Singaporean photographer Sim Chi Yin is one of a few photographers based in China who works for the international media. She has lived in Beijing since 2007, capturing intimate photo stories on social issues. Earlier this year she became a full member of the prestigious VII Photo Agency. In this interview with GUP, Sim speaks about working under censorship, the joy of starting new photo projects, and how international media have not kept up with the reality of China.
Sim Chi Yin (b. 1978) has just returned from travelling and is in good spirits: “Whenever I’m photographing outside China, I feel like I’m on a vacation,” she says over lunch in an organic bar in Chaoyang, Beijing’s business district. “People think that China is a country of amazing imagery, and it is. But if you want to do something other than landscape or street photography, it means you will have to try to get into people’s lives. And in China that takes an awful lot of time because people are suspicious.”
Yet, getting into people’s lives is what Sim’s work relies on. As a fourth-generation Chinese-Singaporean she speaks fluent Mandarin and often finds her subjects by talking to strangers in shops and restaurants, or reading Chinese literature. For the widely published series Rat Tribe she photographed people who live in basements underneath apartment blocks in Beijing. The estimated one million mostly young migrants work as waiters, hairdressers or clerks, and save on rent by living underground. In a more recent series, Dying to Breathe, Sim documented a gold miner named He, who suffers from silicosis, a lung disease caused by breathing dust in the mines – and is China’s most prevalent occupational disease. Sim documented the last three years of He's life.
In much of your work you portray people in vulnerable situations. How do you negotiate with yourself regarding when it’s OK to pick up your camera, and when you should leave it in its bag?
I actually spend much of my time drinking tea and talking rubbish with people, because I believe that it’s never a good idea to shoot when you first meet. When I get together with some other photographer friends here in China, we sometimes talk about the challenge of having to invest so much time and energy to even begin to get to the point of making pictures. For the long personal projects which require deep intimacy, I’ve learnt that it’s usually only during the second visit or sometimes even third or fourth, when I start taking pictures. For example, when I was photographing miner He, I didn’t shoot much on my first trip to the mountain village where they live. His wife was suspicious of me and they had had bad experiences with previous journalists. It was not till six months later that my relationship with them changed fundamentally.
What had changed?
His wife called me in the wee hours one morning. She was crying on the phone, saying: “He’s dying, you have to help him.” I called a Chinese friend who runs an NGO, raised 10,000 RMB for his surgery and flew out there to pick Mr. He up and took him to hospital. For the following very traumatic week in hospital – Mr. He almost suffocated and died a few times – I was his caregiver and court jester by his bedside. This was when my relationship with them changed and the story blasted open, and the photos did, too. While there was not much happening in them beforehand – it was just a sick man sitting around –suddenly there was visual drama in them.
What do you mean by visual drama?
You know, I sometimes envy my friends who work in Latin America or Africa or India. My friend in India shot this beautiful picture of a drug-addicted man. He was very skinny, wore very little clothing, and he’s shooting up into his groin. In the background, his wife is walking past and their baby is on the bed, crying. In a million years, I would probably never get a picture like that in China. No matter how good I am in getting access, no matter how trusting people are, things are just not so visually dramatic here. China is a subtle place.
What kind of photo stories do you think should media look for in a subtle place?
Subtle stories don’t sell well, so what happens is that the international media publish story after story on smog. We like easy-to-understand things, we like visually dramatic things, we like things that look freaky. It’s the nature of the media to give us those things. But smog has become the stereotypical story on China. There’s a belief among some in the West that it is very brave, anti-establishment work to document environmental pollution in China. Ten or twenty years ago it would have been. But in the past seven, eight years, tackling pollution has become part of the central government’s agenda. While one might still get chased away and attacked by factory owners and local governments who want to protect their interests, it’s not anti-government to document the problem of pollution in China anymore. If you look at the official Chinese media and Chinese photo contests, you will see any number of stories and photographs on pollution issues around the country. So, in some ways, international media and people’s perception and knowledge of China have not kept up with the reality of China.
You’ve had troubles getting Dying to Breathe published. What happened?
National Geographic laid out ten pages for it, but then dropped it. Most media only wanted to show it online, they found it “too sad”, or “unsuitable” to include in print. There’s such a difference with my series Rat Tribe, which is older work, but which is still being published – it’s much more palatable and cute. It’s an interesting example to think about in terms of what the international media want to see of the China story. The distribution of these two stories was completely different. Of course there’s also an overall fatigue with negative or sob stories from the Third World, in a year of a lot of bad news from elsewhere.
Unfortunately, it has become harder to show critical work in the current political climate in China.
What about in China, was Dying to Breathe published here?
It was published as a photo essay with a fund-raising page by Tencent, one of China’s largest portals and it went viral. The story raised 100,000 RMB for the He family in two days, helping them erase their lifetime of debt – and allowing Mr He to die somewhat in peace. Besides the photos, a short film and a radio piece, I made a five-minute video in which Mr. He speaks directly to President Xi Jinping, in a Shaanxi accent, because they’re both from the same province. He asks the president to provide medical care to migrant mine workers like him, who had no knowledge of the risks and had to work in unsafe circumstances in mines, as the state encouraged them to do around twenty years ago. The video was taken offline within minutes after we put it online on several Chinese platforms. Even after we cut out the president’s name, it must have already been picked up by the censors, because every time we tried putting it up, it was taken down immediately. So Asia Society’s ChinaFile web magazine helped me put it up and on Vimeo too, in English and Chinese, and it circulated that way within China. Many people tell me that it was shared widely on WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform.
Unfortunately, it has become harder to show critical work in the current political climate in China. I was going to have a travelling exhibition of Dying to Breathe, so that the photos could be seen in mining villages, but it’s on the backburner right now.
What would happen if you did try to exhibit it?
The photos have been exhibited at two photo festivals in China but where the work verges over into advocacy is where there might be political risks. The space for doing that kind of work has became smaller over the past few years. It doesn’t mean that documentarians shouldn’t do work anymore, but our strategies will need to be different, and I don’t know how yet. Maybe it’s just about waiting things out. Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang gave an interesting interview earlier this year where he intimated that he would not do his usual hardhitting social documentaries for now but make art, because trying to advocate seems quite futile in the current climate.
You’re currently working on a long-term personal project about your grandfather. Could you tell us about it?
A few years ago, my mother showed me a photo of my grandfather with a camera around his neck. I was very struck that there had been another photographer in the family and that I’d never known about it. My family never told me anything about him.
So, I went to the southern Chinese village where he is buried and, from my relatives, I found out that my grandfather had quite possibly been a communist activist. He was killed by the Kuomintang [the Chinese Nationalist Party], just before the communists took power. For my father and his siblings, it was like, “No no no, there’s no way our father was a communist.” In Singapore and Malaysia, you don’t talk about being a communist, because that’s anti-state. My family didn’t want to talk about my grandfather for 62 years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism versus so-called ‘art’ lately. Does one have more impact than the other?
I’ve been slowly working on a new project tentatively titled “For This My Grandfather Died”. The history books written on the Malayan Emergency (the anti-colonial war in British-ruled Malaya in the 1940s – 1960) so far have been based on the British archives, and on the colonial point of view, which portrays the anti-colonial activists as a faceless group of terrorists, so I want to look at what they did, hear people’s stories about that side of history. I’m trying to balance the historical narrative a bit – but it was a complex time where both sides did terrible things, it was a war – and I want to register these small people’s histories. Again, access is a problem, because even after all those years, people are suspicious. They’re afraid to be seen as communists, they’re afraid they will be condemned, maybe even by their own children, as my grandfather was. People learnt not to speak about it.
In this project, you include many different elements: from portraits to found photography and landscapes. While your previous work was more straight-on documentary photography, you seem to be more experimental now. Was this a conscious move?
I’ve been thinking a lot about journalism versus so-called ‘art’ lately. Does one have more impact than the other? In our noisy and fragmented world, people have a million things to look at these days on social media and news sites. So I’ve been thinking about the difference between reach and impact. If you have a piece come out in The New York Times, you’re reaching millions and millions of people across the world. But if you have an installation in a gallery somewhere, and maybe 500 people experience it and spend some of their time immersing themselves in your installation, they might come away thinking and feeling something about it.
I’m inspired to do work that is still deeply documentary in its soul and heart, but I’m at this stage keen to explore different forms – both in production and presentation. For my current project I’m doing a series of landscapes and portraiture in Malaysia, southern China and southern Thailand. It’s about evoking the feeling or the mood of the past, and less about catching a certain movement or interaction. I became very emotionally spent after Dying to Breathe, so it’s good that I’m taking a break from that kind of story. The landscapes are of course much slower than what I’m used to, but I’m enjoying it tremendously. I’m actually having a lot of fun doing it.
Let’s not forget about that.
Let’s not! I’ve always been so serious, trying to be a useful person and solve things. My friends told me recently that when I was a teenager, my favourite word was “self-indulgent”. “Oh, that’s so self-indulgent!” [laughs]. But I have become less intense about things. The people around me have seen me become more flaky over the years. So now they joke that I’m Benjamin Button, the character who was born as an old man, and, instead of growing older, gets younger. So the joke is that by the time I’m 50, I will be more silly. You know what? It’s OK to enjoy life a little.
Until February 19, 2017, Sim’s work can be seen at the exhibition Dispatches, at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, NC, USA
From February 18, 2017 until March 4, 2017, Sim’s series Rat Tribe will be on view at Photival, in Wellington, New Zealand.