Dai Xiaojun: I Wanted to Show People the Dark Side

By Xie Liangbing
Published: 2008-11-14

From nation, page 12 issue 393, Nov 10, 2008
Original article:

Despite his short stature and small frame, 42-year old Dai Xiaojun exuded an air of agility and strength that he cultivated through nine years of service in the army.

With that now behind him, he describes himself as a shutterbug, a journalist, or one who records life.

He has worked for three publications, the latest being the West Times, a weekly mainland newspaper covering the development of western China.

But none of his previous work made him known to nearly so many people as his most recent: When a batch of both real and fraudulent journalists swarmed the site of a fatal Shanxi mining accident that occurred on September 20, demanding hush money from the mining company, Dai photographed the entire scene. His photographs circulated around the internet, creating an instant scandal.

But along with story's fame came trouble. The West Times denied it employed Dai, claiming that he was a correspondent without a labor contract. Threatening calls came one after another. Netizens mocked it as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

This time, local reporters were silent on Dai's behalf, while their peers in other provinces applauded his bravery.

But the West Times' statement about Dai cast a shadow over his identity, and the public began questioning his intentions. Was he also a blackmailer in the guise of a journalist? Did he expose the whole thing because he failed to get the money he demanded?

The EO interviewed Dai on November 4th at the Guofang Hotel in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi.

"If only he hadn't dared me"

EO: What made you want to go to a place where hush money was being handed out and take photographs?

Dai: In 2005, I read a report about a mining accident in Henan. There was a picture of the local government building, with the caption saying that someone was handing out hush money to some so-called journalists inside. I thought, if I were that journalist, I would go inside and take pictures of what was really going on there, directly show people the dark side.

EO: Have you had such an opportunity these past three years?

Dai: No. I never had sources for this kind of information, and I'm actually not that brave.

EO: Have recent mining accidents pushed you to fulfill that wish?

Dai: I would never go to a mining accident. You can take a look at my previous articles – there's nothing about mining accidents. I'd rather spend the time doing photo albums [which makes more money].

EO: But according to China Youth Daily, you went there because a miner at Huobaoganhe mine revealed the accident to you. Wasn't it the accident that made you do so?

Dai: I said that in the beginning to China Youth Daily to protect another informer. He's an experienced journalist from Taiyuan.

EO: How did you know about the hush money?

Dai: Sometime after three pm on September 25, a friend, who's also a journalist, called me and said he was at Huobaoganhe mine and the mining company was paying hush money to journalists. He didn't have a camera with him and dared me to go and take pictures of the scene. I'm stubborn, I used to be a soldier. I answered, why not? So I went home and got my camera.

If he hadn't urged me, I would have refused. It was his words that provoked me into such a risky thing.

EO: Why would he call you?

Dai: We are good friends. He didn't bring the camera that day. We also talked about the story in 2005.

EO: What kind of procedure do you usually follow when there's an interview?

Dai: Usually the bureau chief arranges it. He tells us where to go.

EO: How about this time?

Dai: This time it wasn't an interview. I would never go to a mining accident. Because an interview there would mean that I had to meet some miners after taking the photos. This time I went there just to record. It was personal.

EO: After you got that call, you asked another friend to go with you. Why?

Dai: Yes, his online nickname is Live Broadcast Shanxi (LBS henceforth). He's also a fan of photography, and a blog friend. He has a similar personality as mine. He also has a car, I called him and told him what I wanted to do and that it was kind of risky. He said since you've decided, you know me, let's go together. So I said I'd go back home to get the camera and he should pick me up at my place.

I asked him to go with me because that would be safer. It was some time past four in the afternoon when we contacted.

When we arrived at the mine it was almost seven. We met the journalist who called me. He led us in, and told us the room numbers and what was going on there. At that moment there was already a plan in my mind: find the closest spot, use the wide angle lens. I left the camera bag in the car. LBS started the engine and waited . We planned on taking off the moment I got back in the car.

EO: Didn't anyone notice it when you took the photos?

Dai: Some did, but as my camera was set on burst mode, I ran downstairs before they reacted. The three of us cooperated. We planned a routine in advance. We didn't go back the same way, instead, we drove the car to a village and stopped to smoke and observe. Twenty minutes later when we were sure that no one had chased us, we got back on the highway. It was ten when we went back to Taiyuan.

EO: Did you register with the front desk before you went in the building?

Dai: I did. But I didn't take pictures of the page where my name was on. I photographed four other pages. For the sake of my safety, I could only record that many. I took eight or nine pictures.

EO: How did you feel at that time?

Dai: I was nervous when I took the photos. There was a lot of pressure. I braced myself, burst in, took the photos, and bolted. It felt like behind me a bomb had gone off, like it was like a warzone.

"We were infuriated"

What did you do after taking these photos?

Dai: When we got back to Taiyuan we began planning. LBS and I discussed where to publish it and what to do with the pictures, whether or not to cover the journalists' names or their employers'. So you may have found we used different ways to cover up. LBS published them first on moobol.com on September 27. I followed up later.

The post had huge hits, and the website asked us for more pictures. But a few days later it deleted the post. Our blog friends called, asking why it was missing. Because netusers could delete their posts in the system, they suspected we took money from someone and removed the post.

We called the website. They said they weren't able to notify us when they took down the post, and they did so because of pressure from their superiors. I asked who, but they didn't answer.

Later we published the same pictures and a new article titled "Who's Playing Behind the Curtain" on the same website. But they deleted it again two hours later -- we were infuriated.

To clarify ourselves, we began publishing them in all influential forums. I can't even remember how many websites I registered. Once we registered, we uploaded them. We kept uploading, whether the website required a review before publishing or not, because even if they were not published, at least the one who reviewed them would learn the thing.

EO: Why did you choose to publish it on moobol.com in the first place? Not many people know this website.

Dai: This website belongs to China Daily. All photographers around China, professional or amateur, know it. As long as you love photography, you can publish your photos there. We have our blogs on it. The same was true this time. We didn't mean to make it a big deal in the beginning. It was after they deleted our post that we decided to attract more attention, because we needed to prove our innocence.

EO: Have you thought of submitting the material to government bodies?

Dai: Many issues are exposed through the Internet today, huh? Our post on netease aroused great concern. China Youth Daily interviewed me and wrote a report. Later, the General Administration of Press and Publication investigated the case.

EO: You shot a video with your mobile phone too. Why didn't you publish it too?

Dai: We only published the pictures at first, because if we published everything at once, it would be easier for the mining company to defend themselves - they would tell the number you exposed even if the real number was bigger. Didn't they say there were only 28 people from 23 media? The four name lists I photographed only showed a portion of visitors, or 38 people. What I saw was over 100 people gathering in more than 10 rooms.

EO: Do you know anyone of them?

Dai: No, none.

EO: There's a Zhao from West Times on the list.

Dai: West Times has a rule if reporters go to Shanxi: reporting to the local bureau first. I don't know that guy. I photographed it because it would be immoral if I deliberately ignored that page. I'm still not sure about the authenticity of this person so far, and the newspaper leaders have yet to call and clarify.

"The investigation result will vindicate me"

Some netizens said you were there to ask for hush money too, but because you failed to get the money or didn't get enough, you published the photos.

Dai: It's understandable, some people want to spread such rumors online because I put out their dirty laundry. No matter how much they distort the truth, I won't take it seriously, but I also won't give up my right to protect myself by law. I  accept praise as I do criticism and curses, because an upright person fears no gossip. But I have spiritual support too.

EO: What's your spiritual support?

Dai: Encouragement and support from colleagues in the media and the understanding from my family. Lately, even warmth from national media.

EO: West Times, the newpaper you work for, stated that you were not its journalist and you didn't sign a labor contract with it. That you were just a correspondent....

Dai: Their words made my heart a bit cold. From the beginning, I did it in my own name, so I don't care about their comment. What's more important is to prove my innocence. I must be crazy if I took the money and still published the photos. It is moobol.com who deleted  my post that has caused public misunderstanding about me, and that's why I got mad and published the photos in other websites.

EO: How do you comment on your identity and your job?

Dai: I myself is confused with the titles West Times gave me. On the paper, I'm sometimes a journalist, sometimes an intern or a correspondent. Forget the titles, in the end, I work in media. I have worked three years for the Shanxi bureau of West Times, though I don't have a  journalist certificate authorized by the General Administration of Press and Publication. What matters is I am interested in my job.

Although I had a low income at the newspaper - 1600 a month on average, I couldn't find a more suitable job for myself. I don't count on the money I get from this job. What I like about it is that it gives me enough room to do what I want, like shooting commercials or doing photo albums. I don't want to lose it.

EO: Now that you have become famous, do you have any new plans?

Dai: I have never thought of any rewards. I just wanted to disclose the matter and that's all. I've never intended to be famous. That's not what I want.