Surrogacy: ‘Better than Prostitution’

The executive at Baby Plan Medical Technology Company Knows the camera is on.

“Working as a surrogate mother is better than being a prostitute, right?”

He says to a 30-year-old farmer turned surrogate mother in Wuhan. The comparison gives a small glimpse about how the surrogacy industry see’s itself: better than prostitution.

The woman listening, a 30-year-old divorcee, surnamed Kong is renting her womb to the surrogacy agency for roughly $24,000.

While it is illegal in China to implant a fertilized egg into another woman’s womb, Baby Plan Medical Technology Company avoids the issue by sending its surrogates to Thailand for the medical procedure. “All is permissible unless prohibited,” says CEO Zenan Yang. While the company exists in a legally gray area, opinions about surrogacy on the street seem less gray.

In “China Experiences a Booming Underground Market in Child Surrogacy” Ian Johnson explores the murky world of surrogacy in China.

Real World Uses of Canon C100 Dual Pixel CMOS AF for Video Journalists and Documentarians

A few months back at a music festival in Beijing a man walked by me dragging a cabbage. Perplexed and trapped between two mediocre metal bands, I asked my friend what the deal was. She told me that the cabbage symbolized economic inequality and the act was a form of protest.

In China the cabbage has quite the history compared to other vegetables. In harsher times, it was the main source of sustenance for many and having cabbage actually symbolized wealth — because you could afford to eat.

However, when I got home I started seeing reports online with other explanations. “Lonely teenagers in China who feel life is pointless and who struggle to find friends have taken to befriending the lowly vegetables as the perfect, undemanding companions,” said the Austrian Times, complete with quotes from psychologists and Chinese teens.

Within days, lots of explanations started surfacing. But a quick Google search actually showed that this was something of a performance art and it wasn’t a new thing at all. In fact, its been going on for over 10-years by the Beijing-based artist named Han Bing. A couple of text messages later and some quick networking and I found the guys contact details and decided to give him a call.

A week later, I spent a day with Mr. Bing to get to the bottom of it. After all, how often would I get a chance to strap a GoPro to a cabbage?

While this video is relatively simple there’s a couple tech details going on here of note. It was filmed with the Canon C100′s relatively new Dual Pixel CMOS AF upgrade. When Canon announced this was going to happen I actually had mixed feelings about it. I asked myself if I needed, or even wanted to autofocus at all. Would it be better to have auto focus? or use the Zeiss primes I have grown to love?

I let my curiosity get the better of me and paid for the upgrade A couple months after getting the installation the answer is very clear: if you shoot journalism with the C100 the update is an absolute necessity. I’ve found the feature useful in number of common situation for solo video journalists. With my Glidecam I can not only follow people with a much more shallow depth of field, but I can change my position in relativity to the subject and still maintain focus without a focus puller and wireless system (not that I have ever had those in the field).

Another tremendously useful use is the ability to track things at longer focal lengths. Tracking a fast moving cabbage at 300mm is simply much easier now. With video journalism, we tend not to have the ability to ask subjects to do things twice, so getting a shot on first take is essential.

Breaking news environments is another scenario where I’ve found the feature to be extremely valuable. On a recent assignment in Hong Kong, I attended a protest where over 500,000 people voiced their concerns about Chinese growing influence in the territory. The video was filmed, edited and published within 48 hours. There wasn’t too much tracking or focus pulling going on, but in a large crowd I could get shots quicker and more accurately with the AF. It was a tough situation to navigate and the AF just made life easier, which actually helps meet deadlines.

The feature has become invaluable to me but I do hope for continued firmware improvements to it. Currently, the system does not allow you to change the point of focus within your frame – unlike cameras like the Panasonic GH4 or Canon’s own 70D. This means you can’t chose what point the camera is tracking – it is always in the centre. I’ve reprogramed my camera’s buttons to have a quick focus lock, I can focus and recompose if needed, but it would be nicer to have more control here.

The C100 set up for an interview
The C100 set up for an interview

Being able to control the speed at which the camera focuses would also be very useful. Currently the AF is so quick it can look a little bit unnatural – perhaps lacking emotion. Having the ability to tell the lens to pull focus more gradually would give you the ability to change focus with a little more style.

While I hope Canon will give us these features with an update (ed – don’t hold your breath), the Dual Pixel CMOS AF already makes the C100 more valuable for video journalists and documentarians. It has in fact changed the way I shoot and sped up my workflow in fast paced environments.

Of course I also took my GoPro for a ride on the cabbage
Of course I also took my GoPro for a ride on the cabbage

Web Video Beats Broadcasters in Journalism Contest Category Called “Broadcast”

I’m very happy to announce Promise and Peril, a documentary I made last year with Patrick Winn has won the The Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. The award given by The National Press Club recognizes excellence in reporting “on diplomatic and foreign policy issues. Entrants must demonstrate an understanding of American foreign policy and how foreign affairs affect those policies.”

The award is given in two categories: print and broadcast. To me, the award symbolizes the increasingly roll video made exclusively for web is playing in the changing news industry. If web based video operations with small budgets can compete with major broadcast operations spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on production, then video technology has become accessible to the point of leveling the playing field, between news outlets.

Continue reading

The People’s Religion

“Buddhism and Daoism are embedded in Chinese traditional culture,” the Rev. Matthew Zhen said after an early morning mass in Latin at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. “But Islam, Christianity and Catholicism have a relatively short history in China. People need time to accept them.”

Although Christianity entered China well over a thousand years ago, the recent destruction of the Sanjiang Church in the eastern city of Wenzhou underscored Father Zhen’s point — more time may be needed. Whether it is primarily a question of time or ideology, however, is debatable.

“The government feels more comfortable with the so-called traditional religions in China — Buddhism, Daoism and folk religion,” said Ian Johnson of The Times’s Beijing bureau, who has reported on religion in China for more than 20 years. “They think those are less threatening than those that have more outer-world links such as Christianity, including Catholicism with ties to the Vatican, or Islam. Overall the government is a little uneasy about the growth of Christianity. It sees it as something that is a little bit out of control.”

In “Church-State Clash in China Coalesces Around a Toppled Spire,” Mr. Johnson explores the current state of religion in China and what conclusions can be drawn from the destruction of the $5.5 million, year-old church in “China’s Jerusalem.”

A Restoration Puzzle


It was 1974 when a provincial archaeology institute was doing an excavation in a small village in the heart of China’s coal country. The team had lost a cap to one of its measuring tools. They asked a local resident, Zhang Juncai, if he could make another.

He did, and it fit perfectly.

This was the beginning of Mr. Zhang’s career as a restoration technician. Forty years later, without any formal education, he has become a master of piecing together ancient Chinese artifacts that have been damaged and buried in China’s rough past.

One day last month, Mr. Zhang was piecing together a 900-year-old ceramic pot from the Liao dynasty at the archaeology and restoration department of the Yungang Grottoes Research Institute, in Datong, Shanxi Province. The pot, discovered 12 years ago in front of Grotto No. 22, was once used to store food.

“When I first came here, they asked me to change the plaster color,” he said. “I said I would rather quit than do that.”

While restoration efforts in China often involve making old things look new, Mr. Zhang, 65, believes the principles of archaeology require relics to stay true to the form they are found in.

“You need to separate the real parts and fake ones,” he said, a cigarette holder in the style of Hunter S. Thompson dangling from his mouth, as he held the pot together. “You can’t color the plastered parts brown. Those parts should remain white so people can tell it’s been restored. If you change the color, you’re faking it.”

Edward Wong’s full story on how Chinese officials and preservationists like Mr. Zhang have embarked on an ambitious effort to protect historic sites from industrial pollution is published here.

Back in Burma with More Light: A Review of the Ice Light

We are working in an era where technology is fueling our passion to create powerful multimedia. However, the market is so saturated with constantly evolving technology that, in my short career, I’ve found that the gear purchases I make are often completely obsolete for me six months later and almost certainly one year later (here’s where you picture a club full of manufacturers smoking cigars and drinking scotch that I’ve paid for).

Today, I’m six months down the road from a purchase I made this year at NAB, and I’m just as excited about it today as I was then. It’s the Ice Light from Westcott.

Continue reading

How should we judge the best multimedia? An open letter to World Press Photo

To Micha Bruinvels:
Contest coordinator at World Press Photo

Thank you for inviting me to visit World Press Photo in Amsterdam last week. It was a true pleasure to meet you and your colleagues as well as to see and learn about all of the work being done to promote and improve visual journalism around the world by WPP.

It was also very insightful to be able to talk to you about WPP’s young multimedia contest and the challenges that occur in trying to create categories that are applicable to a constantly changing media environment across the globe.

Every year, following contest season there seems to be quite a lot of debate about who wins what as well as what categories and merits multimedia journalists are judged in. While debate and discussion are healthy, there has been some criticism of the contest categories of WPP’s multimedia site, including on this site here and here.

Continue reading

Robbing our subjects or helping our audience?

“In the end, we didn’t reach an agreement. They got violent and took me away from the villager’s home. They hit me in the head, slapped my face and pushed me down the stairs. Then they forced me into the car and kept hitting me … They Forced me to meet their leader. They took me there and pushed me out their car and I saw the office of their leader. I thought I would be safe, but it wasn’t true. I was pushed into the office and I saw him sitting behind the desk. He was just staring at me. Then the thugs poured hot tea on my face and body. He just started at me in silence.”

Getting quotes like these is very difficult in China, especially when it comes to land rights. It’s even more difficult to get people to say it on camera. If a subject says something like this to me, on camera, they are risking even more problems for themselves. But in the video above, you won’t actually hear the subject say this in Chinese; instead, you’ll hear a voice-over in English.

I often wonder who I am truly making videos for. Am I doing it for the subjects in the videos, to give them a voice? Is it for a cause that needs more awareness? Am I doing it for me?

Continue reading

Xièxie Chinese State Security!

About a year ago while reporting on work conditions of Foxconn employees for the New York Times’ iECONOMY series, my team ran into some small problems with state security.

While visiting a dorm room of a factory worker, I noticed the normal entourage of people following us around had increased. Among the crowd, a couple of heavy set fellows with crew cuts continually taking photos of us. These are plain clothed policeman. In my experience, when police start following you, they aren’t actually too sneaky. These young men weren’t being shy about it. At points they would walk right up to you and snap a photo 5 inches away from your face with their oversized cell phones.

These policemen were actually very friendly. We even talked to them. They told us they knew our names and that we were from the Times. They were very excited when they got the opportunity to show us the photos they were taking. They even had photos of us from days earlier and showed us photos of colleague who had been in the area before.

Continue reading

Land in China: Über Touchy

The New York Times released their second installment of Leaving the Land on Sunday.

Articles in this series look at “how China’s government-driven effort to push the population to towns and cities is reshaping a nation that for millenniums has been defined by its rural life.” There’s a ton of effort going into this ongoing project in China and New York, similar in size to last year’s iECONOMY series or the previous year’s Culture and Control series.

With this installment, the first of three videos I made for the series published. The title “China’s Consuming Billion” plays off of Tom Miller’s book “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History” and McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Preparing for China’s urban billion.” The video, filmed in Beijing, Shanghai and Shaanxi Province sheds light on a possible by-product of China’s urbanization plan: a consumer culture that could drive and sustain economy.

Continue reading

Visual Journalism | 视频记者 Cinematography