Pulitzer Center Update

The Journalist-Turned-Photographer Shining a Light on Beijing's Underground Workers

Image by Sim Chi Yin. Burma, 2012.

Night falls in the foothills of the Qingling mountain range, where hundreds of small, unregulated gold mines are located. Many of those who worked there from the late 1990s to the 2000s contracted silicosis. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

33-year-old Niu Song reads the paper while his wife, 32-year-old Zhao Ansheng, cross-stitches in their basement room in Beijing. Both Song and Ansheng are chefs at a Yunnan restaurant and are home a few hours in the afternoon to rest in their basement room near Beijing’s north Third Ring Road. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

Manager Mr. Ma takes a cigarette break from his online game in the basement room which is located in the largest air raid shelter in West Beijing. He and his family operate this air raid shelter, renting out some 20 rooms to migrant workers. He is angry that the authorities might shut them down soon, having put in tens of thousands of yuan to renovate the basement. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

A young woman waits for the bus at an intersection on the main road in Dongling, Anhui Province. Like most other parts of rural China, Dongling village is almost bereft of young people who leave to become migrant workers in the cities and towns, leaving the old and very young behind. Anhui Province is amongst the largest exporter of migrant labor in China. Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier-to-be was sent to Dongling in the 1970s to be rusticated. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

25-year-old Ji Lanlan and her 3-year-old daughter, Yu Qi, enjoy a game on their computer in one of the largest rooms in this basement in west Beijing. Lanlan is an office worker and has lived in this basement room for the four years that she’s spent in Beijing. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

53-year-old Wu Guocheng sits in his basement bedroom in Beijing. After getting a divorce, Guocheng moved into this 12-square-metre room, which he rents for for 650 yuan a month. Guocheng, who worked at a giant state-owned steel factory before retirement, watches television programs here most of the day, leaving only to take walks in the hills close by. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

26-year-old Xie Ruanjun chats with her mother through the webcam in her basement bedroom in Beijing. She is a waitress in a restaurant close by, like many young Chinese migrant workers these days, and spends many hours on the Internet. Image by Sim Chi Yin. China.

A fourth-generation overseas Chinese born and raised in Singapore, Sim Chi Yin's background gives her access to a culture hard to enter for outsiders.

Having discovered a passion for photography as a teen, Sim Chi Yin spent nine years as an adult writing for The Straits Times, Singapore’s English daily, before returning to image making. “I’ve had to remind myself that a good text subject might not be a strong picture project,” she says of the change. “And I’ve had to deal with switching from trying to be an objective reporter to being a closely involved fly on the wall.”

She seems to be making a smooth transition, though – Rat Tribe, which documents the lives of low-income workers in Beijing, was presented at Rencontres d’Arles in 2012, and her coverage of the Burmese spring was shown at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo the same year. In 2013, she was nominated for the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography for Dying to Breathe, an ongoing series on a Chinese gold miner and she is also a member of VII Photo Agency, having been part of their mentoring programme.

Born in Singapore, Sim is now based in China, where taking photographs – or, more precisely, gaining access – can be a challenge. “Two, three generations have been schooled to not wash dirty linen in public,” she says. “Investing time and energy is the only way to overcome that cynicism and create the kind of intimacy documentary photography needs.”

“Her work has the potential to bring insights from within a culture that is often difficult to penetrate emotionally,” says Sarah Leen, director of photography at National Geographic magazine, who nominated the photographer for our Ones to Watch issue in January 2014. “She is not an outsider trying to get in. She is already inside. She can turn the lights on.”

Dying to Breathe is a case in point; following a miner as he struggles with occupational lung disease, it took time for Sim and her subjects to get close. “It took quite a while before he and his wife really let me into their lives and were just natural, with only my presence and the camera’s,” she says. “and I haven’t been able to stay detached when he has been near death a few times.”

The series continues to take up Sim’s time as she’s preparing a multimedia version, plus a short documentary film. She’s also planning a new series, building on her previous, and is considering getting even closer to her work with a piece on her own family history. “We left southern China four generations ago, but my paternal grandfather came back to join the revolution in 1949 and was martyred in the war,” she explains.