Below is the interview that was published along with the 12 pages that featured German’s work.
Outside the Rings
For his project, Outside the Rings, Kevin German spent 30 days in Beijing photographing the Olympics from the outside in, or, in other words, telling the back story of the lives of people in Beijing, those people that surround the Olympics, are affected by it, but are still isolated from it. Eyemazing gets the inside story on his experience.
Clayton Maxwell: Many of your photos are about being on the periphery: the young girl standing at the fence with her arms outstretched, peering into the Olympic village, or the girl with raindrops on her face, looking out a window. Both you and the average Beijing citizen were right there amid the grandiose spectacle that was captivating the attention of the entire globe, but neither of you could have much part of it. How much do you think the people of Beijing really felt that exclusion?
Kevin German: In the first few days of August leading up to the Games, I felt that being a non-credentialed journalist was no big deal. I got to the closest perimeter of the venues and found that making pictures came pretty easily. But as soon as the opening ceremonies came about, everything changed. Roadblocks everywhere. Bus schedules changed. On several occasions I found myself on a bus to nowhere because of the schedule change. But these were merely annoyances. The night of the opening, I decided to see how close I could get. I found myself with thousands of people on the streets all trying to see the fireworks. I walked for hours, kilometre after kilometre with locals. Each time arriving at a place only to see the police pushing people off the streets and telling them that they could see the fireworks if they walked back to where they came from. I feel that set the tone for the Games.
I think that the average Beijinger was excited for the Games but was more excited to see them over with. Public transportation was flooded due to the odd/even license plate law that exists in that city and because of the sheer number of tourists in the city. And at all times other journalists and I felt that the average local person was afraid of doing the wrong thing during the Games. Maybe it is always like that, but that month was strange.
The Games were only for the middle to upper class citizens of China. A venue ticket gave you free bus and subway rides for the day of the event. Yet the transportation costs merely cents in the dollar. A local friend of mine didn’t understand that. She said if you can afford to buy the ticket, then you can surely afford the bus and subway fares. There were a lot of rumours going around about the price of tickets for the opening ceremonies – I have no idea if they are true or not. But people were saying that some tickets were going for between $30,000 and $70,000 USD.
CM: Some of your photos can be read as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Beijing Olympics. The most outstanding example is the image of the wall plastered with an idyllic landscape and the official “One World, One Dream” logo of the Beijing Games. The wall is halfway torn down and behind it you see what it was meant to hide: impoverished living, trash, men without shirts slumped over reading the newspaper, laundry dangling. Do you think that this hypocrisy is more severe at these particular games because they are in China, or do you think that this cover up happens all that time, because all host cities try to hide their blemishes?
KG: I feel that this was China’s coming out party to the world. They went to great lengths to show the China they want to show. The scene where the wall partially covers the slum is a perfect example of that. My friend Sol Neelman, another photographer, happened upon the neighbourhood and quickly called me. It wasn’t partially torn down, that’s just where the wall stopped. Everything about it yells hypocrisy. Even how the nice stepping-stones end right where the faux wall stops. I understand if a host city wants to help clean up some neighbourhoods, but the Chinese government just put up hundreds of walls. And the worst part for me is that the culture seemed completely stripped away from the city for the month. There were no homeless, no migrant workers, no street vendors, no recycling collectors. Another local friend of mine put it frankly, “China just doesn’t want to air its dirty laundry. That’s no different from your country.” Maybe she’s right.
CM: In many of your photos, government control is present, represented either by the military or a flag. As your photo of the kid with a flag over his bare chest seems to suggest, were there many people who seemed to be stalwart believers in government ideology and propaganda?
KG: I live in Vietnam now. The people there are very suspicious of the government. And democratic ideologies are growing in the minds of young students every day. It’s hard to imagine communism surviving in that country for more than four to five more generations. But in China, it’s the opposite. Well, my only experience is in Beijing, but it felt like most people were on board with the government. People would say to me that the government knows what’s best for them. And if they don’t want the people to know something then it’s probably for the betterment of the people’s health.
What really caught my interest was the sheer number of military personnel. The city had a military official on almost every street corner. I think the locals are so used to seeing the military on a daily basis, they mostly just ignore them. Though I’m sure their presence does affect their actions.
CM: In your blog, kevingerman.blogspot.com, you wrote a little about the Cheer Beijing Workers and how they were asked by the government to fill empty seats and root for China. Could you tell us more about that? Why wouldn’t the government just give the seats to regular people? Why were there so many empty seats?
KG: I honestly don’t know why there were so many empty seats. It didn’t make sense to a lot of people. I did encounter hundreds of ticket scalpers trying to make a several hundred percent profit, but it just wasn’t happening. Locals believed that Westerners were rich and would pay premium prices for poor seats. But the reality of it was that most foreigners who didn’t already have venue tickets probably couldn’t afford much over the original price anyway. I tried to buy tickets several times. One ticket originally cost $1.50 USD and the guy would not budge on his $234 USD asking price.
The Cheer Beijing Workers were mostly comprised of students and city employees. They were given yellow T-shirts and red ball caps and were told to cheer for China no matter what venue or event was going on. I came upon one group while walking and followed them to Worker’s Stadium a few hours before the beginning of a soccer match. There must have been more than a thousand of them waiting to enter the venue.
CM: In your last blog post from Beijing you wrote, “I leave for the airport in a few hours to head home to Saigon for a few days before France. My feelings for China are still too fresh to really go into detail. I have such a bitter distain for the government, but I will miss the common person dearly.”
Now that you’ve been gone a couple of days, do you have any more clarity on your feelings for China? Can you elaborate on your disdain for the government? Can you explain why you will miss the common people?
KG: I think my feelings come from growing up in a democratic society. The right to information to form your own opinions in life is the most important thing to me. I saw that lacking there. I saw that lacking in many countries I’ve been to. That doesn’t stop governments from trying to feed you their agendas, USA included. But I have been lucky enough to always have the option to look past that. I don’t see that in China and it really bothered me. I had several negative experiences while trying to photograph government people. Nothing really worth writing about, except for the undercover police officer hitting me in the head while he was trying to arrest a ticket scalper. But negative just the same. Everyone was conscious about how China looks. They may not have any idea of what I’m photographing but if they think it may show something in a negative light then the hand goes up over the lens.
But a few times I had the pleasure of really connecting with some local people. And it is their kindness and character that I will miss.
CM: It seems that while you were there, your most meaningful moments came from connections with a few open and generous locals as well as positive interactions with other photographers. I really like the story in your blog about your visit to the hutong.
KG: A hutong is traditional housing in Beijing. The city was built around them. Their key characteristics are very narrow alleyways and the residents share common areas such as kitchens, bathrooms and courtyards. Most of these hutongs are considered slums now and are quickly being eradicated. An estimated 20 percent of Beijing’s residents still live in hutongs today.
I was walking through one hutong looking for light, looking for something. And I heard an Olympic event coming from a TV set inside one structure. I peered through the screen mesh window. It was very hard to see, but I saw a couple sitting down watching table tennis on a small TV. I stood there looking in for a moment hoping they would notice me and maybe invite me in. Sure enough, the woman turned around looked rather startled at first. I mean there was a six-foot white guy staring in at them. I quickly apologised and began to walk off. But she gestured for me to come in. The family spoke zero English and knew maybe three phrases in Mandarin. I walked into their bedroom and they offered me a seat. I started making pictures. They didn’t seem to mind. Then their bedroom turned into the cooking prep room as the woman cut vegetables and meat while watching the Games. I was invited to their dinner. It was one of the best meals I had in Beijing actually. When I tried to offer them money for the meal, they wouldn’t take it. So I shoved 100 Yuan under their pillow when they were not looking.
A rather corny and surreal moment occurred while eating dinner, however. The Olympics trademark song and video came on TV and showed Westerners and Chinese people holding hands and singing both in Mandarin and English. It was kind of neat though!
Text by Clayton Maxwell
© All pictures: Kevin German