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Alumnus brings China to life for U of T community

Speaks March 2 at the Munk School for Global Affairs

A young boy walks down a destroyed street in Dujiangyan, Sichuan, China a few days after a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck. (Photo by Ryan Pyle)

U of T News recently caught up with documentary photographer and U of T alumnus Ryan Pyle to find out what inspired him to move to China, why he became a photographer and the Toronto launch of his Canadian lecture tour, Bearing Witness: Documenting China's Rise. He speaks at the Munk School for Global Affairs March 2.

You’ve been living in China since 2002. What made you want to move there?  

After taking a few courses on Chinese history and politics at the University of Toronto, I discovered I had a latent curiosity about China. As a student I was busy with basketball and my studies, so I never got a chance to act on it. When I completed my degree in 2001, I did what most students were doing and went backpacking around Spain and Portugal.

I thought Europe was lovely but I was bored. It was too much like my life in Toronto. I realize now I was looking for something radically different. After returning to Toronto I worked for a few months and saved up enough money to take my first trip to China. 

China inspired me immediately. Its sheer size, complexity and culture intrigued me. Life in China was completely different from anything I had experienced before; it was exactly what I was looking for. I spent 90 days in China on that trip and I’m proud to say that I’m still obsessed with exploring China and all its complexities.

What has been hardest about adjusting to life in China?

The hardest part of adjusting to life in China was the challenge of day-to-living. Although, I lived in the Toronto area for almost 22 years, nothing prepared me for the crowds in China.

Shanghai, the city I live in, has a population of 25 million people and everyone is in a rush. Using public transportation or getting caught up in street traffic took a long time for me to come to terms with. I couldn’t settle in and start living my life until I found ways to overcome these challenges.  

Where did your interest in photography come from?

My photography career developed in a very unusual way.

I didn’t have much of an interest in photography growing up and I have never studied it formally. When I made my first trip to China I was so mesmerized by the sights, smells and colours that I picked up a camera and started taking pictures.

These early experiences of China continue to shape my career and fuel my desire for image making and documentation.

How difficult was it to get your work published?

At first it was tough, but I was very lucky to have such fruitful and inspiring subject matter.

My initial task was to build a portfolio of my work. 

I spent my days walking the streets of Shanghai and visiting smaller towns nearby taking photographs. When I had enough material for my portfolio I went to Hong Kong and showed it to some editors. From this, I managed to get a few assignments for in-flight magazines and a local English newspaper in Hong Kong.

Once my photographs were published, my work began to get recognized and my career started to grow. Now, I freelance for major publications, such as the New York Times, Forbes, and Der Spiegel.

China is not usually a country known for its openness. How difficult was it for you to gain access to places like hospitals, nursing homes or industrial sites?

China is actually a very free place to travel these days and working on photographic assignments throughout the country is becoming easier. Once you become familiar with Chinese culture you understand how to talk to people and how to ask for permission to photograph in certain locations. Like anything worthwhile, time and patience are required.

You have a book coming out this year, Chinese Turkestan.  Tell us about this project.

Chinese Turkestan is the historical name for the far western region of China known as Xinjiang Province. Its population is mainly Turkic Muslim. I made my first trip there in 2001 and was enchanted. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

In 2006, I decided I wanted to spend more time there and began working on the book project. I was particularly interested in the people, local customs and architecture and how all of this is being affected due to rapid economic development in the region.

I’m really looking forward to sharing the fascinating imagery from this project.

I noticed that all of the photos on your website are in colour, except the pictures from Chinese Turkestan. Why did you shoot this project in black and white?

My photographic interests run along traditional lines. I wanted to create a project that emulated my favourite photographers from the 1940s and 1950s. Also, this part of the world lends itself to black and white photography very well. It gives the subjects a timeless quality that makes the viewer wonder when they were taken.

You’ll be giving a lecture, Bearing Witness: Documenting China's Rise, on March 2 at the Munk School of Global Affairs. What should attendees expect?

It will be a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what made me, a typical middle class Canadian university graduate, give up my comfortable life in Canada for a life and career in China.

I will show what it takes to deliver some of the larger news stories in China and how these stories have shaped the western perception of China by presenting some of the work I have done for major news publications, including coverage of the Bird Flu epidemic, the Sichuan Earthquake and the Beijing Olympics.

What other projects are you working on?

In 2010, my brother Colin and I set a Guinness World Record for the longest continuous motorcycle ride, a 65-day, 18,000-kilometre trip around China we called the Middle Kingdom Ride Motorcycle Adventure project.

We shot video and took a lot of photographs on the trip. Currently, we’re producing a television show and book. They should be out later this year.  

What would you say to students who want to travel to China?

Go for it.

China will reward and challenge you in ways that other parts of the world will not. It is visually stunning, culturally diverse and physically massive. The transportation infrastructure is great and the food is wonderful --- and don’t forget to take your camera.