Published: September 2006
Fritz Hoffmann

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I've always had an interest in photography from America's industrial period, and that's actually one inspiration for my move to China in 1995. I saw it as my chance to document an industrial revolution. On this assignment in China's Northeast, I had the opportunity to photograph old state-owned factories, some of which are undergoing modernization. The settings formed grand epic scenes, heavy with steel and dated infrastructure.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

I've worked as a newspaper photographer in West Virginia, where I developed an interest in coal miners and their families. For this story, I traveled to China's coal country in Heilongjiang Province, where 172 people had recently perished in a deep-mine disaster. But the Chinese government suppressed the media from covering the tragedy. The area was simply shut down.

At the same time, 12 coal miners were trapped in a mine in West Virginia. That news was played big by Chinese state media. It was bizarre to be out in the quiet of China's coal country where the miners had died and then return to the hotel and see how the West Virginia scene was splashed on both China's CCTV as well as CNN. How can 172 people vanish without anyone even discussing it? About 6,000 mining-related deaths occur in China each year.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

My assistant Huang Yong and I found a small North Korean restaurant in the Xita district of Shenyang, China. The food was very good, but the waitresses in their uniforms with Dear Leader lapel pins shuffled around with long sullen faces. They made the atmosphere feel much like what you might think you would find inside the hermit kingdom. Business was slow, but just the idea that there could be a North Korean business operating in China was intriguing. The staff all said that they were selected to work there for three years. Each seemed to be chosen for good looks and their musical talents. Then, across the street, we found another North Korean restaurant. In contrast, the atmosphere inside was like a big party with South Korean tourists mixing with their cousins from the North. That seemed to be the main purpose of both restaurants: to extend brotherly kinship to the South Koreans. But the staff from the two establishments didn't seem to connect with each other. When we visited the first restaurant again and told the staff that we had dined across the street, they became very curious and asked many questions about their countrymen working there. And they seemed concerned when we told them that the business across the street was very good.