing and professional consequences to persecution by police.
In a country where protests are rarely tolerated, being photographed in a protest may have unthinkable consequences for the individual. Of course, one could argue that the surveillance apparatus in the streets can catch everything anyway, and the demonstrators have shown agency by taking to the streets. Months of censorship, secrecy, and pent-up anger drove people to take action, and their bravery is an inspiration to many who had lost hope in a politically depressing time. That said, it is one thing to participate, faces bare, in a crowd, and another to be featured in mainstream international media as faces of “defiance” next to headlines about “challenging Xi”.
Our concern is similar to the debate among photojournalists in the U.S. on photography and discretion in showing faces of demonstrators when covering #BlackLivesMatters protests, given FBI requests for photographic evidence to connect anti-police brutality demonstrators with charges of looting and vandalism. Authority Collective, an organization for marginalized lens-based artists, published a Do No Harm statement in which they quoted the Code of Ethics from professional organizations such as the SPJ and NPPA to make the case for “minimizing harm” and “giving special consideration to vulnerable subjects” while reporting.
What makes these two cases similar is the power imbalance between the demonstrators and law enforcement, and the possibility of journalistic images falling into the hands of law enforcement and thus reinforcing these existing power dynamics even further.
Therefore, we call on photojournalists and photo editors, as well as other members of editorial teams to take special care when handling visuals of protests coming out of China. We believe there are still many ways to photograph the protests without having to show people’s faces upfront. Here are a few suggestions we’d like to offer, from our perspective as current and former journalists with experience in covering China. We have also sought community contribution in creating these pointers.
Suggestions below apply to both photo and video journalism:
First and foremost, we’re not asking photographers to refrain from taking photos during a demonstration. We believe in the importance of documenting what is happening truthfully and honestly and bearing witness to history. What we want to emphasize is the timing and context of publication, with special care given to the community in focus.
Avoid photographing demonstrators who can be easily identified. Be creative with framing and camera angles to photograph faces that are partially covered by their hands, masks, objects, or others in the crowd, or employ wide shots in which faces are hard to identify. One exception is when capturing an arrest, which might help to put pressure on authorities for release.
If you do end up having to publish a photo with uncovered faces, obtain explicit consent from the individuals, and be ready to explain to them where these photos might end up.
Photographers may not have the luxury to take a breath and make holistic judgments on the ground, but you can help when selecting photos from the frontlines. Apply due diligence on a case-by-case basis, consult a Chinese staffer or people who’re knowledgeable about China when in doubt.
We’re not asking for manipulation in post production, such as blurring.
When deciding on a header image to go with a headline, consider the context and avoid juxtaposing identifiable individuals alongside headlines that may suggest a false connection.
In the case of this demonstration in Beijing, the participants photographed made a clear statement saying they do not call for Xi to step down or the end of Communist Party rule, but rather to demand rule of law, freedom of speech, and free elections.
We understand the difficulty of working in China as a visual journalist nowadays, but we call on our colleagues to consider the consequences for individuals when making editorial decisions. We also invite you to join the discussion in the comment section or on Twitter and let us know your thoughts on the topic.
Who we are:
Yan Cong is formerly a photojournalist currently pursuing a research MA in new media and digital culture in Amsterdam.
Beimeng Fu is a video journalist based in Shanghai. She is a lover of languages and documentaries.
Ye Charlotte Ming is a journalist and visuals editor covering stories about culture, history, and identity. She’s based in Berlin and working on a book about her hometown’s German colonial past.
Writers: Beimeng Fu, Yan Cong, Ye Charlotte Ming; Copy editor: Krish Raghav
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