German camera and lens maker Leica have recently released a five minute advert celebrating the heroism and bravery of photojournalists. Entitled ‘The Hunt’, the advert originated from agency F/ Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi in Brazil and shows photojournalists on assignment in dangerous and risky situations.
Interspersed with scenes including the Middle East, Gulf War1 and Africa, the main narrative focuses on a male trapped inside a hotel with the caption ‘Beijing 1989’ with the advert’s final shot showing the photojournalist taking the now famous photograph of Tank Man, part of the June 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square. For historical context it is worth noting four different photographers captured images of Tank Man, including Stuart Franklin a British Magnum photographer working for TIME who is a known Leica user. There is a case of misappropriation by Leica as the protagonist has an American accent.
The advert, released weeks before the event’s 30th anniversary, has drawn inevitable criticism from China with many Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, users criticising the company believing the pro democracy message to be insulting. Indeed the word ‘Leica’ in both English and Chinese can, at time of writing, not be published on Weibo due to “a violation of relevant laws and regulations or the Weibo Community Convention”.
An advert featuring Tiananmen would always cause trouble in China due to state policy suppressing all mentions of the event. However reactions outside China are equally noteworthy. Leica, who partner with Chinese smartphone maker Huawei for their camera components, have distanced themselves from the advert, claiming it was an unauthorised project not commissioned by the brand. However given F/Nazca’s long history with Leica, making award winning work including Leica’s 100 video, this is questionable. It is also worth noting the amount of international distrust in Huawei due to it’s relationship with the Chinese government and fears the brand’s technology can be hijacked by Beijing.
By all accounts the advert is, unsurprisingly, being well received in Taiwan, a democratic island to the east of mainland China who view themselves as an independent state and not part of the PRC. In the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, a part of China since 1997, the English language newspaper the South China Morning Post quoted a former student leader at the protest, Zhou Fengsuo who applauded the advert calling it a “game changer”. Zhou also noted “that the Chinese government would be unlikely to openly address the advert to avoid drawing attention to the subject matter.”
In other parts of the world the advert is being condemned with hashtags such as #WhiteWashing #WhiteSaviour #ToxicMasculinity and #Racist along with such comments as ‘Black and brown evil-doers’. Such hashtags and comments, along with questions over photography ethics are easily applied yet cherry pick various elements of the advert.
The advert, in addition to showing the male caucasian photojournalist in China, also shows a female of Middle Eastern or Arabic descent photographing women wearing burkhas and also an African American embed with US troops in the burning oil fields of Iraq during Gulf War 1. While just cameos, they show diversity among the photojournalist community.
In the instance of Tiananmen four of the five credited Tank Man photographers were caucasian males, three of whom were American and one British. The fifth, Arthur Tsang, covering for Reuters was from Hong Kong. So why #WhiteWashing #WhiteSaviour and #ToxicMasculinity? The photographer in the Gulf War1 cameo appears so briefly it is a blink and you’ll miss it moment. By comparison the African scene showing warlords, includes a white caucasian photojournalist (not our man in China), is far longer. While this photojournalist is not an alpha, he is threatened with a pistol pressed to his head, these hashtags and the case for racism and the social media comment of ‘Great White Hunter’ are strengthened by the title of the advert and the accompanying voice over which closes the advert with the predatory words ‘I am a hunter’. It is also worth noting one of the advert’s opening scenes shows a caucasian male photographing a pack of wolves, who seemingly oblivious to the photojournalist’s cigarette and smoke being blown their way.
Such descriptions of the advert, which focus primarily on the cameo scenes, gloss over the events at Tiananmen Square. It has been stated that the events at Tiananmen deserve better treatment. Given how China has done its best to erase all trace of the events, it is hard to argue with this. However many brands see the country and its large population as a glittering commercial opportunity and it is doubtful they would risk a relationship by bringing up such memories. Time will tell what happens to Leica.
What the advert does prove, beyond doubt, is that we all see what we want to see. The Chinese home in on the main, Beijing based, story line and see Leica as an insulting foreigner who have discovered it does not take much to energise the red masses. By comparison many Westerners concentrate on the cameo scenes, showing predominantly caucasian male photojournalists, and see the advert as racist. Both impose a different morality depending on their point of view. Spare a final thought to student turned protester turned witness, Zhou Fengsuo who said, if Leica’s position in China suffered as the result of any reaction by the government he hoped the “international market would [stand] up for them”. And upon learning that Leica had sought to distance itself from the advert, Zhou said it was “a shame. They could do better.” It is a shame these sentiments aren’t being supported.