The Photo Of The Three City Administrators And The Prostitute

This is one of the most widely known photos in China, usually under the label of "The Three City Administrators and the Prostitute."

But many Chinese are ignorant of the true circumstances behind the story of this photo.  Or, even if they know, they don't care for any other narrative besides this so-called "naked portrayal of the brutality of public authority against personal dignity."

(Southern Metropolis Daily; Harbin News BBS)  A Continually Misinterpreted Photograph.  By He Shuxian, Zhang Shuzhou and Huang Xingneng.  April 24, 2010.

It was March 13, 2004 in the city of Kunming.  At Number 221 Lijiadui, a 26-year-old female surnamed Li was standing on the windowsill in preparation for her second suicide attempt.  Allegedly, her husband had been unfaithful to her.  In her previous suicide attempt on the same day, she jumped out of the building and only injured her leg.  So she went back upstairs to try again.  This time, the police arrived quickly and stalled her.  Meanwhile, firefighters lowered themselves by rope from the floor above and successfully seized her.

At the time, Huang Xingneng was a photojournalist with Kunming's <City Times> newspaper.  "On that evening, I arrived late at the scene.  I was supposed to be filming in mid-town on another assignment.  But a tip came in to say that there was a possible suicide.  So I rushed over there.  But the time that I got there, the person had already been saved by the firemen and handed over to the security patrol guards.  She kept struggling to get free.  So the security guard on the left part of the photo was forced to pick up her right leg in order to move ahead.  I happened to have caught this one instant.  During the process, the woman struggled fiercely.  Finally, they brought her inside the guard post."

Although the police had set up a line, "I had the professional instinct to get my camera ready.  As soon as they appeared, I took two photos.  After I got back to the office, I showed the photos to the editor on duty.  He thought that this photo was indecent and he did not approve its publication.  In the end, the other photo was used in the newspaper.  This other photo showed her struggling to get away from the two security guards, thus showing her unwillingness to be rescued.  A mosaic was applied on her face to prevent identification."

The text in the accompanying story is excerpted below:

Last evening, a 26-year-old woman surnamed Li sat on her fourth-floor window sill ready to kill herself over emotional problems.  The Xishan Public Security Bureau leaders, the Zhaojiadui station police officers and the city firefighters rushed over to the scene immediately and successfully rescued her. 

Last evening at 8:40pm, the phone rang in the duty room of the Zhaojiadui police station.  A 20-something-year-old woman was sitting on the window sill in a fourth-floor apartment at Number 22 Lijiadui as if she wanted to kill herself.  The police officers rushed quickly to the scene and spoke to her to prevent her from jumping ... according to information, the 26-year-old woman named Li came from Anning to rent a room to stay in Kunming.  According to neighbors, she was seeking suicide because her husband has another woman outside.  She attempted to kill herself at the end of last year, and her foot injury has not even healed yet.  Yesterday, her 70-something-year-old father, her sister and brother-in-law pleaded with her all day outside the apartment door but she refused to open the door.  By the time that our reporter left at 11:30pm, the police were still speaking to her inside the police station.

Huang Xingneng recalled: "At the time, the Xici Hutong <Photojournalists' Home> was a good place for professionals to discuss their professional issues.  I like the discussions going on over there.  So I posted that unpublished photo there so that people can discuss the issues.  At the time, the discussion centered mainly about the quality of the photo and other technical issues.  As I recalled, the photo was there for only one day.  I did not think that the photo would be circulated outside this professional circle.  I never imagined that the photo would become 'city administrators arresting a prostitute' or that people would be discussing about the woman's panties (or lack thereof).  This was just a simple social story that took place in Kunming, but it was turned into a 'city administrators arresting a prostitute' story that was said to have taken place in Shenzhen, Guangzhou or even Sichuan.  What can I say?"

At this time, it is not longer possible to determine how this photo became "city administrators arresting prostitute in Sichuan."  The photo cannot speak for itself about the circumstances behind it.  Thus another explanation that meets people's imagination better was propagated all over the Internet because everybody already have their strong prejudices about city administrators.

Our reporter attempted to locate the security patrol guards and the girl in red who were in the photo.  But that proved to be impossible.  Even the Zhaojiadui police station has moved away.

On May 24, 2007, Huang Xingneng wrote about this on his personal blog.  However, his blog post did not achieve the result that he was hoping for.  The comments were more often along the lines of: "Huang Xingneng, can you do anything?  Take a took at this photo and you have to know these people are city administrators."  Huang Xingneng told our reporter in frustration, "Some people even asked me how much money I took to speak nicely about the city administrators." 

On November 3, 2008, the netizen "confu" posted this photo at the <City Times> BBS under the title of "Prostitute arrested at night somewhere in Sichuan."  On November 5, a BBS administrator wrote: "The woman in this photo had been mentally disturbed and wanted to kill herself by leaping off a building.  Three kind-hearted security guards saved her!"

On November 7, 2008, <City Times> published the report on "Security guards saved a woman four years ago becomes 'city administrators arresting a prostitute."  The report detailed the history of the photo and included a plea from Huang Xingneng:  "This photo is being continually misinterpreted in a way that is not remotely close to the truth.  I wish that all netizens will stop these irresponsible re-postings."

Huang Xingneng also noted another reason how this photo caught more publicity.  "In 2007, the folks at the Beijing 798 Art District created a work of sculpture based upon my photo.  This raised another wave of controversy."  The post made by "confu" included the photo of the sculpture next to Huang Xingneng's original photo.  Among the comments to the "confu" post was the question about why the woman wore white panties in the photo but no panties in the sculpture.

Huang Xingneng continued: "This is why I decided not to stay silent anymore.  Last year, I wrote a blog post to clarify the story.  But there were still netizens who didn't care about the facts but was only interested in cursing me out.  Some of them didn't even bother to read my explanation before venting their rage at me."

On April 10, 2010, a microblogger distributed the original photo and the sculpture photo once again under the title "God Ai's 798 art sculpture".  God Ai refers to the artist Ai Weiwei.  This microblog post was re-posted by many netizens.  So far, it has been re-posted 1,500 times with more than 400 comments.  One netizen wrote: "To commemorate the shame of this age."

When our reporter contacted Ai Weiwei's studio, the answer was that he was not concerned about this matter.  After some discussion with them, our reporter learned that the said sculpture was actually the work of the Gao brothers.  They told our reporter that this sculpture was first displayed at a joint exhibit in April 2007.  Afterwards, it was left in front of their studio.  On the night of May 18, 2009, the 798 property owners "stole" the sculpture.  The Gao brothers filed a police report but they have not been able to get their sculpture back.

The Gao brothers acknowledged that their sculpture was based upon the news photo.  Afterwards, they also heard that the photo was misinterpreted.  But this was "only hearsay which they cannot tell for sure."  They even asked the reporter about the facts.  The Gao brothers said: "A work of art is not a news report.  It is an expression.  Whether this was really a case of city administrators arresting a prostitute or not, this work is artistically valid.  It only needs to be re-interpreted."  When asked whether the sculpture was demonizing city administrators, the Gao brothers countered: "Are city administrators being demonized?"

According to Chinese Newsweek executive chief editor Yang Ruichun, "This photo has been used by a Tsinghua University teacher as a case study of communication.  It was pointed out that the truth was that these people had just saved a suicidal woman."

Two days later, another microblogger "Tanbainiu" wrote "Security guards save woman; four years of re-posting turned it into 'city administrators arresting prostitute" with a summary of the full story.  Many netizens were finally "enlightened."  But there were still questions: "No matter whether she was being saved or arrested, she should be accorded some dignity."

SOHO chief editor Li Nan commented: "Creating a rumor on the Internet is a cost-free form of entertainment.  During the communication process, the truth is often beaten out by the lies.   Rumors often coincide intentionally or unintentionally with certain of emotions.  This is one way in which the bad currency eliminates the good currency on the Internet."