It's often said that a picture says a thousand words. From fashion photographer Mario Testino, to the father of photo-journalism Alfred Eisenstaedt, photo-journalists have had the ability to capture the imaginations of people all around the world. Many have been captivated by the economy of a great picture, one that is able to say so much with so little, one that is able to rouse more emotion than a bevy of words. Such is the power of photo-journalism.
By Liu Lian Feng
How different are photo-journalists from photographers? Have you ever taken a look at a photo, started moving on to the next, only to hesitate and go back for a second look? Have you ever looked at a photo and understood in an instant the story behind it? That’s the difference. Photo-journalists don’t just take pictures – they compose essays, albeit in images.
Career Central focuses its lens on two local photo-journalists to find out more about their profession. They are: Bryan van der Beek, 29, photojournalist for The Straits Times, and Casey Seyu, 30, photojournalist for the Lianhe Zaobao.
Q: Tell us about how you got started as a photo-journalist.
Bryan: I studied journalism at Indiana University in the United States, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. During my studies, I enrolled at a visual communications class, and found it to be more engaging than writing. Writers and journalists are able to write and file their stories without even leaving the office, while photo-journalists get to go out into the field to see and experience things. You get to see something new everyday.
Casey: Fashion design was my major at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, but you will starve to death if you pursued a career in fashion in Singapore. You can say that it was practical circumstances that made me take up photo-journalism as a career. I was interested in it back in school as I had friends from the graphics and interior design faculties. I used to poke around the dark room with them and I managed to have them teach me the tricks of the trade.
Q: What kind of training did you receive?
Bryan: I did internships with three US newspapers and one with The Straits Times while I was still studying at university. I eventually graduated with a specialisation in photo-journalism. I returned to Singapore and worked for a while as a freelance photographer for Business Week. I officially joined The Straits Times back in September 2004.
Casey: I have no formal education in photo-journalism and learnt a lot of it through trial and error. My first job was with an advertising agency where I started out as an apprentice. I was lucky to have had some good colleagues who provided a lot of help and advice. My roots in fashion design turned out to be very useful as well.
Q: Do you have any interesting experiences to share?
Bryan: My biggest assignment to date was the tsunami disaster in December last year. I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, one week in Maldives and one week in Chennai to cover the tsunami-hit areas. It was a life-changing and harrowing experience, and definitely something that you won’t have a chance to see in another job. I had to learn how to react quickly while on assignment. The whole experience has given me an appreciation of how things can happen out of the blue, and you marvel at how a single event can change so many people’s lives.
I was also working at Tan Tock Seng Hospital during the SARS crisis, where I covered the situation at the intensive care unit. It was really scary and I had to be very careful not to get infected as well. The experience gave me a newfound respect for healthcare workers.
Casey: I was in Sri Lanka in early 2005 to cover the tsunami disaster. It was an eye-opening experience, and I realised how lucky I was to live in a peaceful country like Singapore.
I have one funny experience to share: when I was working at the Singapore Armed Forces, I was the smallest – as well as the only – female in the company and I found it amusing that people were always giving me this look that said, “What is this little girl doing here?” I was once assigned to shoot a military exercise, and I was swept off my feet by a helicopter that was taking off. It was the first of many more times that I would be blown away by a helicopter!
Because of my petite size, I’ve often been physically pushed and jostled around while on assignments. People outside the high court and sub courts have also tried to attack me before, which can be pretty amusing at times.
Q: How have your friends and family reacted to your career choice?
Bryan: My family has always been very supportive, and they’ve never put any pressure on me. They’re happy so long as I’m happy. Working as a photo-journalist can be tiring at times, but my friends think it’s glamorous and cool. I guess it’s because it’s not a job that you usually hear about.
Casey: My parents are always worried about me as they know that I get pushed around during my assignments. They also worry about my health and it can be very stressful for them whenever I’m sent to cover stories in disaster-stricken areas, or whenever I’m expected to accompany officials on overseas trips. My friends, on the other hand, are very supportive and they are proud of what I do. Some of them even call to tell me that they’ve seen my photos in the newspapers.
Q: What inspires you to keep going?
Bryan: For me, it’s the idealism of the job that keeps me going. It’s about giving people something that they’ve never seen before, and about lending voices to people who wouldn’t have had one if not for me. A veteran reporter once told me, “I think of it not from my perspective but from that of the person I’m interviewing. It’s his 15 minutes of fame, and it will be recorded for all posterity.”
Casey: It’s definitely passion that motivates me. It allows me to keep doing something that I enjoy.
Q: Do you have any role-models that you look up to?
Bryan: I’ve worked with many photographers and mentors during my internships in the United States. I don’t have any particular role model, but you could say that I’ve taken bits and pieces from all the people I’ve worked with and created one for myself.
Casey: I have too many to count. One of my favourite role-models is award-winning photographer, Steve McCurry, who has covered several wars in many different countries. McCurry is famous for his cover photo of the Afghan refugee girl, Sharbat Gula, which was taken for the National Geographic in 1984. He later went on a journey to locate her, and found her again only recently, in 2002.
Q: Are you working on any exciting new projects?
Bryan: I was in Tokyo recently for a personal project which focuses on cities. It’s not a ‘Lost In Translation’ type of shoot. I was just there to walk around the city, and to shoot whatever I saw.
Casey: I’m helping a friend with her personal blog. I’m taking photos of ordinary people that I see everyday. My goal is to produce a coffee table book illustrating people from all walks of life. I’m currently looking to feature alternative lifestyles in Singapore - gays and lesbians - as I see the beauty behind it.