by John Leung
Have you ever wondered what previous New students are doing now? Well, earlier in November, alumnus Ryan Pyle returned to talk about some of the projects he’s worked on since graduating from New College in 2001.
Pyle graduated with a degree in international politics, having lived in the Wetmore residence building for four years – and spent a lot of time playing basketball with the Varsity Blues. His time here at the University of Toronto made a big difference to his future. It led to his award-winning photography for various magazines, such as The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek and Fortune. It also led to his successful career as an adventurer, TV producer, and journalist writing about the often unseen aspects of life in China. Most strikingly, his journey at U of T ultimately led him to move to China where he now makes his permanent home.
Pyle’s path to China began during his first year. His schedule was such that, in order to commit to the Varsity basketball team, he needed to have no classes on Fridays and the only gap he had required that he take a class on Thursday afternoons. So it was that he ended up taking “Introduction to China”, for the simple reason that it fitted the bill. However, it sparked what proved to be an ongoing interest in China and he went on to take several more classes about China during the rest of his time at U of T.
After taking so many classes on China, upon graduation he decided to take a three-month trip to China to see it for himself – and he found himself immediately falling in love with the country. When he returned home to Toronto for in December, he announced during Christmas dinner with the family that he would be moving to China permanently. While he acknowledges that his timing was poor and he really should have approached the subject more sensitively, it is true to say that he never looked back and that his family ultimately accepted his decision and encouraged him in his choice.
Despite moving to such a foreign place, he made a name for himself with his photographs of the people and locations he encountered. He is self-taught: beginning in 2003, he made a personal study of the work of photographers he admired, observing their techniques and their individual perspectives on their creations. Pyle’s own photography does not use any flash, additional lighting or filters, and as a result he has produced some powerful images. He also worked as a journalist, writing stories in some of the poorest and most potentially hazardous places in China. Since China tightly controls its media, Pyle has experienced conflict, such as being arrested, detained and on occasion having his equipment broken. However, his conviction that he was doing an important job of documenting the lives of the Chinese resulted in his not being dissuaded from continuing his work.
During his presentation to an audience comprised of New College alumni as well as students and faculty from across U of T, Pyle talked in detail about the difficulties of life in China. Many of the challenges arise from the considerable income inequality across the country. China’s growth has been uneven and explosive, with the very small number of rich people possessing half the country’s wealth. By way of illustrating this, Pyle spoke of meeting factory workers who were earning in the region of US0 per month and, by contrast, a rich entrepreneur who drove a highly customized Rolls-Royce car with a value of a million dollars (and it was simply the most expensive of the several vehicles the individual owned).
The poor are confronted by more hardships in their lives than simply lack of income. They are often faced with the dilemma of whether to move to a new city for better-paid work: under the Chinese system, free healthcare is available only in the place where one is born. By moving away, a worker puts themselves and their family at risk. At times, local government (which acts independently of state control in many aspects of administration) acts unfairly in its dealings with its citizens. One example raised by Pyle is the experience of some individuals having land ownership not only removed from them without their permission but with insufficient financial compensation. An additional difficulty faced by the ordinary worker is that there is intense competition for jobs – this was especially the case during the 2008 financial crisis when many factories in China closed, often with no notice.
Nowadays, many young people decide to migrate to a new city to earn as much as they can, so they can move back to their home town without having to worry about money. However, due to the long hours of work, many workers experience depression or, on occasion, death caused by inadequate safety practices and errors arising from excessive tiredness. Despite development in some parts of China being hindered by lack of investment and technology, in general innovation across the country is advancing at a rapid pace.
Pyle’s account of his work and life in China was eye-opening, and he was able to bring his experiences alive for the audience. When asked whether his time at U of T had prepared him for his travels, he replied that an education here, both in terms of the experience and the University’s excellent reputation, gave him the confidence to go out into the world. He remarked that at U of T you have to learn quickly, under pressure – which very much translates into life in “the real world”.
He has undertaken a great variety of projects: aside from his journalism and photography work, he also circumnavigated China by motorcycle with his brother, Colin, in a trip that took 65 days. That feat was recognized by Guinness World Records as “the longest continuous journey by motorcycle in a single country”. Pyle subsequently motorcycled across India, also with Colin, and then across Brazil by himself. Ryan Pyle is definitely a very interesting New College alumnus, whose inquisitiveness and love of challenges has resulted in some notable work as well as many exciting stories. I highly recommend that you check out his website at www.ryanpyle.com – there you will see his other fascinating projects and plans for the future.
(All photos © Ryan Pyle)