Get the photo wrong, but the society picture right

From nddaily

A photo with the title of “Chengguan(城管,local urban administrators) arresting prostitute” has been around the net for 6 years while the real content of the photo is really about policemen saving a woman that attempted suicide. Those figures in the photo are nowhere to find after all these years, still many citizens stubbornly stick to the mistaken interpretation regardless of constant clarifications made by both photographer and relative media.

It was March 13rd, 2004 in No.221 Li Jia Dui, Ms Li’s home in Kunming that she almost jump off her window for her second suicide attempt. She tried once the year before because of her husband’s alleged affairs, but failed and left with leg wounds. This time she was saved by police that get to her by descending through ropes.

“Originally I went there to shoot other news but I was late that night so I switched spot when I heard about the attempt suicide,” said Huang Xingneng, then photographer of Kunming Times, “she had already been saved by fire fighters and transferred to public order joint defense force when I got there, but she didn’t stop struggling, so the first man to the left in the photo had to pick up her right leg and carry her away, I was just in time to shot that moment, at last the woman was put into the police booth.”

“The scene had been fenced by the police, but my professional instinct had me rushed up and took double shots as soon as I saw the woman.” These two photos were rejected by the paper due to their ‘indecency’ but one of them was posted to a photography forum in Xi Ci Hu Tong by Huang Xingneng.

It is impossible to trace back to exactly when the photo was first tied with the caption of “chengguan arresting prostitute”, the photo itself cannot speak but it was posted and reposted off the reel with the caption that fit to netizens’ imagination more, and those who saw the photo would tend to buy the “arresting prostitute” theory.

Huang Xingneng said he felt sorry that the photo turn up on the net every other years and each time brings new fuss. The reason behind this, according to Huang is that the uniforms of chengguan and public order defense force are mixed up in the old days so people can easily mistaken them, additionally people have bias against chengguan.

Two brother sculptors with the first name Gao capitalized on the wrong caption, and held an exhibition in Beijing 798 Art Zone on 2007.4.28 with the theme of “arresting prostitute” featuring a sculpture inspired by the photo.

In fact, Huang Xingneng clarified the matter through his blog on May 24th 2007, but netizens wouldn’t believe him and gave comments like “it is obvious that those birdmen in the photo are chengguan”. Huang was even questioned about how many bribe he took to defend chengguan.

In 2008 Huang made his second clarification on Kunming Times saying “the photo has been so continuously misunderstood that it fall away from the original fact, I hope netizens stop such irresponsible reposting”. And Kunming Times did a piece on 2008.11.7 that explains the whole thing. However, the net was startled again when netizen “雷疯日记” posted two photo featuring the “arresting prostitute” sculpture on sina micro blog on 2010.4.10.


Why do people stick to the wrong caption even after clarifications have been made several times publicly? Beijing News Paper approached the problem in a review on April 25, 2010. It says “it was inevitable that some netizens spread the rumor out of indignation and uncritical thinking, or simply out of fun, but the commonness of saving and arresting is far too unlikely, there must be some objective causes behind such widespread misreading of the photo.”

The review then lists three causes that can account for the phenomenon.

“First, anyone with the least legal common sense can tell how absurd the idea of “chengguan arresting prostitute” is, but still many netizens choose to go for it due to their time honored perception in regard of chengguan’s power, which covers almost everything, appearing at the frontline of various administrative matters. In addition, there is little limit to chengguan’s power, they chase and take away people on the street, they constantly involve in violent offenses, it is not hard for people to believe that chengguan also have the police power of arresting people.”

“Second, there are only the photographer and media relative that stand out and clarify the matter, not even a word from any government departments. No matter it is chengguan or public order defense force, both are of important administrative branches who should have no reason to stay silent when such an influential case involving civil rights violation spread widely on the net. Ironically, when the photo was once captioned “Sichuan X city X night chengguan arresting prostitute”, none government departments in Sichuan do anything about it; nothing either when the photographer and media publicly clarify about it on the newspaper. From this we can tell how slow and disregard some governments are in face of Internet opinion and public affairs, and that is why the misrepresentation can live through all these years and continue to spread.”

“The third cause is from the photo itself which display no sense of touching or warming feeling from saving a person. The woman is struggling so hard that she couldn’t cover her bottom in front of everybody because her arms and leg are held in three poker face police’s hands like some lifeless object. Anyone sees this will develop a sort of empathy towards the weak and despise towards the power. Saving people is honorable of course, but overlooking the details and individuals’ dignity in the process can be difficult for others to appreciate and lead to misunderstanding easily. Why isn’t the saved woman helped by psychiatrist or experienced social worker instead of public order defense force that take her away in such violent and disrespectful way? There is an chronic disease among our public aid system that worth considering.”

The review concludes: “though the caption was made up, it reflect a kind of generalized societal emotion, people misunderstand the photo but they get it right about the broader social picture behind it. If the problem can raise relative departments’ attention and furthermore trigger some restriction and correction about administrative power, then misrepresentation of one photo could not be a bad thing.”

  1. The title says it all. “Society picture is right”.
    I totally agree with the third argumentation: whether they helped woman or not – the way it was done was totally disrespectful.

    1. finally I can agree with you on something. It just looks really funky how they saved her. They didn’t cover up, they didn’t have her cuffed, they look like they parading her down the street in shame with her crotch to be displayed to the rest of the world.

  2. I think part of this may be some Chinese mens disregard for women. When I was visiting Chongqing, I was watching a couple trying to ice skate. The girl fell down and they guy, instead of trying to be a gentlemen, reached down and grabbed the back of her neck to pick her up. I almost screamed at him, but realized this was not my business as foreign national.

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