See a larger version with comments here (Wall Street Journal)
Like statistics in China, photographs "never lie." And they often do. This one, "taken" by photojournalist Liu Weiqiang, appears to show Tibetan antelope serenely galloping near the Qinghai-Tibet rail line around the time of its opening in 2006.
When it first surfaced, accompanying one of many state-sponsored news stories singing the praises of the new railway, I don't remember being surprised. I think that's because in the back of my mind I assumed the image was painted or Photoshopped. That wasn't the assumption made by China Central Television (incidentally the world's largest propagandist), which awarded the photo a bronze medal in its news photo contest this year.
Fortunately, astute netizens (a term often used to describe the legions of Internet users presumed to be indirectly leading the charge for free thinking and debate in China) tore the photo to shreds. They're getting quite good at this. In an exhaustively publicized case last year, netizens pulled the curtain back on an award-winning photo that depicted a South China tiger, which is believed to be extinct; like Beijing's "fake" dumplings (the story itself was said to be a fake), the tiger was probably made of cardboard. Last week, web observers outed another award-winning photo that presumes to show citizens putting out a fire.
In China, government censorship works so well not because the state is so powerful (it's not) but because so many people have been encouraged to self-censor; if a newspaper editor didn't censor his own reporters, he could be ousted or worse. It's a system that works on intimidation, fear and example setting.
Photo fakery is similar. But whereas government-sponsored photo editing may have a strongly political or social motive, "private" fakery -- be it in newspapers or on the internet -- is motivated by commerce, sensationalism and personal ambition. It's hard to say which one -- state-sponsored or "private" fakery -- is more noxious. Ultimately, for both kinds of photos to succeed, they must traffic in state sponsored symbols.
Given the system in which he grew up, Liu's fakery is not excusable but perhaps understandable. Photo critic par excellence Susan Sontag once commented that "in China, what makes an image true is that it is good for people to see it."
Indeed, besides looking nice, compositionally, the image captures the popular imagination. This is a picture of the sort of harmony that some officials want people to believe exists in China, and especially in Tibet, between people and nature, between the economy and ecology, between government interest and public interest.
As Liu said when accepting his award: "I want to be able to capture the harmony among the Tibetan antelopes, the train, men and nature on July 1, 2006. I want to express through this photograph that the earth belongs to everybody. Everybody wants to see harmony among men and animals."
In fact, the Tibetan antelope are terrified of this train, as they should be. Although railway planners took environmental impact into account, constructing wildlife passages and allocating 4 percent of the RMB 33 billion budget on restoration and protection, the railway has undoubtedly altered migration patterns of the chiru (the rare antelope is one of the Olympic mascots). Nature reported last year:
Contrary to reports by the state-run Chinese media, as many as 1,500 antelopes couldn't make the crossing in 2003 and had to give birth locally, says Yang Xin, president of Green River, a non-governmental organization based in Chengdu, Sichuan province. This happened despite the fact that railway workers suspended construction and cleared out of the sites for a couple of days during the animals' peak migration period.
When reached for comment about his fake photo, Liu Weiqiang, who has, along with his editor, since resigned, told a reporter, "Actually, I hoped that this incident would blow up because more people will pay attention to the Tibetan antelopes!"
Sontag wrote that the Maoist use of photographic "scenes in which, clearly, no photograph could have been present...suggests how slender is the population's understanding of what photographic images and picture-taking imply."
The incident has blown up, and if it hasn't highlighted the plight of Tibet's fragile ecosystem, it has once again demonstrated that, contrary to Sontag's dated view, the people are watching. In China now, what makes an image true is that it has been vetted by hundreds of online bulletin board users.
Like people everywhere, the Chinese want to see harmony between people and nature. Even more, they want to see the truth, with their own eyes. The hope is that someday one may lead to the other.
See also China's Train to Tibet (E3.tv, video), and on Treehugger, Qinghai-Tibet Railway Green Travel Guide, For the Olympics, Will Beijing Paint the Town Green?, The Semiotics of Greenwashing and past Greenwash Watch items.