Singapore-born, Beijing-based photographer
Sim Chi Yin spent four years documenting
the life and slow death of He Quangui, a
former gold miner afflicted with the lung
disease silicosis, and his wife, Mi Shixiu.
Sim’s photos were published in the U.S.
and after her video “Dying to Breathe”
was published on a web portal in China,
it helped raise about $16,000 for his care.
Here she explains in her own words her
decision to intervene at a crucial moment
in He’s life. (This interview has been
edited for length.)
SIM CHI YIN: It is difficult to explain
to people in [China] what you do as a
documentary photographer or why. In
the case of Mr. He, it took many months
before he understood what my intention
was and what his role was. I explained what
long-form documentary photography is.
I explained I wanted to capture him in his
natural state towards the end of his life.
I said: We need to make this story strong
and moving because even if it doesn’t help
him and his family, it might help the 6 to
10 million other people in China who suffer
from [silicosis]. He completely got this.
When I worked at the newspaper [ The
Strait Times in Singapore], I was always
taught to have this veneer of objectivity.
But when I started doing long-form
documentary photography, I realized that
that was not possible. I’m impassioned
about something and therefore I choose
to go long and dig deep. I’m not objective
about the fact that 6 to 10 million people
in China have silicosis, I don’t strive to be
objective. I strive to be fair.
Early on in the process [of Mr. He’s
story], I thought: He’s too ill to do much,
there’s no visual drama at all. I put the
story on the back burner for six months.
Then very early one morning [in 2012]
my phone rang. It was the wife wailing,
saying he’s dying, you have to help him.
I called an NGO I knew in Beijing and they
raised money for his surgery. I flew out and
took him to the hospital. That whole week
in hospital I was his second caregiver.
I bought all the meals. Of course the
dynamics of the relationship completely
changed. The story really turned on
that week, both visually and in terms of
my relationship with him and his family,
because in their mind I was their savior.
I think I acted as a human being first
and a journalist/documentarian second.
We talk as documentary photographers
about wanting to bring about social
change on some issue. I think if you are in
a position to be able to bring about change
in one person’s life and you don’t, it’s
unconscionable. Why wait to complete the
story and do a piece of advocacy with it,
and walk away from someone right in front
of you who needs help? It doesn’t make
sense. I did what felt natural and necessary.
But of course this is complete intervention.
PDN: You had told him you wanted to
capture his “natural state.” Can anyone
behave naturally in front of their “savior”?
SCY: I think we became so familiar with
each other, it wasn’t really an issue. If
anything I intervened more in their daily
life because they enjoyed so much having
me around. He always wanted to chat.
Sometimes I’d have to say: “You have to
forget that I’m here.” You can’t pretend
that you’re a fly on the wall and having no
impact, you can only minimize it.
It was quite simple. He had no idea there
were NGOs or people outside his village
who were helping people like him. I became
like a window to the outside. I got him a
laptop. He learned to type, he learned to
use a phone. I completely intervened.
But I think it was a necessary thing to do.
Of course [Mr. He’s] neighbors got
jealous. There were a lot of people
who spread nasty rumors, people who
badmouthed him to the authorities, trying to
get him in trouble. But one of his constant
worries was that the family would be
heavily in debt when he died. I hope he
died without that worry.
PDN: It is now often impossible to gain access
to many stories without military escort, or
material support from an NGO. What do you
think photographers and publications should do
to improve their transparency about them?
TOM HUNDLEY: Military embeds, friendly NGOs,
authoritarian governments, activists—these
situations can obstruct the reporting—or facilitate
it. Professional journalists can generally work
within the confines of these situations without
compromising their work. Sometimes it is important
to provide additional context. For example, during
the Kosovo War, the Belgrade government was very
efficient in preserving the scene of civilian casualties
and delivering foreign photographers to the scene.
The intent was clearly to cast NATO in a poor light.
The casualties were real, the images compelling,
but the context was also instructive and necessary.
An honest and competent journalist knows when
his work has been truly compromised, and does
not offer that work for publication.
VICTOR J. BLUE: This is a big problem and one
that we as professionals have to navigate with a
bit of grace. It’s tricky, and we have to be honest
with ourselves: Am I able to tell a true story here,
or is this relationship getting in the way of that?
And if so, we have to move on.
It worries me that NGOs are often players
in these big events we cover. I’ve had great
experiences working with NGOs that respected
my role and didn’t interfere. And I’ve had the
experience of being obstructed by them. I think
we need to be a little more adversarial in dealing
with NGOs and less likely to play on their teams.
A CASE STUDY
IN A STORY
ABOVE: He Quangui, a former gold miner suffering from
silicosis, and his wife. Photographer Sim Chi Yin helped
He get treatment at a critical moment. “If you are in a
position to be able to bring about change in one person’s
life and you don’t, it’s unconscionable,” Sim says.