The camera never lies – but it exaggerates

A recently published series of ‘haunting pictures’ showing Beijing as a polluted, Mad Max-style dystopia were not all that they seemed.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

It is like a scene from New York right after 9/11: cars and bicycles coated in thick grey dust. One photograph shows a red car covered in an ash-like substance, perhaps some form of post-nuclear snow. Another shows a row of rusty bicycles, all of them transformed into lifeless, colourless contraptions by the clouds of oppressive dust.

Only this isn’t New York after an apocalyptic terror attack. It is Beijing on an ordinary day. A city so smothered by pollution that its car windscreens become view-obscuring grey slates and its bikes turn into filthy, creaking machines.

Or at least that is what the photographs – published by the online magazine China Dialogue – seemed to suggest. The reality, it turns out, is rather different.

On 15 July, China Dialogue, a bilingual environmental magazine edited in London and Beijing, published a series of photos by British photographer Sean Gallagher. Taken in the dead of night on the streets of Beijing, the 15 pictures show various vehicles coated in the residue of a filthy smog. Some of the cars are so subsumed by soot that you cannot tell what colour they are.

The photo-essay was titled ‘Air pollution in Beijing’. An accompanying blurb said: ‘As the Olympics approach, athletes have raised concerns about the Chinese capital’s smoggy skies. A series of haunting pictures… illustrates the problem.’ (1)

Readers were left with the distinct and queasy impression of a city so polluted that dirt descends on everything. It looked like a scene from Mad Max. How can athletes be expected to run in a city where even cars – those most mobile machines – end up buried beneath dirt?

How the story appears on the China Dialogue homepage

Yet before long, some of China Dialogue’s readers, including readers based in Beijing, started complaining. All of these filthy cars lined up in sooty streets… it just doesn’t look like our city, they said. The scenes depicted in the photos are ‘not normal in the summer of Beijing’, said one.

Another reader – Shaojie Liu, who has lived in Beijing for 10 years – was similarly shocked by the pictures, writing: ‘We cannot say that the air here in Beijing is great. However, we don’t have conditions that bad.’ Others asked whether the photos really were taken in the city; one Beijing-based reader commented: ‘After I read the article I looked out my window again, and the sky is very blue and very clean.’

Another suspected that the photos show something more natural than manmade pollution: ‘It looks like the photos were taken after a sandstorm in Beijing. There is definitely a pollution problem in China. [B]ut these images may be a… misleading way to illustrate China’s pollution problem in general.’ One angry reader denounced the seemingly alien photographs as ‘CNN-style photos’, which present a ‘biased report on China’.

A week after the photo-essay first appeared – on 21 July – the editors of China Dialogue finally posted a note clarifying what the images reveal. The photos were taken in Beijing, but ‘most of them depict vehicles that have been left or abandoned under the raised ring roads in the city centre’, the note said.

It continued: ‘The photographer has not set out to show ordinary cars in the Chinese capital; he uses abandoned vehicles as static objects, which illustrate the quantity of dust and sand that accumulates in the city’s air.’ Sand? Yep, according to the editor’s note: ‘Some of this dust is from naturally occurring sandstorms, but… much of it also comes from the booming construction industry.’

In short, a ‘series of haunting pictures’ that was said to ‘illustrate the problem’ of Beijing’s smoggy skies – and which, we were left to believe, showed normal cars in normal streets in the city – actually showed something that will be familiar to citydwellers the world over: abandoned vehicles covered in crap. There are dumped cars and vans across London coated in dust and smudged filth; sometimes people write ‘Clean me’ on them.

If you left a car under an intersection in London that is as busily jam-packed as Beijing’s raised ring roads – say, by the North Circular Road – then it wouldn’t be long before it, too, was sprayed grey with exhaust fumes, pollutants and dust, resembling something from I Am Legend.

The revelation that some of the stuff on the cars came from sandstorms (which explains the yellowish tinge to these ominous pollutants) vindicates some of the readers who complained. As one reader said before the editor’s note was published: ‘Sandstorms only happen for a few days in Spring. The captions of the photos don’t clarify the situations surrounding the photos. To some degree they are misleading the audience.’

The photos were real. And they really were taken in Beijing. They were not doctored in any way. Yet in presenting photos of abandoned cars under busy raised roads after a sandstorm as illustrations of the Olympian problem of Beijing’s smoggy skies, the series of haunting pics did give a severely skewed impression of modern Beijing.

As one reader said: ‘[I]f photos taken near a rubbish dump are used to show that the whole city is dirty like that, the problem lies elsewhere.’ Indeed. Across the Western media, too often the dirtiest bits of Beijing – the ‘rubbish dump’ areas – are held up as illustrations of the whole city. The debate about Beijing’s pollution problem is driven more by our own fin de siècle fears that China is choking its own people, and potentially the world, rather than by a clear-eyed view of what Beijing is really like. The discussion of China’s environment has become super-moralised, with some people seeing a dirty dystopia where none exists.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

(1) Slideshow: air pollution in Beijing, China Dialogue, 15 July 2008

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