“Holding A Body For Ransom” Award-Winning Photo Misleading?

The award-winning "Holding a Body for Ransom" photograph by Zhang Yi.

The award-winning "Holding a Body for Ransom" photograph by Zhang Yi.

Summary from Baidu Baike:

“Holding a Body for Ransom” [shown above] is a  photograph by “Huashangbao” photographer Zhang Yi.  The subject of the photograph is from 2009 October 24th when Hubei Jingzhou university students He Dongxu, Fang Zhao, and Chen Jishi heroically gave their lives to save drowning children, yet the salvage company shockingly demanded exorbitant sums of money when salvaging the bodies. Facing students begging on their knees, not only were the salvagers unmoved, they also held the bodies for ransom, collecting a total of 36,000 yuan as a fee for salvaging the corpses. In 2010, “Holding a Body for Ransom” won the highest honor for Chinese news photos — the “Golden Lens” award. However, the photo’s award incited a lot of questions. August 23rd morning, the “Golden Lens” jury released the conclusion of their investigation of the questions surrounding the truth of the “Holding a Body for Ransom” news photograph, believing that the news in “Holding a Body for Ransom” was true, and that there were nothing false/misleading.

For more background information about the original incident, please see our previous reports:

The recent “controversy” is… some people (members of the media and local authorities including Yangtze University Propaganda/Publicity Director Li Yuquan), have accused the photograph, the title of the photograph, the photographer, and many media reports of the photograph of misleading the public. After the photo won the Golden Lens award, they demanded that the judging committee investigate.Some of their main arguments:

  1. The media reported that the photograph shows the fishermen (shown int he picture) negotiating how much the people will pay for them to bring the body to the shore, so they were “holding the body for ransom”. Other photographs show that the boat was working with another boat and the old man was only signaling to the shore. So the photograph should only be titled “Bringing Bodies Back to Shore”.
  2. The fishermen (shown in the picture) only make a few hundred RMB for finding and recovering the body. If there was a price negotiation, it was not with the fishermen and the fishermen should not be blamed for it.
  3. The misleading photograph has caused people to hate, harass, and physically attack the fishermen, in addition to being disappointed with society.

Please see EastSouthWestNorth for a collection of translated Chinese articles and discussion forum posts for more details about why some people think the photograph is misleading and the photographer’s response.

In summary, the original photographer, Zhang Yi, defended his photograph and the photograph’s title “Holding a Body for Ransom”. He provided all of his photographs from that time. The old fisherman/salvager was not negotiating but he was indeed “holding a body for ransom” on behalf of his boss, who in another photograph is shown counting the money he demanded for recovering the body. Zhang Yi also proved that his photograph did not incite people to attack the fishermen, because his famous photograph was only published nearly a week after the fishermen were attacked on the day of the students’ memorial.

The Golden Lens investigation committee concluded that the photograph was not misleading and the title was appropriate. Below, we have translated some Chinese netizen reactions to this “controversy”:

From Mop:

Shocking! “Holding a Body for Ransom” complete set of photographs, 16 pictures, released


2009 October 24, Changjiang [Yangtze] University students Chen Jishi, He Dongxu, Fang Zhao, and 15 other schoolmates were at the Changjiang Jingzhou Baota Bay having a barbecue. As a result of saving two drowning children, Chen Jishi, Fang Zhao, and He Dongxu were unfortunately engulfed in the river’s waters, giving up their young lives.

Yet the salvage company shockingly demanded exorbitant sums of money when salvaging the bodies. Facing students begging on their knees, not only were the salvagers unmoved, they also held the bodies for ransom, collecting a total of 36,000 yuan as a fee for salvaging the corpses.

This incident gained widespread attention through the media, with public opinion unanimously condemning the act of holding a body for ransom as breaking the lowest limits of social morality, bringing shame to everyone in the country.

Now the complete “Holding a Body for Ransom” set of photographs have been completely released, and though it has already been nearly a year since the incident, I am still shaken after looking through them.

The award-winning "Holding a Body for Ransom" photograph by Zhang Yi.

Fisherman Wang Shouhai dredging the river for the bodies of the drowned student heros.

Fisherman Wang Shouhai dredging the river for the students' bodies.

University officials arrive at the scene where three university students drowned to save two drowning children.

Teachers and students crying at the scene.

Fisherman Wang Shouhai speaks to the people on the shore from his fishing boat, the arm of one of the drowned students visible at the side of the boat.

Fisherman Wang Shouhai gestures to the people on the shore, the arm of one of the drowned students tied to a rope in his hands.

Fisherman Wang Shouhai gestures to the people on the shore, the arm of one of the drowned students tied to a rope in his hands.

After recovering the body, fisherman Wang Shouhai approaches the shore.

Students rush the body of a university student that drowned during a rescue up the shore.

The fishermen smoking and drinking bottled water.

Sunset by the Changjiang/Yangtze river, the fishermen in the background, sad students in the foreground.

The "boss" of the salvaging company counts the money he demanded for recovering the bodies of the drowned students.

Fishermen on their boat on the Yangtze River.

The fishermen bringing a body to shore.

Students rush a victim up the shore on a stretcher.

Comments from Mop:


So just exactly who’s story is the truth???


This matter happened a very long time ago, though [I] must still condemn those people who held the bodies for ransom~~~

Chinese people’s traditional virtues have all been lost in the hands of these people!


I think they all had the possibility of being rescued/resuscitated.
What they [ the fishermen/salvagers] did was murder!!!


Seeing how old that old man is, I can’t even bring myself to curse him.


These days, truth and lies are difficult to separate.


Dusk on the Yangtze [Changjiang] is this beautiful, yet those people [the salvagers] are this ugly…


I just want to say, I really admire their body recovering abilities! Here, our river is narrower than their’s, but normally when a person drowns, their bodies are almost never recovered, and only when their bodies float to the surface several days later can they be recovered. So, I really don’t dare to imagine just how they were able to “salvage/recover” the body in such a short period of time.


There is only money in the eyes of Chinese people.

From iFeng:

The main subject in the “Holding a Body for Ransom” photograph agrees to an interview, denies negotiating prices during the recovery of the bodies

Wang Shouhai, in the white shirt, gestures to people on the shore while holding a rope tied to the body of a drowned university student hero.
Zhang Yi's original photograph. When taking pictures, the camera's automatic numbering was "DSC_7771", with the timestamp being 2009 October 24 16:50.
Wang Shouhai, the fisherman condemned by China's public for refusing to recover the bodies of drowned students unless paid is shown here holding the hooks he used to dredge the river for bodies.
August 21, Wang Shouhai stands on the fishing boat he used to recover the body, showing the hooks used to recover the body. Wang Shouhai says that every time he must dredge for a body, at least half an hour must be spent to untangle the hooks before they can be used again. Them stopping during the recovery of the bodies was therefore not because the money had not yet arrived.

Comments from iFeng:


I 100% trust that this photo [“Holding a Body for Ransom”] is real! This is the revolting behavior of Chinese people!


I’m afraid it is really hard to deny, the heart of the salvage company boss is really that black: Only money in his head, no morals, and to earn money, sometimes they’re anxious for someone to die!


This matter actually isn’t complicated, the salvager works for his boss, and didn’t know whether or not the drowned person was a hero. If the boss says to salvage, he salvages. If the boss says stop, he stops.


Could there have been no one else [to salvage the bodies] at that time? Could everyone that was there have all died? Had I been at the scene, I definitely swear I wouldn’t give fucking care whose interests were involved!


Those hooks are for fishing fish, not for fishing human bodies. They only need to find the location of the body, and then tie it with a rope. In other words, there’s no need for hooks, so obviously that doesn’t make sense. But finding such an irrelevant excuse only makes you even more detestable.


[If you guys] dig any further, then bribery and corruption will appear. Can’t you guys be a bit more harmonious?


A bunch of intellectuals piling on someone, bullying the old man for not being intelligent, not knowing how to argue! There is always a bunch of “intellectuals” looking to poke holes!!!

What do you think? Is the title of the photograph misleading? Have the fishermen been treated unfairly because of the photograph?


Written by Fauna

Fauna is a mysterious young Shanghainese girl who lives in the only place a Shanghainese person would ever want to live: Shanghai. In mid-2008, she started chinaSMACK to combine her hobby of browsing Chinese internet forums with her goal of improving her English. Through her tireless translation of popular Chinese internet news and phenomenon, her English has apparently gotten dramatically better. At least, reading and writing-wise. Unfortunately, she's still not confident enough to have written this bio, about herself, by herself.


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