Matthew Theunissen

Matthew Theunissen is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Pics land NZ-based snapper in cell

Ratcliff's aerial photographs of the Forbidden City got him in trouble with Chinese authorities. Photo / Trey Ratcliff
Ratcliff's aerial photographs of the Forbidden City got him in trouble with Chinese authorities. Photo / Trey Ratcliff

Trey Ratcliff says he simply wanted to get beautiful aerial pictures of the Forbidden City and had no idea his drone quadcopter was flying over sensitive government buildings in central Beijing.

The New Zealand-based photographer was briefly detained by Chinese police who confiscated the device until he left the country.

Ratcliff said this week he had spent the past five days flying the quadcopter around Beijing with a camera mounted on it.

He took it to the picturesque Forbidden City, a world heritage site, without knowing that just behind a row of trees were a number of sensitive Government buildings.

His Chinese assistant was approached by a "surly looking" female police officer and they were escorted to a police station, passing through a series of secure doors.

"I had a feeling that I was in a rather sensitive area that I did not know about.

So I was sure I had indeed done something wrong, but I just didn't know what."

The pair were questioned by a male officer, who examined the quadcopter while the female officer recorded them on a camera.

"I basically explained that I was a photographer, and I like getting unique angles. I simply like taking photos and making Beijing look beautiful. I noticed they liked to hear this and were a bit surprised."

Ratcliff then gave the officers a slide-show of his photographs from around the world.

"I think they saw that I was an artist and had no interest in taking photos of sensitive things," he said.

They returned the quadcopter but the next morning more Chinese police showed up at his hotel to confiscate it again.


Ratcliff says he plans to return to Beijing. Photo / Trey Ratcliff

"They agreed to bring it to the airport before I left Beijing. I doubted I would ever see the thing again, but, sure enough, they showed up."

Ratcliff told the Herald on Sunday that he had never been frightened and planned to return to Beijing.

"I think some of their government buildings are near there, but I had no interest in taking photos of those. I was shooting beautiful temples and the like. But I understand why they are sensitive," he said.

Ratcliff lives in Queenstown.

- Herald on Sunday

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