CO2 emissions from China are increasing faster than from any other country in the world.
Coal workers waiting for a job in downtown Taiyuan.
Immune Media's Questions for Christian Als:
1. In the China Loves Coal series, I feel like i'm being presented with things, (like "Here is X. Here is Y.") rather than involved or present. It's very different not only in content- but also compositionally and stylistically- from other stories...say, Haiti, for example). Do you agree? If so, was it purposeful?
That might be right. China Loves Coal was extremely difficult to document. To work on a controversial issue in a country like China is quite a challenge. Nobody is particulary interested in having this kind of photo essay displaying the mess and the poor working conditions the miners endure everyday. So it is not really possible to be present or get too involved when working on a story like this. The one time I ventured into the working area of an illegal mine in Shanxi Province, I was chased away by drunk, mad miners with shovels!!
But I like the series very much even though it is not the way I normally shoot a story. It kind of shows my working conditions as well as what is possible when documenting an issue like this. Stylistically it differs because of that. Also I decided to turn the whole body of work into 6x7 in post production, and that adds to the wholly different feeling.
Work like Gaza or Haiti are newsy and in that case I see it as my duty to try and document the events unfolding as truly and straight as can be. I would never try to postulate in news stories, but in stories like China Loves Coal, I feel I can “raise my voice” just a bit. If I have this voice in my work, what do I want to say? This is a serious issue for millions of human beings in China, and I want to show the world that the economic miracle going on in China these years have a flipside. The consequenses are huge, and they hit hardest for the poorest citizens of China.
2. What's the first time you ever got paid for doing photography?
That was a wedding ;-) I needed money to purchase [photo] equipment, so I shot a wedding reportage-style in black and white and they loved it and paid me quite a bit of money.
I actually shot about ten weddings during the time of education. Same concept every time; black and white reportage from early morning till the dance at midnight. Because of the many hours, it paid quite well. No compromises, "my thing" or I turned them away. Made quite a lot of money that way, but now I don't have the time or the desire to do it anymore.
I learned a lot from those weddings, and would do it again- People handling, getting the vital moments and putting the whole thing together in a tight edit. Giving the couple a document for them to hold in the future. "No compromise" is the way you can make a wedding interesting to shoot. If you go into any shoot with the idea of the next great shot could be just around the corner, you can make super images at a wedding or anywhere else. I recommend all new photographers to do it....
3. How much photoshop is too much?
Difficult to answer, I guess I have my own guidelines and often it is as much a feeling as anything else. There certainly is a fine line between underworked and heavily overworked post production. I use Photoshop to enhance the feeling in the image, to add contrast and to crop. That is basically what I do. But I guess I do it to an extent, where some think it is pretty overworked.
It comes down to culture and what you are used to in the country where you live. To me, American photographers tend to Photoshop less than, say Italian or Danish photographers do. In general it should come down to the images should look natural and not stand in the way of the content of the story being told.
4. Now that everyone's a photographer, will professionals survive?
I see a business in a dire state at the moment. Has been for quite a while. Actually the whole industry hasn’t been all too healthy for some years now. I have been a professional since 2004, and over these years it has only gotten worse. But surely there is a way in if you are determined, talented and willing to make your living standards at a simple level. In other words, don’t do photojournalism for the money!
In these hard times, it is important, more than ever, that photojournalists see themselves as storytellers. Everyone can push the button and take a picture, but not everyone have the talent to show the world new ways of thinking or are able to open the window to the world, to things you didn’t even know exists.
There will always be concerned photographers and if they can’t get their work published in the traditional media, they will find other ways of getting in touch with the concerned part of the public; galleries, blogs, through NGO’s or something totally new. You can find your audience out there, for sure.
5. Would you rather ::: Drink 1 liter of water from the Sushui River or eat 50g of coal?
No matter what river in China, I would opt for the coal, because at least I would then know what I put into my body. I have seen what happens to the Chinese people who drink directly out of Songhua River, as documented in my work The River Runs Black – deadly! I would go for the coal; I believe I inhaled more than 50g of coal in the ten days I travelled through Shanxi Province for China Loves Coal, and I believe I have survived without complications from that:-)
6. In image #18, I don't see any clothing anywhere near that guy. Where are his pants?
His pants lie a few meters from him, at the top of the stairs leading down to the water. It is a scene seen quite often in China. Especially the elder Chinese population still do what they always did- washing themselves on their way home from work in a local water source, a river, a lake. Nothing strange about this, but it looks a little bizarre, especially when you know the level of chemicals in this particular river in the heavily polluted Shanxi Province.