Jonah Kessel captures unusual Chinese protests in Wukan for the NYT – with Canon 60D and 5D mkII

By Jonah Kessel

Wukan Video Journal from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Using a fat Chinese man, a large backpack, a baseball cap and the hood from my sweatshirt, I attempted to hide myself.

I was sandwiched in between the beefy man and a f-stop Satori backpack jammed with gear on the rear of his motorcycle. He drove me down a dark dirt road in the middle of the night near the uniquely autonomous village of Wukan, Guangdong Province, China.

I was hiding from police and those who might not want attention drawn to the small village of about 13,000 people.

Earlier in the week, pissed off villagers had overthrown their leaders and in mass numbers chased the police out of town. When the police came back, they set up barriers and created a stronghold in their fishing community, only letting sympathizers and foreign journalists into the village. These outsiders started to grow in numbers and after a couple of days, a small media circus had developed.

Village Town Meeting

The New York Times’ Edward Wong described the situation like this:

“The outsiders had come to see how furious residents had transformed their village on China’s southeast coast into a temporarily autonomous zone. Their anger focused on two issues: what they called illegal land sales by village officials, and the death on Dec. 11 of a village advocate while he was in police custody. The villagers chased out Communist Party officials, repelled an assault by police officers and barricaded all roads leading into Wukan with tree trunks. The two police stations in the village stood empty. So did the headquarters of the Communist Party committee.”

The villagers used this media circus and created a bit of a propaganda war. They shared their homes and food with us and drove us around on their motorcycles whenever we needed. This was a funny sight: I would be on the back of a motorcycle with a DSLR rig hung to the side, flying through small alleys and passing other motorcycles — all carrying journalists on the back as well.

Taking down protest banners

With the global spotlight on this village, provincial officials were cornered and agreed to start negotiations with the angry mob.

Within 24 hours I filed one basic news video and one video journal (above) on my experience in Wukan. The video journal was paired with a text journal by Edward Wong. You can read his story “Canny Villagers Grasp Keys to Loosen China’s Muzzle” here. I shot mainly with one camera and a prime 24mm lens. While I love using jibs, sliders and mechanical movement, this video journal seemed most real shot hand-held.

While there was a lot of media there, I was the only DSLR video shooter (that I saw). All other newspapers, TV stations and wire service photographers were using standard video cameras — and with good reason. This was a tricky shoot and using a standard camera would certainly have been easier.

However, I knew it would be tricky and planned accordingly. Before I left I was told to pack light — bring no bells or whistles. Nothing extra. There would be limited car space, I would be riding by motorcycle and I would most likely have to run, so should bring only one bag.

Kit Assembled/Deassembled

Knowing this I created a really small franken-rig and minimized everywhere I could. Above, you can see what the franken-rig looked like disassembled and in use.

Above: f-stop Satori bag, Blackrapid RS-7 strap with Canon 60D with Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L USM, Canon 5DMII with Canon 24mm f/1.4 L USM, 2x Redrock Micro microHandGrip (Part # 2-19-0009), Redrock Micro Handlebar clamp (Part # 2-017-0002), 2x 18″ 15mm carbon fiber rods (Part # 8-011-0002), Porta Brace Universal Shoulder Pad, Jag35 Top Handle, Jag35 Tripod Plate Pro, Jag35 Quick Release Gorilla Stand with Zucoto Gorilla Plate, D | Focus Follow Focus, Jag35 90 Degree Clamp with ball head attached to a Ruige 5″ TL-S500 On-camera HD LCD monitor, Genus Counterweight for CSMK Shoulder Mount System (3.5 lb) and topped with a Rode VideoMic Pro Compact Shotgun Microphone.

I got all of this to fit into a single f-stop bag. The rig was small enough to fight for territory in press scrums and stable enough to run around in a less than stable environment.

Press Scrum

This setup was also small enough to take onto a plane without checking anything. I kept one small tripod with me — although I barely used it.

The videos were largely edited during during the middle of the night or in the back of moving cars as I was fighting US East coast deadlines.

To see the strange conclusion to this story see my blog post “Wukan Journal Unfinished.” To see how this story unfolded check out these stories:

Jonah M. Kessel is a Beijing based freelance visual journalist working with the New York Times. See his web site here and follow him on Twitter here.

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