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Alumni Interviews: Photographing Chinese diversity

Ryan PylePhoto of: Ryan Pyle (BA 2001, Political Science) is an award-winning photographer and photojournalist based in Shanghai, China, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, TIME Magazine, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Fortune. He’s also lectured at the Munk School of Global Affairs on the rise of China, starred in his own travel TV series, Middle Kingdom Ride and is a Guinness World Record-setting adventurer. Pyle was interviewed during production of Sacred Mountains, a TV series that will follow the adventure traveller as he visits the four holy mountains of China.

How did your university experience prepare you for your career?

My experience at U of T taught me to think differently and it got me excited about “the world beyond Canada.” That curiosity is what has carried me through my professional career.

How did you end up working/living in Asia?

In my second year of U of T I took a course, “Introduction to Modern China,” for no other reason than it fit my schedule. That class got me curious. I took a few more courses on Chinese history and politics. 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.

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.

You call yourself an “anthropologist with a camera.” What do you mean by that?

I like to understand different ways of life. I like to look at the way people live and understand all aspects of their existence. And I like making images. I see myself as less of a journalist or a photo-journalist and more of a “long-term observer” of the human race.

You’re still very much connected to U of T and to the Asian Institute. Can you talk a bit about that relationship and why you’ve wanted to maintain/build that relationship?

I very much want to share my story and my adventures in China with a wide audience, and I really enjoy sharing that with the academic community.

Tell us about your Guinness record for circumnavigating China?

 The Middle Kingdom Ride was a 65-day, 18,000-km motorcycle adventure in China that I did with my brother, Colin. We shot video and took a lot of photographs on the trip and were able to turn that into a television show and a book. We also, in the process of all of that, set a Guinness World Record. It was an incredibly challenging journey but the reward of learning so much about such a fast-changing country will stay with me forever.

You have a new book, 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.

  • The Middle Kingdom Ride was a 65-day, 18,000-km motorcycle adventure in China that Pyle did with his brother, Colin.