In late October of 2020, Mark Heflin received a surprising phone call.
Heflin is the director of American Illustration – American Photography, which produces hardcover, juried annuals. The call was from the Hong Kong-based printer of that year’s annual award books, American Illustration 39 and American Photography 36. Though the printer was already months into the process, 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. But he’d never paid close attention to the details of the production operations, he says, and this year, those details resulted in the books being censored. (They are now available for purchase and will be sent out in April.)
The books feature a juried selection of the best American trade photography and illustrations over the past year from professional photographers, agencies, and publications. Being included in the annual compilation is akin to an industry award.
What Heflin didn’t realize was that the books were actually produced in mainland China, not Hong Kong, and production ground to a halt because the Chinese government found thirteen of the images in the books to be “offending,” according to Heflin. They refused to allow the books to be printed as long as those images were in them. Heflin wasn’t given any further explanation.
China has long censored content within its own borders and in recent years has tried to exert more pressure on content abroad as well. (Heflin attributes the censorship to increased tensions between the U.S. and China over the past couple of years.)
Heflin realized that each of the “offending” images, whether photograph or illustration, had something in common—they depicted Chinese subject matter: the Hong Kong protests, Chinese students wearing masks, a Time cover illustration depicting Chinese president Xi Jinping. It didn’t matter that all the images were already public or that they weren’t even necessarily depicting anything negative.
Heflin’s printer told him the Chinese government said the images had to be replaced or the job would be shut down. But since the selections had already been voted on by the jury, replacing them wasn’t an option. It was also too late in the process to find a new printer. So Heflin’s printer suggested another way.
They decided to move forward and produce the books with blank pages where the disputed graphics would’ve 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. (Heflin plans to include a separate note of explanation with all orders.)
Although the use of negative space reads as a powerful statement of creative resilience and a visual recognition of the fact that editorial independence isn’t a given in many countries, Heflin says they weren’t trying to make a point. They were simply trying to find a functional workaround to get the books into people’s hands. Blank pages often occur in book design to pace content or to give a powerful visual more impact, he says. But he concedes “in this case, it’s not a moment of quiet”—it was their “only course of protest or dissent.”
And, in the end, it worked.