The French journalist and Sinologist Agnès Gaudu is the head of the China-Taiwan-Singapore department at the weekly journal Courrier international. Her background in Chinese studies and Journalism led her to China several times from 1979 onwards. Active in many conferences, she has published a great number of articles that examine the changing aspects of Chinese society. In fall 1988, she embarked on a survey in China that preceded the outbreak of the pro-democratic movement in June 1989. She reported her experience only few weeks after through a publication, whose reference is indicated below.
What was you first encounter with photography?
My first encounter with photography was when I went to China in 1979. I brought a German brand Praktica camera that I just purchased. I practiced photography almost exclusively in China. Although I am a self-taught photographer, the photographic archive I constituted is rather large.
Can you tell me more about your experience of China on the eve of the Tian’anmen protests?
I am not very familiar with the general iconography of Tian’anmen protests. In truth I have never watched my photographs because I never had the occasion. Of course I developed some of them for the sake of the publication I was preparing at that time [Chine, L'empire déchiré published in September 1989]. When I conducted this one year survey across China, I was convinced that there will be a social explosion. Not many people believed me back then.
To what extent a journalist can freely illustrate his/her text in a newspaper?
I pay a particular attention to the text/image relationship, especially because of my position at the journal Courrier International. I always work closely with iconographists, who are doing a great job. The degree of flexibility we enjoy at Courrier International remains unusual. We are lucky because such cooperation is almost inexistent in other newspapers. Compiling articles consist in a series of dialogues between journalists and iconographists so as images and texts make sense all together.
What do you think about recent initiatives to rethink Tian’anmen events, such as the Chinese photographer Xu Yong and his “Negatives” series?
I like Xu Yong’s photographs. At times too much aestheticism troubles me, but Xu Yong’s images make sense. Such type of manipulation is legible and coherent. It is not a construction of reality, it simply reifies that images don’t always convey the content we might think. To me it still comments an historical event by using a visual effect that yet does not contradict what the image originally tells.
What is the role of the photographic images in today Chinese newspapers?
Chinese editors in chief are particularly meticulous about images’ meanings. It seems the role of photographic images is to be used astutely for the sake of the newspapers’ goals. They are masters in designing front pages. Some delicate subject matter constrain Chinese journalists within a limited range of visual vocabulary, such as the annual reports to Congress. Amongst the Chinese newspaper that played an important role, I would cite the Nanfang Zhoumo (南方周末) and the Nandu Zhoukan (南都周刊).
How is organised journalism education in China?
First it is worth remembering that Chinese journalists never expatriate, unless they are appointed representatives for the Xinhua News Agency [the official state-owned press agency]. Xinhua Agency possesses its own schools, which provides journalists basic training in photography.
I taught journalism at Zhongshan University during one year. I loved it. I get a free hand with the course but obviously they knew I wouldn’t be out of control. The only rule was to avoid talking about China, which was not that complicated. My course was entitled under the umbrella term “International Journalism” and hoped to give an encyclopaedic knowledge.
Photography was a key tool when I was teaching. I selected the images I had in hands and that tackled international subject matters. For instance, I remember when I discussed the Greek crisis and showed some images. I asked the students where they think it was. They couldn’t answer and were astonished because it didn’t corresponded to their conception of a European metropolis.
The students’ motivations varied. Only around 10% of them wanted truly to become journalists. The majority of students register to journalism course to gain general knowledge that would enable them to work within the communication industry.
What image of China would you like to transmit to those who know little about it?
I refuse superficial clichés. When I published my book Chine, L'empire déchiré few months after Tiananmen protests, I wanted to move beyond commonplace images. I wanted to demonstrate that even within the framework of Tiananmen protests there were moments where the army wasn't firing on population but instead offering a helping hand. This fleeting moment of mutual understanding existed. I wanted to emphasize the warmth and humanity that I believe characterize this population.