Trending: The American Photography 36 Book Is Here, After a Censorship Saga

By David Schonauer   Monday April 12, 2021

Here’s some good news for your Monday:

If you have ordered copies of the eagerly anticipated American Photography 36 or American Illustration 39 annuals, the books will soon be on their way to you. After a printing process that turned into a saga of international intrigue (sort of), the books have arrived in New York and orders are being fulfilled, thanks to clever improvisation by Mark Heflin, director of American Illustration–American Photography. They are also available for purchase.

“In a year like no other, we are pleased to present the American Photography 36 annual award book, showcasing the best images from 2019 in hardcover as selected by a distinguished jury of photo and design experts,” Heflin noted in a recent press release. (Go here to read it).

Why did it take so long for the books to arrive? The story, which involved censorship from the Chinese government, was detailed recently by FastCompany.

It began last October, when Heflin received a call from the Hong Kong-based printer manufacturing AP 36 and AI 39, telling him that the books’ production had been shut down. “Heflin was surprised by the news, considering he’d worked with the printer on the books for the past 14 years without issue,” noted FastCompany. Heflin soon learned, however, that the books were actually being produced in mainland China, not Hong Kong, and that production had ground to a halt because the Chinese government found a number of images in books to be “offending.”

“China has long censored content within its own borders and in recent years has tried to exert more pressure on content abroad as well,” notes Fast Company. In his statement, Heflin notes that there is a “troubling significance” to the censorship of the award-winning photographs — by David Butow, Adam Ferguson, Bing Guan, Sandro Miller, and Lan Yik Fei — that involves “cultural and political suppression.”

The censored images by Butow, which depict protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019, were also the focus of censorship charges when they were pulled from the website of the Sony World Photography Awards in early 2020.

“It’s another example of this kind of interference,” Butow told PPD. “I was just really please to see the way Mark explained what happened.”

“Battleground Hong Kong, October 2019, by David Butow

The Chinese government wanted the disputed images in the two books replaced, but, notes Heflin, that wasn’t an option, since they had been selected by prominent industry juries. It was also too late in the process to find a new printer.

Instead, the book was printed with blank pages where the censored imagery would have gone. Then the printer in Hong Kong printed the disputed images separately and included them as loose inserts where they would normally have been bound in the books. “They weren’t allowed to include a text explanation of why the pages were blank, so the page only includes the artist’s name,” noted FastCompany. Heflin is including a note of explanation with all orders.

Created as a workaround solution, the blank pages in the book nonetheless read “as a powerful statement of creative resilience and a visual recognition of the fact that editorial independence isn’t a given in many countries,” notes FastCompany.

Heflin has also released a statement saying, “We understand our complicity in printing in China and are fully aware of the censorship concerns going forward. We are therefore exploring alternate printing options for next year’s annual book in order to uphold quality and ethical concerns in properly and affordably celebrating the winning image collection in hardcover."
At top: One of two censored images by Lan Yik Fei, showing Hong Kong protestors in 2019


  1. Richard Peterson commented on: April 12, 2021 at 12:37 p.m.
    Very interesting article, thank you!

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