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Slideshow: air pollution in Beijing

As the Olympics approach, athletes have raised concerns about the Chinese capital’s smoggy skies. A series of haunting pictures by Beijing-based photographer Sean Gallagher illustrates the problem.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: These pictures were all taken by Sean Gallagher, a British photographer based in China, between June 26 and July 2, 2008. All of the photographs were taken in Beijing, and most of them depict vehicles that have been left or abandoned under the raised ring roads in the city centre. In this series, the photographer has not set out to show ordinary cars in the Chinese capital; he uses abandoned vehicles as static objects, which illustrate the quantity of dust and sand that accumulates in the city's air. Some of this dust is from naturally occurring sandstorms, but – as the photographer points out in his comment – much of it also comes from the booming construction industry.

Backgrounder: air pollution in China

Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. More than 500 million people live in Chinese urban areas including the capital, Beijing, where air pollution is damaging to human health.

“Extensive use of coal, the city’s location and the growing number of cars means the improvement in Beijing’s air quality is slow,” the Associated Press quoted Eric Falt, an official at the United Nations Environment Program, as saying last October. “Particularly worrying are the levels of small particulate matter… in the atmosphere which is severely harmful to public health.”

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Air Pollution Index (API) is a measurement of concentrations of chemicals and dust particles in the air. The WHO recommends an API measurement of 50 as its maximum safe daily level. May 2008 saw a daily API average of 131 in Beijing. May 27, 2008, saw the capital’s API peak at 463, over nine times the safe level.

As the Beijing Olympics approach, concerns are being raised about the quality of the air in the capital, particularly by athletes, some of whom have proposed wearing masks during the competition, training in other countries, or even pulling out of events.

Whatever happens at the Olympics, Beijing residents will continue to live with smoggy skies after the Games. According to the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning, the country’s air pollution caused over 400,000 premature deaths in 2003.


Sean Gallagher is a British photographer based in Beijing. His work focuses on environmental and social issues in Asia, with specific emphasis on China. More of his work can be seen at www.gallagher-photo.com

All text and images copyright © Sean Gallager Photography

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评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


同意评论编号10,大家所驳斥的并不是照片表现的东西,而是本文作者在照片后的说明性文字。评论编号9 的评论者,你是否生活在北京?

Aganist the comment "Veracity"

I agree with Comment No. 10. What we all argue against is not the problem these photos are trying to reveal, but the caption that follows the photos.

May I ask the No. 9 commentator: do you live in Beijing?

(This comment is translated by Zheng Shen.)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Please come and see it for yourself

Lies cannot fly in the face of truth. It is pointless to argue over the authenticity of photos like that. To find out the truth, why not one come and live in Beijing for a year or two? Beijing does suffer from serious air pollution, but certainly not to the extent depicted in the photos. Sandstorms only happen for a few days in Spring. The captions of the photos don't clarify the situations surrounding the photos. To some degree they are misleading the audience.
(Comment translated by Yang bin)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


为了那些对照片真实性提出质疑的读者,我核实了原照的内嵌数据。这种数据是绝对真实,无法作假的。数据证实照片都是在过去的三个星期之内拍摄。如有想亲自证实真实性的读者,请给我发电子邮件索取,我很乐意把数据的截图发给各位。 邮件地址: [email protected]
----Sam Geall “中外对话”副总编
(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

Veracity of photos

For the benefit of our readers who have raised questions, I checked the embedded data in the original photographs (this cannot be faked) and can confirm they were all taken in the past three weeks. Any readers who would like to confirm this for themselves can email me on [email protected] and I'm happy to send a screenshot of the data. -- Sam Geall, chinadialogue deputy editor

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


[email protected]

On Veracity

To Comment No. 13, I don't doubt the veracity of these photos. But if photos taken near a rubbish dump are used to show that the whole city is dirty like that, the problem lies elsewhere. Is this way accurate enough to convey the intended information?

If you want to show the accuracy, please ask the author to unveal the surroundings of the spot where the photos were taken. That will do the job.

Liu Shaojie [email protected]
(This comment was translated by Zheng Shen)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

veracity of photos NO. 13

Actually, I have no doubt in the veracity of the photos, and I know there are many places to get many pics like these. It is clear that many of the cars are old and unused for sometime, and the bikes are desserted for a much longer time, I think. We cannot say Beijing is not polluted, but it is gettting better. We need to acknowledge and admit it.

However, pics like these in a series do piss me off, especially during such a period. The pics will leave ignorant people the impression that the air is filled with earth!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)

Dear Readers,

It is with great interest that I read your comments. I am the author of the piece and wanted to respond to a few of the comments above. To confirm, the photos were taken approximately 3 weeks ago here in Beijing.

These photos are not ‘a trick’. They are not intended to mislead the viewer. Air pollution is an obvious problem in Beijing and is one that needs to be highlighted in a new and interesting way. Pictures of smoggy skies and masked pedestrians have long tired the eyes of readers, dulled to really visually understanding effects of air pollution. As a photographer, you must challenge the way we view issues and present them in a new and interesting light.

These vehicles have been left standing in the open air for weeks at a time, under the raised ring roads, in the very centre of the city. Is this typical? No. It is not typical for people to leave their cars like this, but nevertheless, static objects are the perfect things to illustrate the amount of particulate matter in the air. Yes, the longer they stand, the more likely they are to gather dust/sand etc. But where does this dust/sand that is accumulating come from? The air.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




(本评论由Zheng Shen翻译)


Sand has been mentioned in a few comments. Beijing has suffered few sand storms this year. It must be noted that sand is a ‘particulate matter’ (PM) and is recognized as such when measuring levels of the many different components that make up air pollution. Sand IS a form of air pollution. Sandstorms aren’t the only source of sand in the air. It is put into the air as a result of construction (in the mixing of cement) and when buildings are demolished. Sand is still deposited when there are no sandstorms. The vehicles in the pictures also exhibit varying levels of thickness of cover (and colour) of particulate matter, showing that all could not be caused by one, single meteorological event.

The past few days have indeed seen blue skies in Beijing. This is positive news. As local residents know however, this is unfortunately not an everyday occurrence and is not immediate evidence the problem has gone. Air pollution is a somewhat slow process, accumulating slowly on the cars and in the lungs of those who breathe it in. These photos are intended to visually represent the seriousness of this problem, in the hope we can tackle it more effectively.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



(此翻译由Canly Tseng 翻译)

I would like to ask, why were the pictures taken at night?

Is it because the police would have stopped you?
Is it because it makes the dust more dramatic?
Or is there another reason?

Because it's a shame that you can't even see the street that the vehicles are on.
Crystal, US

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Let's believe the good intentions of the author and the editors

I am sure we all wish that the condition of the air pollution in Beijing will improve as soon as possible. So let's believe the author and the editors have good intentions.

However, it would be appreciated if you could make it clear the specific date and location (under which bridge) where those photos were taken, and how long exactly those vehicles have been left there.

( This comment was translated by Zheng Shen)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



(3)证明你本人拍照时就在北京(因为人们现在对北京的空气质量很感兴趣)或者拿出北京或中国总是一幅老样子的证据。祝 好运!

-本评论由Yang bin翻译


On Comment #9: basically, I would like to believe in anything that is negative about China, just like you. However, to be more convincing, I recommend that you enhance your reasoning by: 1) explaining that the Beijing license plates can by no means be removed and assembled on a vehicle specially made up /chosen for the purpose of shooting, for there is regrettably no background at all in none of the pix; 2) by explaining that in spite of the lack of background, the cars must be in Beijing because cars with Beijing licence plates cannot be driven to any other places wheresoever; 3)proving that you were just in Beijing (because people are interested in the Beijing air quality now!)or of course you can bring some evidence for the changelessness of Beijing/China. Good luck!