Awards winner: I’d rather be a journo in the field than a deskbound boss

chinadialogue interviews photojournalist Chen Jie, winner of Journalist of the Year at the 2015 China Environmental Press Awards

In 2014, after eight years in the job, Chen Jie quit as photo editor at the Beijing News, picked up his camera, and headed out to do the job he loved: photojournalist.

On the final day of August last year he arrived at the town of Elisi, on the edge of Inner Mongolia’s Tengger desert. An acrid odour filled the air. In the dunes out on the horizon, chemical manufacturers were dumping untreated waste water onto the sands, and into lakes that had been important sources of fresh water.

After nightfall, Chen dressed up as a local farmer, wrapped his camera in a cloth bag, and headed out into the desert in search of the source of the overpowering smells. One hour and several sand dunes later the view opened out, and the stench became almost suffocating. In front of him, several rectangular pits, each the size of several football fields, lay side-by-side in the desert.

Ink-black water was being pumped into two pits, while two others were filled with black, yellow and dark-red muds thinned with sand and lime. A bulldozer sat next to the trenches, and white smoke hung in the air above.

On September 6, his photographs of that awful scene appeared in the Beijing News under the headline ‘Death of the Desert’. There was a huge response: President Xi Jinping wrote three separate memos ordering an investigation, the State Council formed an investigation team, and dozens of officials in Inner Mongolia lost their jobs or were punished.

Chen travelled 70,000 to 80,000 kilometres in 2014, producing seven reports on the environment. These hugely influential pieces earned him chinadialogue’s Journalist of the Year award.

Chen spent five years in the army before leaving to become a photojournalist. At the age of 30, he joined the Beijing News, where he later became photo editor. He remains keen on intense exercise. This is despite tearing a ligament in 2009, when doctors told him that surgery would be risky and that Chen would likely have to give up many of his preferred sports.

But Chen opted to find a doctor skilled enough to carry out the surgery, and, after a punishing regime of physiotherapy, became as fit as his army days. Now, in his forties, he runs 10 kilometres a day.

Chen can’t stand to be cooped up or just getting by, as his ideal job is one where he is given the time and space to do real journalism on the topics that interest him.

So he quit as photo editor and returned to photojournalism – an unusual move in the Chinese media world. Some put this down to his military background and a natural love of freedom. But for Chen, it was more of a return home, and something his time as photo editor left him well-prepared.

The planning and commissioning he did as an editor expanded his horizons – the “scoops” he’d got in the past now seemed trivial. If he could do it again, he’d delve into the stories behind the images. In the end he decided to quit the office and return to the real world – he grabbed his camera and headed back to the frontlines to ask the questions other photojournalists didn’t. What responsibilities did polluting companies have, and were they fulfilling them? Were environmental authorities doing their jobs? He didn’t want to simply expose the problem – he wanted to find a solution.

 “All environmental issues ultimately affect people,” he says, adding that he hopes his reports will show the fate of those people and the real worth of environmental reporting.

In China it is rare for a journalist with Chen’s experience to still be working intensively on the frontlines, and the best journalists end up in editing posts. He says he’d like to set an example: “Good journalists ‘disappear’ and become editors. That’s a loss to the industry.”

Chen says it takes a long time for a journalist to mature – ten years of reporting about pollution and its impact does not make you an environmental expert, as there’s just too much to learn. The photojournalist says he is aware that he lacks the professional knowledge that environmental experts have. If he had it, his reports would be even more powerful, Chen says.

Chen says he’s going to keep reporting on the environment: China’s pollution-related problems will last at least another 30 years, and that means “the golden age of environmental reporting will last at least that long,” he adds.