Hong Kong In-Media, a NGO advocates citizen journalism, has organized E-Citizen Awards to promote original reporting, political comics, photography and commentary online. Contributing reporters from inmediahk.net, a online media sponsored by Hong Kong In-Media, have interviewed some of the award winners. Below is an interview with Rayman, the winner of the Best Online Photojournalism award. The Chinese article was written by Au-yong Lyun-faat, a contributing reporter from inmediahk.net, and published in Mingpao, a local printed newspapers on October 26. The English version below is translated by Jennifer Cheung.
The interview took place in a bookstore in Mongkok, just one street away from one of the pro-democracy sit-in sites, a “high-risk” place as described by Hong Kong police. A few hours before the interview, another group of masked men carrying cutters among other metal tools came to remove the blockades set up by protesters. Text messages kept arriving with alerts during the interview that the “blue ribbons,” a group of police supporters, were likely to start trouble that evening. Conflicts between pro-Occupy and anti-Occupy groups seem to erupt anytime since October 3, when a group of pro-Beijing thugs attacked pro-democracy protesters in Mongkok.
As the Chinese saying goes, “People born in troubled times carry responsibilities.” The on-going Umbrella Movement relies on every protester's persistence. Rayman, a volunteer reporter at United Social Press (USP), an online media platform, believes it is his responsibility to record what's happening at the Mongkok protest site through his lens.
Rayman has won Best Photojournalism of Hong Kong In-Media’s E-Citzen Awards. Before the interview, Rayman joked, “It is great to have this interview in Mongkok, because after we finish the interview, I can go directly to the street to take photos!” Since Occupy Mongkok began on September 29, Rayman went there almost everyday to shoot photos after he finished his day job. He usually stayed till late at night and then went home, took a short rest and returned to work.
Although his did not make any money from taking photos, Rayman was very satisfied with his work. “I feel honored to cover this movement as a citizen reporter, filing in the gaps left by the other media and presenting a full picture of the protest.”
All the frontline newspaper photojournalists know or have heard of USP, as USP’s volunteer reporters are present at nearly every protest. Rayman and another ten volunteers, with no salary nor insurance, formed the USP team in Hong Kong in the hope of helping the public understand the situation with their real-time news photos. Rayman believes, “The lens of the camera are the eyes of a reporter. The subject, the angle and even the light of a photograph reflect the view of the reporter.”
Rayman started his journey to photojournalism with “street snaps.” “Two years ago, I was a typical Hong Konger working in the retail sector. Every day I worked long hours and didn’t care about society. Honestly speaking, back then I didn’t even know who [current Hong Kong Chief Executive] Xi Jinping was or who [current Chinese Premier] Li Keqiang was. My ‘street snaps’ were just empty displays of photographic skill.”
One day, Rayman became fed up with his mundane life and quit his job to study commercial photography for a year. Incidentally, he joined USP as a citizen reporter.
Placing people at the center
What is the difference between photojournalism and street snaps? Rayman pondered for a moment and replied in a philosophical tone, “The difference lies in my completely different values and perspectives. The change in my life has given substance to the subjects I shoot.”
He likes the style of the war correspondent James Nachtwey. What Nachtwey has captured throughout his career are the most shocking scenes of conflict. Nachtwey’s bio goes like this: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are. my testimony. The events I have recorded should. not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” Nachtwey says his documentary photographs are able to change the world. Rayman shares the belief that at the interplay of light and shadow, if a photographer doesn’t care about people and society, what he captures is just an empty shell, no matter how good the light and the angle are. People are the center of photography.
Perhaps because of Rayman’s strong curiosity about people and his journalistic spirit, one year after he joined USP, he volunteered to go to Thailand to interview the anti-government protests at his own expense. Shortly afterwards, he went to Taiwan to interview the Sunflower Student Movement and the anti-nuclear march. Both are big events that have changed history.
As Rayman approaches his 30s, why doesn’t he find a better job and stop traveling to the frontline of protests?
Rayman believes there are people who like the beauty of cherry blossoms, and so they would take holiday leave to shoot the flowers in Japan. But for him, he prefers to see the world. “Frankly speaking, my previous job at retail paid me well, but I also spent more. It is like a vicious cycle. In the end I had no idea what my life was for. I didn’t have any clue why I took those pictures.” Rayman concluded his view on photography in one sentence: “If you aren't solid [in your beliefs], then how can your photos be solid?”
Rayman traveled abroad several times to report. Although he had no insurance and was not as well equipped as other journalists, he managed to enter the field quickly because in those “dangerous places” the story developed quickly, and there was no distinction between citizen reporters and mainstream reporters. In Hong Kong, the government only considers registered printed publications to be legitimate media; all online media are excluded from the government’s press list.
During the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan, Rayman managed to enter the Legislative Yuan with the simple step of obtaining a provincial press card.
It is obvious that the government is belittling the status of citizen reporters. At the same time, professional reporters often look down on citizen reporters. Rayman addressed the issue by stressing the need to uphold journalism ethics: “I’m a citizen reporter, but that doesn’t mean I have no professional ethics. Citizen reporters don’t have any privileges. They need to follow certain rules as well. It is the same that we expect police not to wear blue ribbons when they are on duty. Citizen reporters are required to hold a neutral stance to avoid being accused of having murky boundaries in their coverage. As other mainstream journalists believe, once we lose credibility it is difficult to get it back.”
“Secondly, no matter if you are a citizen reporter or an onlooker, you are not supposed to obstruct other photojournalists from doing their job. Photojournalists earn a living by shooting on the spot. It really matters to photojournalists whether they can get good photos. In Taiwan, although a lot of onlookers took photos of the news onsite, once they finish they try their best to leave room for others to take photos. In contrast, in Hong Kong, some people are using iPads to take photos and only stop when being shouted at by others. I don’t mind onlookers taking photos, but if you want to become citizen reporters, you have to understand when you conduct interviews, you shouldn’t be obstructing others. For instance, when I was shooting at the protest spot, I left room to others as soon as I finished taking one or two photos.”
Beyond attracting “likes”
Rayman still suffers from heel strain due to the long periods of standing when he was a salesman. Today, it is very difficult for him to carry heavy photo equipment. He is passionate about photojournalism, but his physical condition doesn’t allow him to become a full-time photojournalist. That said, he really enjoys the freedom of being a citizen photographer. “If you work at a newspaper, whether your photos will be published is at the discretion of your photo editors. The photojournalists have no say. Do photo editors have different considerations? To what extent shall these photos be cropped? The newspaper’s political stance will also impact the photo selection. Also, the audience may be only interested in the moment when the police fired pepper spray towards protesters, but seldom notice a few officers also helped protesters rinse out their eyes after the clash.”
Rayman pointed out that the information consumption culture in cyberspace makes citizen journalists focus too much on violent conflict scenes. “Simply because photos of those clashes can instantly win ‘likes’ when uploaded onto Facebook… If citizens can cover the underreported stories which are often ignored by ‘mainstream media’, they can present a richer story. The responsibility of a citizen reporter is not necessarily to compete with other mainstream media for a single shot, but to fill in the gap left by the mainstream media.”
Apart from reporting from the scene of news, Rayman also engages in photo-documentary. He started a project to document a youngster’s rehabilitation after taking drugs six month ago. So far he has only taken three photographs for this project because he spent most of the time hanging out with the youngster. “If we can establish mutual trust, you can tell a lot by capturing just one glance of the interviewee.”
After the interview, Rayman picked up his backpack and helmet, and set off to shoot the 26th day of the Occupy Mongkok sit-in protest.