Photographers Living And Working In China

Posted on 3/23/2006 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



March 23, 2007

While in China (See Story 939) I had the opportunity to meet and talk to many photographers and extensive discussion with three - two American editorial photographers living in Shanghai and a Chinese advertising photographer in Beijing. The experiences of these three will give the reader a sense of what it is like for a photographer to live and work in China today.

David Hartung

David Hartung ( is an editorial photographer living in Shanghai and doing freelance assignments primarily for publication in the U.S. and Europe. He used to do a lot of work for airline flight magazines, but that business has fallen off in recent years. Much of his work centers around stories related to international business and given the growth of business in China is experiencing these tend to be positive stories. He said, "It is almost like I am shooting PR for the government."

David is not an accredited correspondent, but has no trouble working in China. However, he avoids any stories that might be aimed at exposing negative aspects of Chinese business or culture as people doing this type of work are monitored closely by the government. Fortunately, there are more than enough positive aspects in Chinese business that stories related to this type of subject matter keep him very busy.

He is Director of Photography for "Destination China", an English language quarterly magazine aimed at the international business community that is concentrated in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) around Guangzhou where much of manufacturing for export takes place. The URL of the magazine is and David shoots all the pictures for this publication.

While he was studying photography in Southern California and Ohio University in the early 1980s David had internships at the Milwaukee Journal and the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal. When he finished school in 1985 a friend asked him to tour Asia for a couple months. They spent two month in China where they lived for $6 to $7 a day for meals and lodging. After that David decided to go to Taiwan on his own for a month, and then on to Seoul. When he arrived in Seoul he had little more than enough to get him back home. In order to support himself temporarily he landed a job as a movie extra that provided a little cash. He also discovered that there was a demand for English teachers so he taught English while he freelanced until 1989.

While in Korea he met and married Eunyoung. In '89 they moved back to Southern California where David worked for several small Scripps Howard newspapers in Ventura County and continued his freelancing. One of his goals when he returned to the U.S. was to improve his lighting skills and he took every opportunity to take assignments for the newspapers that required lighting.

While in the LA area Eunyoung responded to a United Airlines ad looking for a Korean speaker to be a stewardesses on United's Pacific route. She was hired. In 1995 United asked her to base in Taiwan and the couple decided to move there. David started doing corporate, editorial and commercial shoots and freelancing regularly for inflight magazines, Business Week, Forbes, Time and CFO Asia. In 2005 David began to look for other opportunities and the couple decided to move to Shanghai.

For the past three years David has been shooting all digital, first with a Canon 10D and now with a 5D. After a shoot he creates a web gallery with the selects from the shoot and emails the URL to the art director. Once the art director has made his selections David FTP's or emails the selects to the publication.


Sometimes there are problems with FTP from China. It is believed this may have something to do with efforts by the government of China to block certain information going to news publications such as Business Week and Forbes. For some unexplained reason images sent to these publications tend not to go through. David usually has no problem in uploading a zip file to his web hosting service's server in the U.S. Then he sends instruction to the publication as to how to download from that server. A friend of David's uses to transfer files.

David has also found that when doing street shooting officials can be a little more suspicious of what he is doing than they were in Taiwan. One time he was stopped by the police while trying to shoot pictures of an area where buildings had been demolished in preparation for new construction. All they did was tell him to move on, probably because they feared that images of destroyed buildings might somehow embarrass the country.

In Taiwan he was a registered correspondent, but it is much more difficult to get such credentials in China.

Taxi drivers often need elaborate maps and directions written in Chinese to find a particular location. In addition there is so much development with roads changing constantly that finding a particular address can be difficult even for the locals. When hiring a car to go to a nearby city the driver will often take him part way and then pass him off to a different vehicle and driver who knows the other city.

It is impossible to find specialty cameras to rent and good custom labs are difficult to find. Power in China is 220 DC which makes it difficult to use any AC equipment from the U.S.

There is an English language newspaper called the China Daily that provides foreign and local news, but other English language newspapers, magazines and books are hard to find. It is usually necessary to go to one of the major hotels to find what little is available.


However, such difficulties are outweighed by the advantages. Living in Shanghai, like New York, it is not necessary to own a car. In fact, because of heavy traffic and difficulties in finding a place to park owning a car can be a disadvantage. It is estimated that 4.1 million passenger cars were sold in China in 2006, up 25% over 2005 and currently there are more than 10 million private cars in China, most of them in the major cities.

It can also be difficult for a foreigner to get a drivers license and insurance. But taxis are convenient and always available. A 20 to 30 minute ride costs about $2.50. When David needs a car to move a lot of equipment or go to another city he can rent a car and driver for about $100 a day. On overnight trips he pays for the drivers lodging and food in addition.

Among the advantages of living and working in Shanghai is that Chinese help is inexpensive. David pays his full-time English speaking assistant, Jie Li, about $250 per month. An Australian friend, Phillip Gostelow, pays an assistant $20 per day to scan 6x7 images. If he wanted to hire a top professional to do this work it would cost $150 per day.

David, Eunyoung and their 9-year-old daughter Annalee live in an 1,800 sq.ft., three bedroom apartment in one of the many new high-rise apartment buildings in Shanghai.
The rent for this apartment is about $1,300 per month. David also has a small office, and lab, a five-minute walk from his house that he rents for around $600 a month. Since all his work is on location he has no need for a studio.

David and Eunyoung have a full-time live-in nanny/housekeeper that they pay $200 a month. This gives them great flexibility in their schedules because the housekeeper is always available to care for Annalee. In addition the housekeeper probably saves them money on food as she does most of the shopping at the Chinese shops. When they were in Taiwan it was more difficult to find Taiwanese willing to be nannies. Most nannies tended to be from the Philippines, but it was difficult to get these people work permits and if they worked without a permit they ran the risk of being thrown out of the country at any time.

Annalee goes to a Chinese school where the tuition is about $750 a year. Parents who send their children to the International school pay $20,000 per year. One of Annalee's friends attends a prestigious school near their apartment and this girl was required to take a two-hour entrance exam to get into second grade. A story in the China Daily recently reported that to get into the better Chinese kindergartens children are required to take an exam to determine how many characters they can recognize.

While much of the food shopping is done in neighborhood specialty shops, supermarkets seem to be popping up everywhere and to my tastes seem to have everything a consumers could want. David says they don't have as good a selection of specialty foods as it is possible to find in Hong Kong.

One of the benefits of being a foreign photographer is that senior executives tend to allow the photographers to control the situation more than might be the case with a local photographer. There are occasions when David needs an interpreter on the job, but given the kind of work he does many of his subjects speak English and he finds he can go to a lot of jobs without an interpreter.

After living in a Chinese culture for more than 10 years David is able to speak and write some Chinese. While Chinese characters are very different from Roman letters there is a language called Pin Yin that allows the user to type a word phonetically using Roman characters. Once typed, a computer can easily change it into the Chinese pictograph making it possible to send a text message in Chinese from a cell phone.

Cameras costs about the same, or a little more, than in the U.S., but are also widely available in the big cities. Lighting equipment can be cheaper than in the U.S. David recently had some of his digital files output to high quality 20X24 color prints for $20 each. 11x14 prints on very high quality art paper cost $10 each and those on lesser quality paper can get as low as $5.00. In addition it is very easy to get such things as travel cases custom made to your exact specifications rather than being forced to live with a standard production model that doesn't quite fit your needs. David recently had an archive box for custom prints made for $40.

In early January Adweek did an extensive report on business in China and hired David to provide the photo coverage of one Chinese family living in Shanghai. The family's annual household income is about $26,700 a year. The husband earns $1,280 per month as a supervisor in the Volkswagen factory. The wife earns $690 per month in her IT job and the parents who live with them receive $256 in a pension. Mortgage payments are about $260 a month and food is about $130 for this family of 5 with three generations.

According to McKinsey & Co., Chinese in the lower-middle class earn 25,000 to 40,000 yuan ($3,200 to $5,100) while the upper-middle class brings in 40,000 to 100,000 yuan ($5,100 to $12,000) per year. The Chinese government has set a goal of creating a financially comfortable society by 2040. According to McKinsey the ranks of the middle class will swell to about 520 million by 2025. In the next decade the wealthiest of China's middle-class will be between 25 and 44 years old.

Retail sales are increasing at 15% annually. The country is expected to generate $860 billion in sales by 2009 according to Bain & Co. China's luxury market is growing 50% to 60% annually and commands 12% of world demand. By 2015 China is expected to surpass Japan as the world's top consumer luxury market comprising a 29% share according to Goldman Sachs. Other observers say China will become the biggest consumer marketplace on earth by 2020 and some are bold enough to predict that it could happen by 2012.

In many ways Shanghai has the flavor of a cleaner New York with the average apartment building having 20 to 30 floors. The Radisson hotel, one of the taller buildings in the city has a rotating restaurant on the 45th floor. While there are a lot of high-rises there are still many two and three story low rise stores, shops and homes in the more traditional Chinese style. Many of these are being torn down to make way for new hi-rise development projects and the city is alive with construction activity. Some of the older buildings are being renovated.

Fritz Hoffmann

Fritz Hoffmann ( has been living and working in China as an editorial photographer for 12 years. Before that he had been working for newspapers and freelancing in Southern Virginia. In 1994 he decided he wanted a change and to travel. He went to JB Pictures to see if they could get him some work outside the U.S. While he was in the office President Clinton made an announcement about new initiatives for the U.S. relative to China, and on the strength of that JB Pictures got him a two month assignment to go to China.

At that time nobody - not AP, not Reuters - had a full time photographer working in China. There were no western freelancers based there. After the Newsweek experience Fritz decided that China would be an exciting place to work and he looked forward to documenting the industrial revolution that was taking place. He set out to get a journalist visa and learn Chinese. He got many of the major news publication in the U.S. to write letters to help him get a journalist visa, but for more than two years nothing happened. Meanwhile he went to school in Shanghai to learn Chinese. He spent two semester at Shanghai University, School of Fine Arts because it was the only school that didn't require students to live on campus and this enabled him to get his own modest apartment off campus.

His customers were Western publication, but communications was difficult as there was no email or Federal Express. To get film out he would often go to the airport and hand his film to a stranger flying to Hong Kong or New York.

By 1996 thing were very difficult and on top of that he and a friend were in a serious car accident on the Silk Road. While recovering from that accident he gave serious consideration to abandoning China. In addition, at about that time JB Pictures closed its doors and he went to Saba for a brief period of time until it was purchased by Corbis. Next was Network, an agency in the UK, and he re-applied for accreditation through Network. The UK had more long standing and better relations with the Chinese than the U.S. and this time his request was approved. Today Fritz is the only Western photographer working in China with press accreditation.

From then on Fritz's business began to grow and thrive. Among Fritz's credits are a Fortune story on Walmart in China that was run 14 pages in the magazine and another Fortune story "China Goes Car Crazy" that ran 15 pages with a cover. In September 2006 he had a 32 page story and cover in National Geographic on Manchuria (for more on this story go to . He is currently working on another project for National Geographic.

Other documentary projects that Fritz is proud of are: his work on the Aids Project in China, the Chinese section in A Day In the Life of Catholicism and his coverage of the Yangtze River.

In 1998 he and a friend, Greg Girard, established a niche agency in Shanghai called Document China. The idea behind the agency was to produce documentary projects on the very specialized niche of China. Mike Kemp, a friend from London, came out to help them manage the day to day operations of the agency and they added eight Chinese photographers to their stable. However, Hoffman and Girard remained the principle photographers.

They had some success and eventually had 13 sub-agents around the world and about 12,000 images scanned at 50MB online. However, it turned out that many of the customers were more interested in having them shoot the news-of-the-day than run the indepth picture stories on various aspects of Chinese life and culture that Fritz and Greg wanted to shoot. In addition the administrative chores of running an agency were distracting them from their primary goal of taking pictures.

In January 2006 they closed Document China, Mike went back to the UK to work for Corbis and Fritz and Greg moved their images to their own web sites. You can find Fritz's images at

With the rapid modernization of China and the bureaucratic hassles that come with that modernization, particularly in Shanghai, Fritz is thinking about moving on. He may go to Mexico and return to China occasionally for special projects. But, he has no desire to do commercial work.

As an example of the hassles, when they were building the World Financial Center in Shanghai a few years ago he walked in one day, told the foreman he wanted to shoot the construction and was told to pick up a hard hat and do whatever he wanted. No interpreter, no guide, no supervision, no nothing. Now if he wants to do the same kind of thing it takes days to get all the permissions and a guide will be with him every step of the way.

Unlike most photographers who have switched to digital Fritz is still shooting film with Leicas. He likes the image quality that film provides. He also wants his documentation of China to have a consistent character and since he has been shooting film for so many years he shoots film to maintain the same overall look and feel to the images.

Tang Hui

While in Beijing I had the opportunity to visit the studio of Tang Hui, one of the leading advertising photographers in China. Much of his work is fashion and sports oriented, but he also seems to photograph a broad range of other types of subject matter. I would put his work is in a class with the very top advertising photographers in New York and London.

I wish I could direct you to his web site, but he doesn't have one -- and doesn't feel he needs one. Evidently, all the ad buyers in Beijing know his work and he doesn't seem to have any problem keeping busy. Last year he was selected as one of 12 Hasselblad Masters and one of his images was used in the 2007 Hasselblad calendar.

His studio is in a warehouse that is roughly 2,000 sq.ft. It is divided into three separate shooting areas, one large enough that he has photographed cars in it and the other two smaller for product work. For a few shoots that required a larger space he has rented a movie production studio.

He has a staff of 8 to 12 people including three photographers besides himself. He has been shooting all digital for 3 to 5 years and has been working as a photographer for 11 years.

Many of his images are designed in such a way that they require extensive photoshop and retouching work. He does none of that work himself because the advertising agencies he works for farm all that work out to separate firms. The costs is not included in his billings. He says that there are 30 to 40 firms in Shanghai that do this type of work and 8 to 10 of them are considered very top quality. However, the most difficult projects are sent to Electric Art in Australia.

Getty contacted him recently about doing an assignment in China for a London Bank. He had never marketed himself to Getty and is unsure why they contacted him for this job. He has not produced or sold any stock. He speaks no English and nearly all of his work has been in China, although he has done two major productions outside of China.

His company's gross billings are over $500,000 a year and overhead costs are only 30% of that.

Copyright © 2006 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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