Missing Chinese photographer known for capturing environmental threats

Lu Guang boldly covered controversial issues like pollution in China until he went missing. Monday, 8 April 2019

By Nina Strochlic
Photographs By Lu Guang

Chinese photographer Lu Guang spent nearly 40 years documenting the effects of environmental destruction in rural and industrial regions of China. Then, in November, he disappeared.

Lu, who lives with his family in New York, returned to China to lead a photography workshop in late October. The region he was visiting, Xinjiang, is the location of detention sites holding hundreds of thousands of Muslim prisoners. About a month and a half after his disappearance the Chinese police informed Lu’s family that he had been arrested, his wife told the New York Times.

Forty-seven journalists are known to be imprisoned in China as of the end of 2018, says Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Theories about his arrest range from fears that Lu may try to document the “re-education camps” in the region to an authority figure who still held a grudge against Lu for publicizing the AIDS epidemic in 2001. (Read about an innovative solution to China's air pollution.)

“We don't know the precise reason why Lu Guang was arrested,” says Butler. "However, he was an independent-minded journalist who had, among things, documented environmental degradation that authorities might have found offensive."

Lu’s interest in photography began as a young factory worker in China. He went on to win awards for coverage of environmental issues and the AIDS epidemic. He moved to New York in 2005, on invitation from the U.S. Department of State, but continued traveling to China for his work. In 2010, he won a National Geographic photography grant to support his documentation of the human cost of China’s industrialization. In his grant application, Lu wrote that he did not feel his investigations had done enough to stop the pollution harming average Chinese citizens, and mentioned a 17-year-old boy who died of cancer just before getting his university admissions letter. "Such harrowing stories strike my heart and affect me deeply," Lu wrote.

“[Lu] has never flinched from covering the most difficult and significant topics in his country concerning health, social issues and the environment,” says National Geographic’s Director of Photography Sarah Leen. "His work shines a bright light into the shadows.” (Read about the growing interest in conservation among Chinese youth.)

Robert Pledge, who runs the Contact Press Images, the agency representing Lu, says there is no additional information about his whereabouts and no one has heard from him since the arrest.

For Butler at CPJ, it’s difficult to be optimistic about any journalist being held in China. "Convictions on spurious charges with flimsy evidence and then prison sentences, sometimes long, sometimes short, are the norm,” he says. "What happens to Lu ultimately will be a political decision, likely taken by local authorities.”