I was urged by several Redditors to do an AMA when I piped up in a thread on r/guns, so here we go. I was a staff photographer for the Associated Press in Beijing from 1988-91. I was there for the student protests that began in April, numerous marches and speeches at universities, the long encampment in Tiananmen Square, and the military crackdown on June 3-4, 1989. Verification, and a selection of my China photos here.

EDIT: My thanks to everyone, this has been fun.

Edit for all of you aspiring photojournalists asking for advice: Go do something else if you can. Look through this AMA at how many of you are asking the same question. Think about the level of competition you will encounter for a few low paying jobs. Think about the miniscule freelance budgets you will be trying to eek out a living from. Run! Run while you still can! For those of you who refuse to take my advice, there's a world wide web out there where you can publish wonderful photos in a blog about anything your little journalistic heart desires - just don't expect anyone to pay you for doing it.

Comments: 1005 • Responses: 56  • Date: 

[deleted]362 karma

What was the most heroic thing you observed during the massacre?

Averyphotog658 karma

I saw several cases of people dodging bullets to retrieve the wounded and get them to a hospital. But Chinese hospitals didn't have the kind of trauma care system we have in the West, so when I visited a hospital the next day I saw bodies stacked in a hallway.

ispeakchingchong295 karma

were you anywhere near the 'tank man' when it happened?

Averyphotog632 karma

I was down on the street getting shot at at the time. I saw those tanks, but I never saw the guy.

My colleague Jeff Widener shot the Tank man photo from the top of the Beijing Hotel. He had got whacked over the head with a rock or something the night before and had a bit of a concussion, so we gave him the longest lens we had and sent him to the hotel because it would provide a good overview of the square, and to keep him out of harms way for a while.

EDIT: Here's a link to a recent Time magazine piece on Jeff and his photo.

Averyphotog246 karma

The last time I was there was 2006. The square itself is the same, and it doesn't hold any great allure to me. I was freaked out by the transformation the rest of the city has/is undergoing. Most of the city has been torn down and rebuilt since I lived there. Everything has changed.

haplesstaco68 karma

Changed in what way? Would you say improved?

Averyphotog145 karma

I'd say improved from a locals's point of view. They get to live in a nice new high rise apartment. But for tourists and students of history, much of old Beijing and its hutong culture is no more.

idownvotecats2012177 karma

What is the most haunting thing you witnessed in your time covering Tianemen square?

Averyphotog448 karma

For me it was the Orwellian silence after the fact. This cataclysmic event had happened, and people couldn't talk about it. When you live in a totalitarian society, you never know which of your friends and neighbors might rat you out.

[deleted]186 karma

This was the most moving photograph in your portfolio for me. Would you say this act of vandalism portrayed what the Chinese people were to afraid (rightfully so) to say?

K__a__M__I57 karma

I think they didn't say this because it is in english.

Jack_McCoy91 karma

It's a Dickens quote, I believe, which is probably why it was written in English.

Averyphotog36 karma

I didn't know that. Thanks!

[deleted]175 karma

Did you fear for your life?

Averyphotog343 karma

I'm a big chicken, not a daredevil out there dodging bullets. But, there were many moments I though I was going to die. A guy was hit not ten feet from me.

shamusisaninja174 karma

All I want to say is thanks for coming on here for an AMA, and thanks for all your important work in the past.

Averyphotog139 karma

You're welcome. It's been fun.

FarFromAmusing150 karma

Would you be able to put up some unpublished photos that might give added perspective to the scene? I imagine there were far more than reached the public

Averyphotog209 karma

I don't have the wherewithal to do that right now, but here's a link to a search for my pics from that period on the AP's site.

IAmFunnyAMA77 karma

Those pictures are a bit surreal to me, because as a Chinese, you know that no one now a days would have the guts to hold large scale protests in this scale.

Averyphotog129 karma

Never say never. Based on what the Chinese went through during the Cultural Revolution, I would have bet the same. On April 17th, a friend called and tipped me off to a protest at Beijing University, so I grabbed a reporter and we went over there expecting something small that would probably be over before we got there. Instead we never got to the school. The street was filled with protesters. There were THOUSANDS of them. Chinese people. Protesting against their government. The reporter and I were flabbergasted. We never expected to see such a thing in the China we knew.

[deleted]129 karma

What was going through your mind when you saw it happening?

Averyphotog311 karma

When the shit hits the fan, I just try and stay calm and do my job. I'm thinking about covering the story and making photos, because any bigger picture thinking is a waste of time and would freak me the hell out.

You also need to understand that while the journalists who parachuted in for the big story thought they were watching the flowering of Chinese democracy, those of us who lived in China knew how this was going to end. I had waiting for the inevitable military crackdown for over a month.

[deleted]117 karma

I was in Tiananmen Square earlier this year. Hard to believe something so awful happened there.

Averyphotog316 karma

You should have seen it when it was a parking lot for tanks.

scword122 karma

Not to be a dick or anything, but the link to your site could have been posted by anyone. I believe you based on the answers you are giving, but some redditors may want more proof that you are who you say you are.

Averyphotog127 karma

What kind of proof would satisfy you?

scword75 karma

Twitter verification, photograph of yourself, etc is sort of the norm. Like I said, this is a cool AMA and I believe you but some may not.

Averyphotog350 karma

Here's a photo of me with my Time magazine cover, will that do?

I don't do Twitter or Facebook; what a waste of time. I'm not a very social person, so social media doesn't work for me. Or, maybe I'm just old.

HippityLongEars119 karma

Your photo verifies that Mark Avery looks like the LinkedIn profile picture we found, but the right thing to do now is to take a quick photo of yourself holding a little piece of paper that says "Hi reddit! 6/21/2012." I feel like scword was satisfied mostly because he didn't want to inconvenience you too much.

We're not trying to be jerks, honest! -- it's just that we've been scammed many times, so when someone claims to be a specific person, we go a little bit further asking for proof. Sorry and thanks for answering all our crazy questions!!

T-Individual84 karma

Clearly a photoshop.

What's in the sandwich and what is your perfect sandwich?

Averyphotog291 karma

It's pepper turkey and cayenne salami with swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce, and cheap yellow mustard on 100% whole wheat bead - pretty yummy.

I_Key_Cars53 karma

Please tell us more about this "cayenne salami".

Averyphotog8 karma

It's something new they were selling at Costco. They were giving out samples and it was really yummy so a bought a bunch. I threw away the package however, so I can't tell you what brand it is.

lettheidiotspeak120 karma

As someone who has seen the advent of the 24 hour news cycle along with the social media revolution, how do you think the role of the professional reporter or photographer has changed in the last 25 years? Now that any individual with a smart phone can post video of breaking news in near-real-time, what is the new role of the professional?

Also, to satisfy my own curiosity, did you become friends with any Chinese nationals during your time stationed there with the AP? If so, have you stayed in contact with any of them?

Averyphotog175 karma

I answered some of your question in my response to Assbadger.

I became friends with many Chinese people, even married one. I haven't stayed in touch with them - I'm not a very social person.

Moo3295 karma

Don't you think it's rude not to stay in touch after marrying someone?

Averyphotog288 karma

She left me for someone more able to give her the affluent American lifestyle she wanted, so fuck her.

mimicthefrench43 karma

So, fun fact: Dr Pepper stings like a bitch when it comes out your nose.

Averyphotog10 karma

Reading your comment almost gave my nose the same relationship with my Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, an upvote for you.

lettheidiotspeak125 karma

How did it feel to say that you responded to Assbadger? I'd bet good money that you've never said that before.

Thanks for responding so quickly, this is a fascinating AMA.

Averyphotog332 karma

I've been on Reddit for a while. Assbadger is a relatively tame username around here.

saaaaad_panda85 karma

Was there a particularly moving moment you witnessed?

Averyphotog239 karma

What comes to mind is the look on the faces of MANY Chinese who would see me doing my job and try and help. They wanted the world to know what their government was doing to them.

Another moment was a day or two before, students spent a tense night worrying about rumors of the impending crackdown, and the next morning a spontaneous dance party broke out in the square. They were so happy and relieved, so it was party time.

saaaaad_panda77 karma

That's an incredible shot you have of that dance party, really captures the moment. I can only imagine the range of emotions you witnessed and probably felt yourself over the next few days. Thanks for answering.

Averyphotog190 karma

I was a bit of a wreck when it was all over - probably a mild case of PTSD. To work 18-hour days for two months and go through a cataclysmic event like that, is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. When it's over, there's a huge let down. Once the story died down my boss sent me to Tokyo for a week to decompress. I returned to Beijing via Hong Kong to pick up supplies, and spent a morning photographing the dragon boat races there. I still remember how oddly wonderful it felt shooting something silly and normal for a change.

Chicken_Finger535 karma

Just to clarify, pretty much everybody who goes through a traumatic event has what's called peritraumatic symptoms, which are basically PTSD symptoms; what makes PTSD different is the persistence of those symptoms beyond, according to the DSM-IV, 6 months. Sounds like you're doing well though, your boss sounds like a cool person. Anyway, I'm really glad you decided to do this AMA, I was a little disappointed when you'd said you probably wouldn't want to do an AMA in that gunnit thread, but really jazzed when I saw this here.

Averyphotog45 karma

It wasn't about not wanting to do it, it was about having the time to sit in front of my laptop answering questions for hours.

HippityLongEars23 karma

Can you link the shot? Is it easy to find? Sorry for being "that guy."

Delaywaves26 karma

I believe it's here, the fourth shot from the bottom.

Averyphotog7 karma

That's the shot. I made a photo that captured EXACTLY what I was feeling, one of those moments when everything was photojournalistically PERFECT. As I walked away I started to cry, because I was exhausted, because of the beauty I had just witnessed, because of the emotional moment, and because I knew this was NOT going to end well.

MilesColtrane76 karma

Do you still shoot? Professionally? If so, what kind of stuff?

Averyphotog170 karma

I was downsized out of a newspaper job in 2006, and freelanced for a few years after that - mostly sports which bores me. After the economic downturn my clients stopped calling, so I took a job as a picture editor at a photo agency. The money isn't flowing there either, and my job has become part-time, so I'm looking for other things to do to make ends meet - weddings, portraits, and such. So, I haven't been a shooter for the last couple of years, but that needs to change if I'm going to keep paying the rent. I'm looking for contacts in Silicon Valley, if anyone can help.

MilesColtrane92 karma

Sorry to hear that. As a young journalist (print and photos), it's disconcerting to hear a man with such incredible experience and work is struggling. I know our industry is in the toilet, but I've still been naive enough to think it's easier for the guys with a ton of experience.

If you don't mind, any advice to move beyond this small town paper? I've got four years experience under my belt, I've won several awards from the AP & my state's press assoc. and I operate a photo studio with some friends on the side (but it's still difficult to get ahead). I'm not interested in working in any particular area. I just want to make more money and have more time to work on interesting material, instead of the current cycle we have of ridiculously early deadlines and a lack of resources that force me to concentrate on quick turnarounds instead of telling interesting stories.

Averyphotog158 karma

Good luck with that. The industry is contracting. There aren't many jobs, and freelancing is becoming more and more difficult. You live in an amazing time, however. There a world wide web out there with a voracious appetite for content. It's never been easier for a committed journalist to do good work and get it out there for the masses to see, and it's never been harder to actually earn a decent living doing that work.

nursejacqueline68 karma

How did you get chosen to go to Beijing? Were you ever threatened by the Chinese government? Conversely, were you told to get images by the US that portrayed the Chinese in a certain way?

Averyphotog140 karma

I got chosen for the job like most people get chosen for jobs - I applied for it. I worked my way through college stringing for the AP in LA, worked as a staffer there for a year or so, then quit and when to China to freelance for a while. When the position opening up in Beijing, I was the obvious choice for the job.

I was threatened by Chinese cops a couple of times, but an actual official government threat - no. Mind you, we all knew what the ground rules were, and what lines we couldn't cross.

I was never given instructions to slant a story a certain way.

nursejacqueline53 karma

What do you mean by ground rules? Were these rules established by the police/government/AP? Or more common sense stuff? I ask because I've found that my sense of common sense isn't always useful in foreign countries. For example, I almost had my camera confiscated by Israeli police for taking a picture at a gorgeous sea-side cave, which (unbeknownst to me) was directly across from a military base.

Averyphotog198 karma

When you live in a country run by a totalitarian regime, you better learn quick what's not allowed or you're gonna have a bad time.

Photos of military installations and prisons, for example, is a no no.

AsksYourFavoriteBook62 karma

What's your favorite book?

Averyphotog156 karma

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is at the top of a long list of books I have loved, and I am very much enjoying the Game of Thrones books - I just finished #4, and am very glad to know he is still writing them.

I have also loved the wonderful books written by, in no particular order: Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, William Gibson, Neil Stephenson, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, John Irving, Wally Lamb, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen.

For books on China: Jonathan Spence, and my friends John Pomfret, and Nick Kristoff and Cheryl Wudunn.

bruhaha674553 karma

First off, thank you for sharing your excellent images, and experiences, with us. As an amateur I have always had difficulty with candid images, especially in public. It seems like people will fixate on the camera once they notice it. How do you go about getting good candid images without becoming an intruder?

Averyphotog87 karma

Be prepared, and shoot quickly. If you have to stand there for a long time fiddling with the camera you lose the moment.

dropazap47 karma

What do you think of the Wikileaks reports which say there was no massacre and little to no bloodshed and the media overhyped the entire incident for political purposes? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8555142/Wikileaks-no-bloodshed-inside-Tiananmen-Square-cables-claim.html

Averyphotog32 karma

Well the first thing that hit me about that page is that the lede photo is mine.

This has been a thing for years, and it's just a definitional argument. It's probably true that no one actually died INSIDE Tiananmen Square itself. The small group of students who were still in the square when the army arrived were allowed to leave, they weren't mowed down by tanks or automatic gunfire like the HUNDREDS of people who died in fighting all over the city of Beijing.

Assbadger46 karma

How do feel about the current state of photography in the world now? Digital vs. Film? Do you think everybody having a camera phone and instagram has degraded the art form like many photographers say?

Averyphotog131 karma

I don't care about digital vs film - they are just tools. I like digital because it makes my job easier and faster, but the important thing is the story. I obviously have a bias in this, but I trust the reporting of a well-educated professional journalist over an anonymous citizen camera phone reporter who could be a member of an organization with an axe to grind. When anyone can be a journalist, there's lots of opportunity for the news to turn into a well-funded PR campaign.

electrondon28 karma

| I obviously have a bias in this

Appreciate the the objectivity, here and elsewhere on this post. Regarding print vs digital, it's interesting to hear an experienced photojournalist's point of view towards digital, since it often seems age correlates with preference/passion for film.

Averyphotog52 karma

As I've said elsewhere here, cameras are just tools to tell the story. I could see the advantage of digital over film and was ready to switch long before the cameras were good enough. As soon as they were I jumped, and I haven't shot a roll of film since.

ComedicCounterpart43 karma

1.Has anything you've had to be censored? 2.What are conditions like now?

Averyphotog82 karma

I never had anything censored, but I was well aware of what lines I was not allowed to cross. That said, I sent many photos of protests and violence in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tibet, for which I received no rebuke from the Chinese government.

HighlyAcidic38 karma

What would you say is the most prevalent misconception among educated Westerners about the Tiananmen Massacre?

Averyphotog85 karma

Most Westerners think the Chinese know as much about this as we do. They live where the government controls all media, and where what you say can and will be used against you. Their experience of this is VERY different.

HippityLongEars38 karma

Do you have any insights about college students in China then and now? I spend a lot of time interacting with Chinese college students who are in America now, and I'm not sure I ever really get through to them. It's not just language.

Thanks so much for your album link. I love these so much.

Averyphotog151 karma

Chinese students are raised in a world where EVERYTHING depends on doing well on a test. They are oriented towards memorizing what they need for the exam, rather than actually learning anything useful. Whenever they are in a situation where no one will tell them what to memorize, something that requires creative thinking, they are lost.

Chinese culture is not oriented towards the individual. Remove a Chinese person from the collective or family they are a part of, and they don't know how to just be themselves. They're not raised to have an individualistic sense of self like people raised in the US and Europe.

horse_you_rode_in_on34 karma

What was the most shocking thing that you saw (as opposed to the worst, say, which you might have expected), and why does it top your list?

Averyphotog74 karma

I've spent a lot of time studying Chinese history and politics, and was well aware of the conditions - I lived there after all - so I wasn't shocked by much of anything really.

During my first trip to China I was shocked by many things. In the 1980's the country was emerging from the Cultural Revolution and many years of isolation from the West. Technologically it was like stepping back in time 50 years.

horse_you_rode_in_on31 karma

I find the idea that there was nothing particularly shocking about Tiananmen for a well informed foreign correspondent deeply depressing. With regards to your answer, do you currently find the technological divide between rural and urban China to be jarring on the same order of magnitude?

Averyphotog67 karma

It was jarring then, and the gap has widened since. But, that's a generational thing. Chinese peasants will continue to be Chinese peasants, but their children have largely chosen to join the labor force and not till the land like their ancestors did. That's actually one of the biggest revolutions going on in Chinese society.

Combat_Medic_Scout27 karma

Since you were in China back in 1988/1989. What is your opinion on the way China has been going since, and do you think we will see more democracy or will the government try to keep holding onto its position as the supreme power?

Averyphotog44 karma

The government will hold on to power as long as possible. When I left China in the early 90's I was able to predict what has come in the last 20-years. I'm not there now or close enough to the situation to have any idea what will come in the future.

The current leadership is very keen on planning, which I think bodes well for China's future.

shallowpersonality25 karma

Were you ever in a situation where you had to reload your film quickly, and your training paid off?

Averyphotog55 karma

I was very good at changing film quickly, and at keeping track of how much of the roll I had left vs what I anticipate might happen. Sometimes I would change as early as mid-roll to make sure I was ready for whatever might come next. Same with CF cards. I never see the "card is full" message.

iknowordidthat23 karma

What's your equipment of choice?

Averyphotog94 karma

For most of my career my employer supplied the gear, and Canon or Nikon has never really matter to me. They are just tools I use to do the job, and the photos come from my imagination, not the camera.

I currently own Canon gear.

CheesySauce17 karma

I agree about the gear. I recently moved into a more photojournalist role, and I've been putting off getting my harness for two gripped bodies (mounted), along with a bag for a couple spare lenses, and a bag for phones, wallet, etc. I'm a huge fan of think tank so I might get their modular system, but I hear that there's a higher sitting, more comfortable harness. Do you have an opinion?

Averyphotog114 karma

I like the Newswear Chestvest

If you are of middle eastern decent however, it'll make you look like terrorist.

membersonlyguy20 karma

Have any kind of recurring dream?

Averyphotog55 karma

I sometimes have disturbing dreams from when I covered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but from China? No.

membersonlyguy18 karma

would you care to tell us about this dreams? its a kind of thing that i'm always interested.

Averyphotog54 karma

It's nothing very specific. I sometimes have a dream where the shit hits the fan and the Marines and I are under fire. It's scary and chaotic.

dericpeace17 karma

Did anyone sleep during this time? I feel like with so much going on, how could anyone shut their eyes for a second. Did you get much sleep, or were you always behind the camera?

[EDIT] You're saying it was worded poorly?? Probably not all that well written, no...

Averyphotog36 karma

I can't tell you what "anyone" did. The entire protest movement went on for two months, so I was already exhausted by the time the military crackdown started. Once the bullets started flying, I was awake for three days. Work-wise, I had to divide my time between being out in the streets shooting, and being in the office souping film and transmitting photos.

MrJibberJabber23 karma

How did you transmit photos? Like fax?

Averyphotog9 karma

Yes, kinda like a fax.

We had machines that would turn the blacks, whites, and grays of a print into a warbling tone that was then transmitted over an analog phone line. Needless to say if you had a sucky phone line, a sucky photo would arrive at the other end.

mombo10116 karma

First off, the pictures on your site are gorgeous. Second, thank you for doing this AMA.

I'm an amateur photographer, and I mostly do it for the fun of it. I noticed that many of the photos on your site were taken in Asia. When trying to tell a story or convey what's happening in a photo, do you feel it's better to know the subject, your audience, or both? Are there any tips or tricks that you have that have served you very well over the years?

In a typical roll of film (if you're still going old school), what percentage of photos are "publishable", or in other words the editors and/or magazines would gladly publish?

Again, thank you for doing this AMA!

Averyphotog39 karma

You have to know your audience, your subject, what the story is about, and what you're trying to say. It's just as important to know what NOT to shoot, so you're not wasting time.

When I was in China back in the old days before digital delivery systems, the AP's analog delivery system took 8-minutes per image. Simple math will tell you that only 180 images or so could be delivered per day - from the entire world. So it was a quality not quantity situation. Unless it was a huge story, the most important part of my job was being able to distill the essence of the story down to one or two good images.

TuckerTheCat13 karma

As one (younger and far less experienced) journalist to another - your work is a huge inspiration. Thank you for your work and your bravery - it's people like you who inspire me to trudge ahead in this uncertain time for our field.

My question: What advice would you give to younger journalists like me, given the rapidly changing industry and the uncertainty in the journalism world?

Averyphotog13 karma

Learn about marketing. There are few jobs and freelancing isn't what it used to be, so you're going to have to harness social media to enhance your reputation, get your work out there, and find creative ways to fund what you want to do.

electrondon10 karma

Who is your favorite photographer?

Averyphotog27 karma

Historic: Henri Cartier Bresson

Current: Renee C. Byer and Mary Calvert

Pb2Au8 karma

I read through, I think, the whole thread, and didn't see this in here. How did you feel about the former mayor's recent memoirs that he was shocked by the massacre but turned into a fall guy by the government? I can't find the article I read, but here's one link: http://wwww.signonsandiego.com/news/2012/may/31/china-fails-to-halt-tiananmen-books-hk-release/

That new photo of Tank Guy from another angle was also discovered very recently. Link: http://www.picturecorrect.com/news/new-image-discovered-of-the-tank-man-in-the-tiananmen-square-protests-of-1989/

Does it shock you that, all these years afterwards, new information is still appearing? I suspect not, but how would you describe your feelings?

Averyphotog30 karma

Chen Xitong was a dick. I don't believe a word of his saying he didn't know what was going to happen.

EDIT: He didn't say he didn't know, he said he wasn't responsible. My bad. That I believe. Chen was a party man through and through. He did what he was told, but I doubt anybody asked his opinion about any aspect of the crackdown.

dreidel937 karma

How long did you cover the invasion of Iraq for? Any noteworthy stories? How did that experience compare to your coverage of the Tiananmen protests?

Averyphotog35 karma

I was in Iraq for two months. I was older and much more experienced, nor did it happen where I lived, so I wasn't as deeply moved by the whole thing. On the other hand, it was my own government doing what I thought was an incredibly stupid thing.

t0k46 karma

Did you know Tim Hetherington (of Restrepo fame) at any length?

How, as a community of non-combatants, does it feel when a colleague is lost in a warzone doing ones job?

When deployed I have seen a few reporters up front, and feel the urge to arm them with at least something.

Averyphotog9 karma

I didn't know Tim, but Restrepo is a great piece of work. Chris Hondros was a friend, and a wonderful guy. He will be missed.

pamplemouse4 karma

Have you ever gone back to China and asked people about Tiananmen? It appears China has completely wiped the event from their collective memories.

Averyphotog27 karma

China is my past, I haven't spent any time there in recent years. In my experience, Chinese people don't spend a lot of time kvetching about things they can't control. They just concentrate on what they do have control over, and get on with it.

seantwopointone3 karma

Favorite/least favorite food while you were over there?

Averyphotog33 karma

They make a wonderful dish of stir fried eggs and tomatoes. It's the kind of simple thing Chinese moms make for their kids, you don't find it on the menu at a restaurant. I would just ask the waitress for "eggs and tomatoes like your mama used to make when your were a kid." I would get a laugh, and a yummy lunch.