Shaking Off the Minister of Propaganda

Woman in a grain shed - Kaiping

The Minister of Propaganda’s office explained how much the minister liked photography and asked if I would mind if he came along while I took photographs of his province. “Of course he can come,” I replied while quietly grinding my teeth at the thought of another person joining our entourage as I tried to take candid photographs of villagers in mainland China.

In a number of the countries where I have worked, the government likes to supply a guide or, in reality, a minder who makes sure that you only see what they want you to and that you don’t take what they consider to be undesirable photographs.

I have even had the occasional guide try to direct my photographs and tell the subjects where to look, which of course is, “Look over here, smile at the camera.”

Recently I visited my dentist who asked me if I realized that I grind my teeth a lot — did I know why?

Shakedowns and Entourages

On one trip, I managed to get out of my hotel without the guide. I was promptly arrested when I tried taking photographs. The security people who arrested me said that they could deal with this immediately if I paid an on-the-spot fine in cash. When I got back to my hotel, I complained to the officials about what had happened to me and was taken to the police station to make a report.

The two policemen assigned to handle my case were the two men who had robbed me. At that stage I gave up and decided it was easier to work with my guide — even if he did say no to all my photographic requests.

The day after meeting the Minister of Propaganda, I got into a car with my guide, interpreter, driver, and assistant and headed off to a village. We were followed by the minister’s car. As we were driving through the village, I noticed a scene that I thought might be interesting and we stopped so I could take some photographs.

Photographing the Photographer

I was moving around shooting the scene when, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed something moving. When I pulled the camera away from my face, I saw that I was surrounded by photographers taking photographs of what I was shooting and taking pictures of me taking pictures. The Minister of Propaganda liked photography so much that he had brought along his own photographers to take pictures for him.

For the rest of the morning, whenever I got out of the car the Minister’s team would leap from the other vehicles to photograph whatever I was shooting, and me.

I walked through ankle-deep mud and waist-high, wet rice paddy fields followed by my team of minders, guides and photographers. On one occasion, I told my driver to stop and the other photographers leaped out of their cars into the pouring rain. It was unfortunate for them, because as they stood around waiting for me, I took my pictures through the window from the inside of my car.

Nobody turned up the following day and for the rest of the trip I was left alone. At last it was possible to get the type of village photographs that I wanted to shoot.