A survey of Chinese photojournalists


A survey of Chinese photojournalists

A survey of Chinese photojournalists

Identities, work conditions and attitudes in the digital age

Shixin Ivy Zhang1 and Adrian Hadland

DOI: 10.4324/9781003032984-5

93 https://setiathome.berkeley.edu/show_user.php?userid=11381880
90 https://numberfields.asu.edu/NumberFields/show_user.php?userid=855314
82 https://milkyway.cs.rpi.edu/milkyway/show_user.php?userid=3201009
92 https://independent.academia.edu/opinions3
55 http://ict-edu.uk/user/opinions3/
48 http://edu.fudanedu.uk/user/opinions3/



There is no question that in the digital era, just like the analogue period that preceded it, images constitute a critical component of news discourse. The great news stories of our time continue to be lodged in the public consciousness through powerful images from the 9/11 terror attacks in New York in 2001 through to the more recent human suffering of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Chinese photojournalists’ contribution to the provision of key images that form part of news discourse remains largely unrecognized outside their homeland. But this is changing, and fast (Hunt, 2016).

According to a CNN report, 11 Chinese photographers not only inform the audience were shortlisted for the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards. Chinese entries to the awards have surged 263% from 2015. Zhang Lei, a photographer at the Tianjin Daily, won a top prize in the World Press Photo Contest (WPP) for his image of Tianjin shrouded in haze in 2016.

Zhang told Tencent Photo that the photo that won the WPP first prize singles was taken on Mansion 117, the tallest building in Tianjin on 10 December 2015. “I started taking photos of smog in 2012 … I’ve been to that building many times. I’m very familiar with the scene in the photo. I have expectations with the photo”, said Zhang.

Winning the WPP prize is like winning a lottery. But for any award-winning work, you must have basic photographic skills, then you have the sense of documenting societal issues, for instance, the smog in northern China. I believe it is worth recording and I take photos persistently and honestly.

(Tencent Photo, 2016)



Founded in 1955, WPP is “one of the most prestigious awards in photojournalism and multimedia storytelling” (www.worldpressphoto.org). It is also well known to China’s photography industry and the Chinese public. Since Yang Shaoming from Xinhua News Agency won a WPP third prize for his photo featuring Deng Xiaoping and his family after Deng’s retirement in 1988, a total of 36 photographers from mainland China have won this award. “WPP is like a mirror to China” that reflects the transformation of China and China’s photography (Guancha.cn, 2015).

Chinese photojournalists are a rising force in the world press corps. “Individual Chinese photographers have started to earn fellowships and awards abroad”, says Judy Polumbaum, Professor Emerita of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. “Photojournalists elsewhere have become aware of their Chinese peers … we are probably seeing the beginning of broader awareness” (Hunt, 2016).

News photographers are an understudied group of creative practitioners (Hadland, Lambert & Campbell, 2016). Chinese photographers are even more understudied. There is little research about the current state of Chinese photojournalists in the English corpus. To fill this gap, this study aims to shed light on Chinese photojournalists’ identities, work conditions and attitudes towards ethics, the impact of digital technologies, and the future prospects of photojournalism. Statistical data in this study draws on the 2015 and 2016 Photojournalism Survey conducted by the University of Stirling in collaboration with the WPP Foundation.



Previous studies on photojournalists

Professional photojournalists are facing rapid change in the form of advancements in digital technology, the rise of amateur or citizen photojournalists, increasing uncertainties in work circumstances, ethical concerns as well as political, organizational and commercial influences.

In 2015 and 2016, Hadland, Lambert and Campbell published the results of annual surveys of 1,556 photojournalists from more than 100 countries who had entered the World Press Photo contest in 2015 and 2016. The survey found the digital age has proven to be a period of great risk for photojournalists. Most felt they were particularly vulnerable to physical risk with country of residence representing a powerful influence on the likelihood of this risk. Other findings included that professional photojournalists were overwhelmingly male, largely self-employed, worked alone, were highly educated, and faced a range of serious challenges from new technologies, citizen photographers and ethical concerns to concerns about the sustainability of photojournalism as a professional occupation. Using the same dataset, the three authors also analysed the current professional practices of sport photojournalists (Haynes, Hadland & Lambert, 2016).

For this chapter, we have extracted the data from 275 Chinese journalists who participated in the 2015 and 2016 World Press Photo surveys.

Previous studies on photojournalists have mostly been nation-specific surveys usually examining photojournalists from the United States and focusing on a range of areas from the visual depiction of war, photojournalists’ personalities, multimedia skills and trauma to the impact of visual images on public opinion formation (Fahmy, 2005; Fahmy & Wanta, 2007; Greenwood and Reinardy, 2011; Freeman, 2004; Newman, Simpson & Handschuh, 2003).

Fahmy’s (2005) survey of 516 members of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) in the US revealed the attitudes and perceptions of photojournalists and photo editors toward the visual coverage of 9/11 and the Afghan War. It found that political sensitivity ranked higher for selecting graphic images of the Afghan War than for selecting graphic images of 9/11. Readers’ criticisms, taste, self-censorship, and personal ethics were identified as influencers in the visual gatekeeping process. Furthermore, Fahmy and colleague Wanta assessed how news professionals view the impact of their work. They found that visual journalists believed their work could have a powerful effect on the public (Fahmy & Wanta, 2007).

A study by Greenwood and Reinardy (2011) focused on photojournalists in traditional newspaper organizations in the US. Their online survey of 124 photojournalists indicated that little was being done to provide photojournalists with training in multimedia skills. Freeman (2004) examined the personality of photojournalists based on an online test with a small group of top daily newspaper photographers in the United States – the NPPA’s Monthly News Clip Contest from the years 1996 to 2000. Lastly, Newman, Simpson and Handschuh’s (2003) survey of 875 photojournalists in the US revealed the exposure of photojournalists to trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. They argue for the inclusion of emotional risk in theories about the relationship of photojournalistic practices to the creation of images.

It is not our goal to give a thorough and comprehensive review of previous studies on photojournalism and photojournalists. But the above-mentioned survey-based studies have clearly delineated a USA-focused view through a Western media lens. Few studies have examined photojournalists from the Global South and there is little question that more insight into their working conditions, challenges, motivations and aspirations would add to our understanding of this important aspect of news discourse in the digital era.

Regarding Chinese photojournalism, existing research focuses on a narrow range of themes and topical issues. As early as 1993, Renney studied photographic content in Chinese newspapers and found that entertainment was a primary function of photos, followed by economic news and education/indoctrination functions. Nearly all images were positive and more than half were posed (Renney, 1993).

Wu and Yun (2007) traced the historical development of documentary photography in modern China and argued that documentary photography, as a form of communication that tried to create social and aesthetic meanings, grew out of and was heavily dependent on civil society. Huang and Fahmy (2011) conducted a content analysis of photos from four major US newspapers and four major Chinese newspapers depicting the 2008 anti-China/Olympics protests. They revealed different themes in the US and China. While the US dailies visually portrayed a pro-Tibetan independence leaning, the Chinese dailies visually were more pro-Chinese government. Liu (2013) studied the convergence of professional journalism and global environmental politics. Based on the analysis of 148 photojournalistic works that received WPP environmental awards from 1992 to 2011, he found that the media of developed countries dominated the discourse, and the conventional notion of journalistic objectivity remained intact. In addition, Chinese photographers’ style of depicting an environmental crisis as studio art could be justified in the Chinese media system because an important standard of photojournalism was whether it could “uncover the essence of things” (Liu, 2013). The most recent research has been Zhang’s (2015) examination of the ideology and practices of four Chinese war photojournalists. She argued that Chinese photojournalists maintained their distinctive “Chineseness” and faced limitations due to ownership, audiences, internal and external constraints.

This study asks the following research questions:

RQ1: What is the demographic profile of Chinese photojournalists?

RQ2: What are the working conditions of Chinese photojournalists?

RQ3: How do they perceive ethics, the impact of digital technologies and the future prospects of photojournalism?



Journalistic field, capital and habitus

Theoretically, this chapter will draw on Bourdieu’s field theory and related notions of capital and habitus. French sociologist Bourdieu’s field theory has been widely discussed and used in journalism research in recent years. It highlights the dialectical relationship between the dispositions of individual journalists (i.e. the journalistic habitus) and the cultural practices and norms of the journalistic field (Phelan & Salter, 2017). In his consideration of the journalistic field, Bourdieu asks about agents, hierarchies and the logic of the field: which agents played a role? Who directed whom? And which capital was necessary to advance professionally? (Meyen & Fiedler, 2013). Tsui and Lee (2012) point out that the main utility of field theory resides in its provision of a framework for discussing individual variations. Thus, taking photojournalism as a sub-field in journalistic field in China, the habitus of Chinese photojournalists and the capital they possess (economic and cultural capital) will be analysed and explained within Bourdieu’s theoretical framework.

A field is referred to as a “structured social space”, “a field of forces” (Bourdieu, 1998a: 39). The journalistic field is semi-autonomous with its own logic and rules, as Bourdieu writes, “Journalism is a microcosm with its own laws. It is independent or autonomous because what happens in it cannot be understood by looking only at external factors” (Bourdieu, 1998a: 39). Meanwhile, cultural producers within the journalistic field are most susceptible to economic and political power. More specifically, a field consists of a set of positions, a set of trajectories associated with the positions, and a set of rules regarding what needs to be done and what kinds of capital needs to be acquired by an individual in a certain position (Tsui and Lee, 2012). Bourdieu’s field theory focuses on competition and difference (Benson, 2006; Meyen & Riesmeyer, 2012). Fields are spaces of competition in which agents compete for recognition and prestige according to the “rules of the game” and the resources agents possess. And each field is structured around differences of perception and practice (Powers & Zambrano, 2016). A common criticism is that Bourdieu’s framework privileges structural constraints over individual agency. However it enables the analysis of structure and agency as well as facilitating a more integrated interpretation of both structural inequalities and individual variations (Tsui and Lee, 2012; Botma, 2013). Field theory provides a new unit of analysis for media studies: the “mezzo-level” (or “meso-level”) inter-organizational and professional environment between the macro-level society and the micro-level individual journalists (Benson, 2006; Neveu, 2007).

Capital, which is closely linked to field, describes the power of agents. An agent’s power and social positioning within a field is determined by the capital the agent possesses in the social space. As Bourdieu (1998b: 6) noted, “Social space is constructed in such a way that agents or groups are distributed in it according to their position in statistical distribution based on the two principles of differentiation: economic and cultural capital”. Bourdieu’s term of capital takes different forms including economic, cultural, social and symbolic resources (Bourdieu, 1985; Wiedemann, 2017). Economic capital refers to money, assets or financial resources; cultural capital encompasses educational background, knowledge and skills; social capital refers to membership of networks, networks of contacts, social connections, friendships with the “right” people; and, finally, symbolic capital is the form the above capitals take once they are perceived and recognized as legitimate by others in the field (Powers & Zambrano, 2016; Wiedemann, 2017). Specifically in the journalistic field, there are economic and journalistic capital. Journalistic capital includes cultural capital (journalistic skills), social capital (networks) and symbolic capital (Meyen & Riesmeyer, 2012). Benson (2006) argued that the journalistic field is structured around the opposition between the “heteronomous” pole representing forces external to the field (primarily economic) and the “autonomous” pole representing the specific capital unique to that field (e.g., artistic or literary or scientific skills).

Habitus is a system of dispositions bringing together both objective social structures and subjective personal life experiences (Bourdieu, 1977; Wiedemann, 2017). Structured on field conditions, habitus further structures an individual’s perceptions and practices (Bourdieu, 1984; Kumar & Haneef, 2017). Bourdieu (1971) divided habitus into opus operatum and modus operandi. While the opus operatum refers to the personal life story shaped by age, gender, and outward appearance, socialization, and the current life situation, the modus operandi refers to how and why people act. Opus operatum defines modus operandi (Meyen & Fiedler, 2013). In a word, the concept of habitus aims at long-lasting schemes of perception, thinking and acting, and emphasizes that recent experiences are shaped by past experiences (Meyen & Fiedler, 2013).

Using the concepts of field, capital and habitus as instruments of analysis, the following categories were developed to understand the identities, work conditions, perceptions and attitudes of Chinese photojournalists against the world-wide photojournalists.

Demographics: habitus as opus operatum and individuals’ cultural (or journalistic) capital (age, gender, education level and training)

Working conditions: positions in the (photo)journalistic field and individuals’ economic capital (employment status, the type and size of organizations, roles, practice and financial situation)

Perceptions and attitudes: habitus as modus operandi (risks, ethics, citizen photography, and the future prospects).




This study draws on data from two broader questionnaire surveys that investigate the attitudes and values of photographers on a range of issues covering employment arrangements, professional practices and opinions about future developments in the field (Hadland, Campbell & Lambert 2016).

The two consecutive online surveys were conducted by University of Stirling in collaboration with the World Press Photo Foundation (WPP) in 2015 and 2016. Respondents were entrants of the WPP Contests. In 2015, a total of 1,556 questionnaires were completed with a 25% response rate. About half of those who filled in the survey were living in Europe with about a quarter in Asia (including Oceania and the Middle East), 11% in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and just under 10% in North America. In a similar follow-up survey in 2016, more than a third of the competition entrants, 1,991 photographers, responded. All the respondents participated voluntarily and confidentially in the two online surveys. Ethical procedures were approved by the University of Stirling’s General University Ethics Panel (GUEP). A pilot survey was conducted with the assistance of the Reuters News Agency in London in early 2015.

This current study is based on answers from a total of 275 Chinese photographers who participated in the WPP survey in 2015 and 2016. There were 62 respondents, representing about 4% of the total in 2015; and 213 in 2016, representing almost 11% of the total sample.

In addition, one of the authors conducted semi-structured interviews in Beijing with four photojournalists from Xinhua News Agency and China Radio International in May 2014. Ethical clearance for these interviews was approved by the University of Nottingham Ningbo China’s ethics committee. The four interviewees have been to the Middle East covering wars and conflicts. Each interview lasted about one hour. The interviewees were given fictional names to protect their identities. These interviews, along with secondary literature such as news reports in Chinese featuring interviews with photojournalists from China, are used to contextualize and explain the survey results, and to further discuss Chinese photojournalists as an interpretive community.



Survey results

In this section, the survey data are grouped and presented in three categories: Demographic profiles (gender, age, education level, and training); working conditions (employment status, the type and size of organizations, roles, and financial situation); and photojournalists’ perceptions and attitudes towards risks, ethics, citizen photography, and the future prospects of photojournalism.




As Table 3.1 shows, Chinese photojournalism is dominated by males (92%), which is much higher than the overall 84.5% in the 2016 world survey. The average age of Chinese photojournalists is 40 years old. The largest age group falls into 30 to 39 years old. Distribution of age groups is similar to the world-wide trend in which the 30–39 age is the dominant group.

Chinese photojournalists have very high education levels with 236 respondents (86%) claiming to be university educated. The top three subject areas are Arts and Humanities (70 respondents, 25%), photography (69 respondents, 25%) and journalism (64 respondents, 23%). In comparison, the overall world figure is 1,372 respondents (69%) who have university level qualifications. The most popular subject areas for Chinese photojournalists were photography (629 respondents, 26%), followed by journalism (395 respondents, 16%), and Arts and Humanities (371 respondents, 15%). This suggests that Chinese photojournalists have a higher education level than the world average and more of them study Arts and Humanities than their counterparts in the other parts of the world.

Table 3.1 Demographics of Chinese photojournalists by gender, age, education level, and training in photography over two years from 2015 to 2016 (N=275) Demographics

Number of responses




• Male

• Female






Age (years)

• 19 or younger

• 20–29

• 30–39

• 40–49

• 50–59

• 60–69















• No formal qualifications

• School level only

• Post-school/vocational

• University level










Main subject area at university

• Arts and humanities

• Social sciences

• Journalism

• Photography

• Law

• Business

• Natural, medical or life sciences

• Computing, technical or engineering

• Other




















Training in photography

• In-house training

• College course

• Undergraduate degree

• Postgraduate degree

• No specific training












Subject area covered in training

• Photography

• Video

• Audio

• Multimedia

• Web design

• Graphic design

• No specific training

• Other


















Findings indicate Chinese photojournalists are well trained in photography with a majority of respondents (188 respondents, 68%) claiming to have received either college course (107 respondents, 39%) and/or in-house training (81 respondents, 29%) respectively. These figures are higher than that of the overall world survey results, which show 1,168 respondents (52%) having college course and/or in-house training.

The top three subject areas that are covered in specific training are photography (212 respondents, 77%), video (74 respondents, 27%) and multi-media (45 respondents, 16%). The percentage in these three areas is much higher than that of the 2016 world survey results – photography (1539 respondents, 49%), video (444 respondents, 14%) and multimedia (297 respondents, 9.5).

In sum, a typical Chinese photojournalist can be described as a male, 40 years old, university educated with a major in Arts and Humanity or photography. He tends to be professionally trained in photography, video and multimedia. Compared to the world demographic profiles in photojournalism, the most distinctive features of Chinese photojournalists are that they are predominantly male (92% vs overall 85%) with university education (86% vs overall 69%) and who have received professional training (68% vs overall 52%), multimedia in particular.



Working conditions

In this section, findings regarding Chinese photojournalists’ employment, the type and size of organizations they work for, their roles and practice, as well as their financial situation will be presented.

Regarding employment status, Chinese photographers have a high proportion in full-time employment (183 out of 242, or 76%), rather than self-employed (24%), compared to about 42/54% (employment/self-employment) in the rest of study. Nearly half of them (49% out of 275) work as full-time photographers. Meanwhile, a high number of them (75%) also work as part-time photographers who do other part-time work.

Specifically, a total of 114 Chinese respondents (41%) reported they had a long-term contract with a large media company (100 plus staff). Only 59 photographers (21%) were self-employed. These figures from China, as Figure 3.1 below shows, form a stark contrast to the world trend in which 54% (more than 1,000 respondents) are self-employed and 22% (446 respondents) have a long-term contract with a large media company.

Figure 3.1Percentage of photojournalists in China and the world in terms of types of employment (N=275 for China; N=1,991 for the world)

There is a strong association between gender and employment. Findings indicate that 170 Chinese males were employed (out of 183 total employed, 93%). (Pearson chi2(1) = 3.5862; Pr = 0.058). In terms of self-employment, 50 Chinese males (20%) were self-employed whereas 9 females (39%) were self-employed. In addition, 110 males (44%) and 4 females (17%) had a long-term contract with a large media company (Pearson chi2(7) = 11.9490; Pr = 0.102). This indicates that Chinese male photographers are much more likely to be employed than females, and tend to have a stable job with a large media company. Chinese female photographers tend to be self-employed.

Regarding the distribution of organizations, a high number of Chinese photographers (109 respondents, or 42%) are employed on print-only newspapers or magazines. Their average ages are quite high with a 52 years old average for print newspapers and 57 years old for print magazines (significance p-value for relations between organization and age = .00353519).

A significant number of Chinese photographers (69 respondents, or 25%) work in companies with a large number of photographers (more than 30). Meanwhile, an even higher number, 96 respondents or 35% work in companies with fewer than 10 photographers. Their roles are mainly photojournalists (93 or 44%), documentary photographer (74 or 27%) or press photographer (51 or 19%).

Regarding practice, the majority of respondents (198 or 72%) claim they work alone most of time. They sometimes work in a multi-media team (163 or 60%). Their assignments are mostly still photographs only (141 or 51%), along with writing texts and images (63 or 23%) and mix of still and video (30 or 11%).

The financial situation of Chinese photographers is quite similar to that of the world trend. Most of them report they are managing (118 or 43%). See Figure 3.2 below.

Figure 3.2Photographers’ description of their current financial situation (N=275 for China; N=1,991 for the world)

In sum, the majority of Chinese photographers are in employment working as full-time or part-time photographers. Male photographers are likely to have a stable job with a large media company while female photographers tend to be self-employed. Older photographers (above 50 years old) tend to work at print publications. Photographers work alone most of time and sometimes in a multi-media team. Their roles involve providing still photographs only, writing text and images, or shooting a mix of still and video. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Chinese photographers were mostly “managing” with their finances.




While addressing the question of “which of the risks worries you most”, Chinese photographers pointed out “failure of my company” (94 respondents, 38%) and “failure to keep up with the technology” (35 respondents, 13%) as being most relevant. This result differs from world trends in which 816 respondents (41%) cited “risk of physical injury or death during work” and 228 respondents (12%) cited “erratic and unpredictable income” as the most worrying risks.

Regarding ethics, 185 Chinese photographers (67%) believed the manipulation of photographs (adding or removing content) was a very serious problem. This percentage is 12% lower than world-wide survey cohort (1,572, 79%). Also, 204 (74%) Chinese photographers thought it was very important for photographers to understand professional ethics. The corresponding percentage was 83% (1,660 respondents) in the world survey, nearly 10% higher than that of China. It suggests Chinese photographers may take manipulation of photographs and professional ethics slightly less seriously on average than their counterparts in the other parts of the world.

Regarding the assumption that amateur or citizen photography is changing the way professional photographers work, Chinese photographers were mostly positive towards amateur/citizen photography. A total of 182 Chinese respondents (66%) agreed that amateur/citizen photography added something new and only 40 respondents (14%) disliked it and/or regarded it as a threat to their livelihood. In comparison, the world survey revealed that 712 (36%) respondents were positive while 566 (29%) respondents were negative towards amateur/citizen photography. Figure 3.3 shows the details below.

Figure 3.3Chinese and world-wide photographers’ attitudes towards amateur/citizen photography (N=275 for China; N=1,991 for the world)

Regarding the future prospects of photojournalism, a total of 125 Chinese photographers (45%) indicated they “sometimes” felt overwhelmed by the pace of technological change while 57 (21%) said they were “never” overwhelmed. In comparison, the world survey shows 828 (42%) photographers chose “sometimes” and 635 (32%) chose “never”. This suggests Chinese photographers are a bit more overwhelmed by the pace of technological change than photographers from other countries.

In addition, Chinese photographers felt more positive towards the future of photography. total of 119 Chinese photographers (43%) “always” felt positive about the future of photography whereas only 501 (25%) photographers in the world survey “always” felt that way. In answering the question of “what skills should universities, colleges or training institutions be offering to the next generation of photographers so they can have long-term, successful careers?”, the top three options for Chinese photographers were “photography skills” (230 respondents, 84%), “social media skills” (149 respondents, 54%) and “video skills” (125 respondents, 45%). In comparison, the top three options in the world survey are quite similar to that of Chinese photographers but the percentages vary significantly – “photography skills” (1593 respondents, 16%), “communication/networking” skills (1116, 10.9%), and “video skills” (1087, 10.7%).

In sum, Chinese photojournalists perceive company failure and the technological change as the biggest risks. They take manipulation of photographs and professional ethics seriously but not as much as photographers in other parts of the world. They hold a generally positive attitude towards amateur/citizen photography and the future of photography. They believe “photography skills”, “social media skills” and “video skills” are the most important for the next generation.




In this section, the above-mentioned survey results will be further discussed in combination with in-depth interviews and secondary literatures.




How do Chinese photojournalists differ from the general population of journalists? According to a national survey of Chinese journalists (N=1,276) conducted in 2010, the number of female journalists (53%) exceeded males (47%), thus “the increasing percentage of female journalists in China is a notable and consistent trend” (Zhang & Su, 2012: 14). However, data in this study indicates that the gender composition of photojournalists in China who enter the World Press Photo awards is highly skewed toward males (92%).

According to Zhang and Su (2012), Chinese journalists are generally younger, better educated and more likely to be female than ever before because more women have been enrolled in journalism schools in China’s universities and many young journalists work at websites. The Chinese media underwent a commercialization and marketization process in the 1990s as a result of reforms implemented in 1978. With an increasingly commercialized Chinese media, educated young people are needed to fill the workforce and have more opportunities to become journalists (Zhang & Su, 2012). But there is a strong gender imbalance in news photography. For photojournalists, specialized photographic work is demanding. It requires practitioners to be physically stronger, tougher, more skilful (camera work) and experienced than general journalists.

Gender is an important issue for photojournalists especially for those who work in dangerous places such as war/conflict zones. A 35-year-old Chinese female journalist was posted to work in Tel Viv, Israel with her husband for two years from 2009 to 2011. She said she often needed to go out to take photos, do interviews and take audio recording on her own. Occasionally, both she and her husband went out together and one of them shot videos only. She said:

Gender basically has no big impacts (on the work). It is nothing more than physical strength. But photography and videography are different. … I have never worn a bullet-proof vest in the conflict zones. Once we went to Palestine to cover the anti-separation-wall protest. We followed a Palestinian fixer who was hired as our interpreter. He was hit by a rubber bullet many years ago and he still carries the scar from it. He told us to put a plastic bag over our heads and tie it up to protect ourselves from the tear gas. Otherwise we had to wear the masks which were heavy. It would be exaggerated and unnecessary. Those who wore the masks were photographers or videographers. They stood on the spot closest to the wall. It was like the Israelis soldiers throwing tear gas directly to the photographers. They (Israelis soldiers) felt you were provoking them and they then threw the tear gas at you. The tear gas fell just next to where the photographers stood while they were shooting photos. Palestinians, wearing big gloves like the kitchen gloves, picked up the tear gas shells and threw them back at the Israelis.

(Personal communication with Vivian, 2014)


This quote shows that news photography does pose great physical risks to practitioners in hazardous and chaotic situations. Chinese news outlets may be concerned about the gender issue while hiring and/or assigning photographers. This also explains why male photographers in China are more likely to have a stable job within a large media company while female photographers tend to be self-employed.



Working conditions

Regarding working conditions, this study finds that the majority of Chinese photographers (76%) are employed (full time or part time) and a large portion of Chinese photographers (41%) work for a large media company (100 plus staff) with a long-term contract. Quite a number of older photographers (above 50 years old) work at print publications. This trend can be attributed to the fact that China has over 2,000 newspapers and 9,000 magazines. It has the largest newspaper circulations in the world reaching 100 million copies as a result of the commercialization and marketization of news media (china.org.cn). Most print publications have a photography department staffed with photographers on long-term contracts. In addition, all news media are state-owned in China. Photographers who work at large state-owned media companies are treated as government employees. They enjoy job stability/security, rich resources (including training courses) and benefits such as health insurance, pension, housing allowance etc. In addition, full-time photographers are allowed to do part-time jobs as well. Hence despite the fact that high mobility becomes possible in the market-oriented media environment (Zhang & Su, 2012), many photographers prefer to work at large media companies. Even though they are not hired as staff photographers, they can work as contract photographers. For instance, China Photo Mall run by Xinhua Photography Center started in September 2002 and by the end of 2011, the number of contracted photographers had already exceeded 10,000 (Lv, 2012).

Regarding perception of risks, Chinese photographers most worry about “failure of company” and “failure to keep up with the technology”. This does not come as a surprise in the digital age. Despite the fact that China has the world’s largest circulation in newspapers, the journalism crisis (or newspaper crisis) is also happening in China. The advertising revenue that accounts for more than 90% of the total revenue of China’s newspaper industry has dropped two digits for three consecutive years. In 2015, the ad revenue of newspapers fell by 36% (Yu, 2016). Newspaper readership accounts for less than 20% of the total population and the readers’ average age is above 50 years old. The “Chinese newspaper industry has reached the ‘most critical moment’ of life and death”, said Prof. Yu Guoming, a journalism professor at Beijing Normal University in China. In the face of the looming crisis, Chinese photojournalists have serious concerns about job security.

Wang Ge, a former photojournalist at a newspaper in Wuhan in southern China, became an independent photographer in 2015.

When I worked at the newspaper, I was assigned to take many photos that I dislike. That kind of work and life were tiring. Over time, I was in a cycle of repetition. Every year the photos I took were more or less the same.


The daily work and what I really want were two totally different things. Gradually I wanted to be an independent photographer. In the end, I left the newspaper (news.qq.com, 2015).




Regarding ethics, most interviewees admit they use Photoshop and believe the adjustment of light, exposure and image clipping are all permissible. Meanwhile, they oppose staged photos and the addition and/or removal of objects from pictures because such behaviour has “altered the facts” and is unacceptable. Since there are no explicit ethical codes in Chinese newsrooms, photojournalists follow implicit ethical codes and moral standards in post-production editing (Zhang, 2015). An interviewee in his 20s said:

We use digital cameras. I once had a conversation with an AFP journalist. He said that the digital camera today is very advanced. But the photos still need post-production adjustments. The camera is a machine after all, no matter how intelligent it is. The photos we take do not have the exact effects as expected. Making adjustments shall follow some principles. Image clipping is okay but removal of objects is a no-no. For example, the incident of Narciso Contreras from AP.2 I feel it is a shame. Narciso is a freelance photographer from Mexico. I met him in Egypt. He was not the first person to do this (removing objects). Many photographers failed on this. It altered the objective facts.

(Personal communication, 2014)


Another Chinese photographer talked about the shooting of dead bodies and corpses. He said:

Shooting dead bodies shall follow socialist moral codes. Appropriate forms and expressions shall be used. One of our photographers took a good photo. In Palestine, a father and son’s bodies were packed into one ice box in the morgue. They pulled out the bodies and the photographer took photos of the heads only. It looks like the father and son were sleeping. The photo is incomplete. Only two faces were taken, which forms a triangle. Such expression has a different effect. People can accept it.

(Personal communication with Taylor, 2014)


These quotes support the survey’s findings that Chinese photojournalists understand the importance of professional ethics in news photography and take it seriously. But because there are no clearly stated ethical codes or editorial guidelines in place at news organizations, photojournalists practise photography based on their own understanding and interpretations about right or wrong, good or bad.

In the digital age, citizens armed with mobile phones have made an entry into the “occupational turf” of photojournalism, which has led to “de-professionalization” and/or “de-professionalism” (Mortensen, 2014a). Amateur images appear next to professional photojournalists’ photos, which causes tension and sense of threat among professional photojournalists (Mortensen, 2014b). Even though digitalization did not “cause” the threats to professional photojournalism compared to other professions and cultural industries, the impact of digitization on photojournalism has been among the most severe (Klein-Avraham & Reich, 2014).

The debate on the role of citizen journalism continues. On the one hand, amateur news photographs are applauded for adding eye-witness credibility, authenticity, transparency, realism, and a sense of “being there” (Pantti 2013; Williams, Wardle and Wahl-Jorgensen 2011; Zelizer 2007; Mortensen, 2014a). On the other hand, professional photojournalists express concern about the quality of amateur photographs, the danger of professionals getting laid off, and professionals’ low job dissatisfaction and morale (Greenwood & Reinardy, 2011).

This study reveals that unlike those from the rest of the world, Chinese photojournalists mostly feel positive towards amateur/citizen photography and the future. One interviewee said citizen photography offered more options and choices for editors and news outlets. He said:

I attended a seminar hosted by my news agency some time ago. Citizen photography and mobile photography affects journalism in terms of breaking and unexpected news. While professional photographers can’t arrive at the scenes, the passers-by happen to be there and they take photos. But they have not received any training. We (professionals) can’t compete with them (amateurs) in terms of timeliness. It just provides us with more choices. They can send their photos to us for publication. What we need to do is to enhance the professional follow-up and in-depth reports.

(Personal communication with Tom, 2014)


Interviewees also shared their insights and ideas about the wider impact of digital technology and social media. Tom talked about his use of digital camera and film camera for different purposes – digital camera for work and film camera for personal interests.

Digital technology makes people lazy. In the past two years, I took hundreds of thousands of photos with digital camera. There are not many good photos. If the photos are no good, I just delete them. For film cameras, I do not press the button so easily. There are only 36 films. I need to consider whether it is worthwhile to take the photo. The use of digital camera is more freely and at low cost. Film cameras are different. It has more success rate. In the case that I am in a hurry and need to send out the photos within 10 minutes, I use digital camera. If I photograph for my own use, for example, having a photo show or book publishing, I use film camera. Digital camera is for work and film camera is for personal interests. Photos on film are more close to art. They are also easy to store. You can take them out after a long time. Digital photos are fabricated, calculated and done by computers. When you lose the hard disks, photos are gone.

(Personal communication with Tom, 2014)




Chinese photojournalists are a rising force in the world press corps and they are getting more recognition and exposure via photography contests such as that conducted annually by WPP. In Bourdieu’s terms, Chinese photojournalists possess more and more symbolic capital in the world’s photojournalistic field. This study has taken Chinese photojournalists as research object and discussed their demographic profiles (habitus as opus operatum), working conditions (field) as well as their perceptions and attitudes towards ethics, the impact of technology and the future prospect of photojournalism (habitus as modus operandi). The survey results have been triangulated with in-depth interviews and secondary literatures.

In summary, Chinese photojournalists seem to own strong cultural or journalistic capital when it comes to the habitus as opus operatum. They have an average age of 40 and are well educated and well trained in photography and multimedia. They are predominantly male due to the nature of photographic work and the social bias/stereotypes against women photographers. Gender imbalance in photography is evidently serious in China. While male photographers tend to have a stable job at a large media company, female photographers tend to be self-employed. This phenomenon suggests that Chinese female photographers hold a less advantageous social position in the journalistic field.

In terms of perceptions and attitudes, i.e. the habitus as modus operandi, Chinese photojournalists believe it is important to understand professional ethics. Since explicit ethical codes are not in place at news outlets, Chinese photojournalists follow implicit ethical codes and moral standards.

They are generally positive towards citizen photography and the future prospects of photojournalism. Digital technology has impacted on Chinese photojournalists in the sense that journalists use digital and film cameras for different purposes, while emphasizing the need to grasp videography and multi-media skills, and adopt innovative methods such as aerial photography.

Finally, this study shows that while Chinese photojournalists experience many similar pressures and trends to their colleagues internationally, there remain specific complexities and challenges which are unique to the Chinese journalism sector. In particular, the high number of full-time, late career photojournalists may be vulnerable if prevailing conditions do have a strongly negative impact on traditional newspaper companies, as they have in many other countries. This could result in severe job losses and could challenge the sustainability of photojournalism in a Chinese context.



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