Guest post by:
My year ended in almost exactly the same place as it started. My hand was freezing and cramping up, holding the top handle of my 5D Mark III rig as I stared at a barbed-wire fence outside of the Foxconn factory in Chengdu,.
But this time, things were a bit different. And as the year ended a thought about this difference occurred to me: collectively, our work can make a big difference.
First, let me back up to December of 2011 when the New York Times sent me to Foxconn, the main electronics manufacturer of Apple, to talk to employees about labor conditions. This video was being made for the Times’ iECONOMY series, which examines “challenges posed by increasingly globalized high-tech industries.” Foxconn denied us any access to the factory and told workers they would be fired if they talked to us.
With many obstacles in the way, I covertly made my video and the series started publishing. Following these initial articles, media from every corner of the globe jumped on board andand Foxconn came under the world’s microscope. As mass media coverage expanded, audiences and consumers around the world began to demand answers.
Labor rights activist groups were allowed to perform independent audits of’s suppliers and soon Apple and Foxconn came forth saying they would improve things.
Fast forward to December of 2012. I was sent back to the factory to try to see if things had changed. I was also sent to a facility run by Hewlett-Packard, who, after seeing our series, invited us to see their operations. While we had amazing access at HP, once again, the Foxconn factory in Chengdu denied us access to their factory. But this time they granted us interviews with employees and after a while allowed us into the dormitories. To me, Foxconn’s increased cooperation showed a distinct culture shift from a year before. And from employees – both prescreened and ones we met independently on the street — we heard about positive changes.
While giving a worker a new chair might seem simple to us, it is not that simple for a factory with 1.4 million employees. And for a worker who previously had to stand or couldn’t lean back for 10 hours a day, this is a big deal. It might be a symbol of the start of a necessary culture shift for developing world manufacturers. Beyond material changes, employees told us of wage increases and better safety standards.
My videos, the series of articles or a photo essay are all just drops in a large ocean of media. But an ocean is made of many drops. And the media and public criticism this year became an ocean of pressure on Apple and Foxconn to start making changes. While changes to the manufacturing industry have been on their way for over a decade in, it seems the pace of improvements has picked up. This isn’t to say there are no problems with our current global economic manufacturing model, or with conditions at these factories. But all solutions start with small changes.
Very infrequently in my nascent career have I seen the content we make have a direct and immediate impact on society. But if this content made the lives of 1.4 million Chinese Foxconn workers better, and perhaps started a chain effect which could ripple down to other manufacturers across China, then we have actually made a difference.
For this, I applaud journalists, audiences and consumers for caring enough to make a difference. Now, let’s hope it continues.
About the Video:
Following my last post on form factor for video journalism, I attempted to break out of shooting a standard, formulaic video. This video is part travelogue, part reporter’s notebook and part real-time video journalism, (hopefully) portrayed in a cinematic documentary style. Another goal of mine in this film was to show transparency in reporting. I tried to show the reporter’s fact gathering process, even showing both sides of a conversation and at times using some shots that were less than perfect, but benefited the viewer by showing what it might be like on the scene.
I worked with no assistants on this video, and used a minimal kit to reflect (1) having to move constantly to keep up with the journalist and (2) having to carry everything myself in factories, trains and plains. The single bag kit included:
Canon 5D Mark III
Canon Super Wide Angle EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM
Contax/Carl Zeiss Distagon 35mm f2.8
Contax/Carl Zeiss Planar 85mm f1.4
Contax/Carl Zeiss Sonnar 180mm f2.8
Canon 100mm f2.8 Macro USM
Schneider Optics 77mm True-Match Vari-ND Filter
Sachtler Ace Tripod
Letus Direct Master Cinema Series Cage with Letus Follow Focus
Sony UWP-V1 Wireless Lavalier Microphones
JuicedLink RM333 Riggy Micro Low-Noise Preamp
— To see articles from the iECONOMY series click here.
— Jonah M. Kessel is a freelance visual journalist working with the New York Times in China. See his site here, blog here or keep up with him on Twitter here.