Xifan and I became friends in 2011 during a reporting trip in the Chinese countryside. I am a documentary photographer based in Shanghai, at that time we just started working on a story on the gender imbalance in China that got published later in Stern. Xifan and I were on the road in this dirt-poor backwater province and ran into a crazily determined women activist, more or less by coincidence. The guy took us on a tour in a broken VW Passat and lead us to our interviewees who lived in remote monasteries up some bamboo covered mountains. It was early December and zero degrees outside. The following days we slept in an unheated room in the back of the monastery, climbed the hills with the orphan girls we interviewed and tried to do our reporting as unnoticed by local government officials as possible. When we left our interviewees wanted us to take a living chicken as a farewell gift. That was the first of many trips we did in the past two years to rural areas in China. A lot of them involved long walks to villages cut off from roads, weird food (stewed fox, deep-fried grasshoppers) and situations where I as a white dude had to hide in the car while Xifan could roam around freely. (On the other hand, as a guy, I am always offered cigarettes and alcohol in China although I don’t even smoke and rarely drink. Xifan though, because she is a woman, never gets asked to drink and have cigarettes despite the fact that she smokes and drinks heavily. This might be the thing that annoys her most about working with a foreign male photographer in China.) Of course being a Chinese-born who grew up in Germany makes it easy for her to blend in in this country. But her strength as a journalist reporting on China does not come from the fact that she speaks the language and knows the culture. These are nothing more than fortunate circumstances – her real strength comes from her tenacity and curiosity. Granted, Xifan can spend days on end with dissidents in tea houses and not raise much unwanted attention but what sets her apart from most writers I know is that she will actually do it. Like the best journalists I have worked with, Xifan writes because she can’t help it. Because she feels the need to experience and understand people and their motivations and ultimately, because she wants to share what she sees.
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