Behind the Smog That Ate Beijing

Posted by on Jan 20, 2012 in on assignment | No Comments

A view of air pollution over the CCTV building in Beijing, China. Wednesday January 18th 2012

I got a call on Wednesday from Foreign Policy magazine asking me to do a quick 1 day assignment. The brief? To travel around Beijing and capture the dense layer of smog that was sitting on top of the city. Beijingers and visitors will be all too familiar with this ‘fog’ which regularly descends upon the city. The story was published yesterday online and has become one of the most popular stories on the FP site (view here). I thought I would include here on the blog, a few shots that didn’t make the final cut and explain some of the challenges in photographing air pollution.

Tourists on Coal Hill in central Beijing. Wednesday January 18th 2012

The first challenge was making sure that I was able to get a representative picture of Beijing in the space of around 6 hours. This was an unplanned assignment, as FP editors had been closely watching the BeijingAir feed on Twitter, waiting for it to hit “hazardous” levels. This meant that logistically, I had to plan the day in the space of a few minutes before grabbing my cameras and heading out the door. Making sure that I was able to get to as many of Beijing’s distinctive landmarks as possible, I decided that given the time that I had I would aim for Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the CBD area of Guomao and the Olympic stadium.

The sun burns though the smog in central Beijing. Wednesday January 18th 2012

The next challenge comes from actually getting images that convey the sense of pollution and haze. If you are shooting with a wide-angle lens at ground level, it’s actually difficult to effectively show the effect of the haze. I quickly decided that to get shots with some impact, I would have to find some way to change this. I decided I needed some elevation.

The CBD area of Beijing is similar to most other business districts, lots of hi rise office buildings. I knew that if I wanted to get a sense of being in the smog, I needed to get up into these office buildings to shoot. I was a little hesitant at first, as I expected any request I made to photograph from the buildings to be denied. Surprisingly though, the couple of offices that I tried happily let me in to shoot for a couple of minutes.

A view of air pollution over the Guomao (CBD) area in Beijing, China. Wednesday January 18th 2012

From the CBD, I headed to ‘Coal Hill’ which is located north of the Forbidden City. It’s arguably the best place in Beijing to get a view of the Forbidden City and on a good day, you can see half way across the city. I knew that I wanted to try and capture some of old Beijing, to contrast my shots from the CBD and Bird’s Nest. Getting the elevation from being on top of the hill was again, key to getting the shots.

Air pollution obscures the view of the Olympic stadium, the 'Bird's Nest', central Beijing, China. Wednesday January 18th 2012

All in all, I was pleased with the results from this shoot, considering the time restrictions and number of locations. I hope these images help convey the severity of air pollution in Beijing. It’s a very serious issue and one which affecting the health of every person in Beijing and in many other cities throughout China.

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