How did you get from Canada to being a photojournalist in the Middle East at such a young age?
I was born in Taiwan, and my family moved to Canada long before I can remember. I grew up in Vancouver, a very multicultural city where more or less everyone I knew were immigrants who came from a far-flung corner of the world. In university, I studied languages and international relations, and so my focus in school was the Middle East, as all eyes of the world were on the Muslim world after 9/11. As part of my studies, I ended up in the Middle East as a political science student studying Arabic and Hebrew and trying to academically understand the forces that lead us to conflict. It was a time of intense turmoil in the region, so it didn’t take long to get caught up in the news.
I got into journalism because I found there was a disconnect between academia and the realities of what happened on the ground. In school we would study histories and political systems with such dispassionate analysis that the human toll of politics and conflict became lost in statistics and academic nomenclature. Seeing the troubled outcome of poor political decisions firsthand in the Middle East made me want to report on human stories, and look at how everyday citizens are affected by conflict. I began to shoot images for news wires — the Associated Press and Reuters — covering breaking news and feature stories. While I did not officially train as a photographer, I was lucky to be shooting next to some of the best photographers in the world, many of whom took me under their wing and taught me how to chase news, hone my personal vision and tell stories. I’ve been working in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia for the last few years, continuing to shoot news and long-term documentary projects, often working with The New York Times.
Even when you photograph harrowing subject matter, your images are visually very artistic. How do you balance aesthetics and narrative when you’re reporting on a story?
The perfect photo has the ability to take a singular moment and make viewers connect with the people in the frame. We live in a world where we are inundated by imagery, but strong photography balances aesthetics with storytelling value, which gives us information but draws us in to ask more questions. While we may come from different cultures, speak different languages and practice different religions, at end of the day, we are all human. So wherever I make photographs, I try to find moments that show not what makes us different, but universal moments that anybody can relate to, regardless of background. In my storytelling, I try to spend time building intimacy with subjects so the essence of their characters, their hopes, dreams, or flaws and insecurities come out — so they become the ones who are telling their own stories.
The most important thing about journalism is that our photographs serve as evidence that these events we have captured occurred. Whether it is to hold governments and armies to account for their actions, inform the public on injustices and exploitation playing out in our communities, or to create a time capsule of the defining moments in our history for future generations to look back on, they must represent the truth. Of course, “truth” is so subjective, so I spend a lot of time trying to be objective, to photograph people without judgment and without my own personal politics. It is often difficult.
Tell me about the images in Under a Nuclear Cloud. This strikes me as a quietly powerful, hidden story.
I started reading about Central Asia in university, and I realized that I knew very little about the region. The more I dug, the more I was taken aback by the scope of injustices that occurred during the Cold War. In the Semipalatinsk region of northeastern Kazakhstan, hundreds of nuclear weapons were test-detonated by the Soviet military, exposing millions of civilians to nuclear radiation and poisoning the land. Many are still affected to this day, with babies born with a high number of birth defects and conditions linked to radiation.
So I went to document the city and villages surrounding the test site. I was quickly struck by people’s perseverance and compassion, tirelessly caring for their children born with severe birth defects and handicaps. It was a very underreported issue, but an important cautionary tale that shows what happens when governments and militaries worry more about their political and military might than their own people — something that unfortunately plays out in so many ways to this day.
You were a young journalist in Egypt reporting on revolution amongst peers. Was it difficult not to become caught up in their cause so that you could report objectively?
Reporting on youth in Middle East, there is a very fine line between being an objective observer, and a peer going through the motions with them. It is one of the paradoxes of journalism, where we must report the truth with objectivity and no bias — but in order to have intimate access to people’s lives and the struggles they are going through, we need to be able to gain their trust, and live their lives with them exactly as it unfolds. By doing that, we become invested in their stories. It definitely becomes harder to be objective, which is why it is sometimes important to take a step back, or take a break from stories, so you can look back with more of a distance.
Do you think that youth generally have greater power to effect world events than those of previous generations? And what role does technology play?
I think youth movements have always been idealistic and emotional — whether they actually contribute to any kind of meaningful change is another story. Technology is definitely creating a more united front, and it is showing youth around the world that a lot of the grievances that we have are universal ones. That said, technology alone isn’t enough to create change — it merely lights the fire. It is up to youth to translate that to changing institutions from within through protest, voting a certain way or taking an active part in politics, and contributing to building a civil society that they would like to be a part of.
You were recently in Gaza reporting on the conflict there. What did you take away from that experience?
In Gaza, protracted conflict is a fact of life. Reporting in Israel/Palestine as a whole is very frustrating, because you see the extremes of how set people on both sides are in their ways, and their fear of “the other.” I am myself very torn about the politics of the situation — I can see the grievances of both sides of the conflict, Israeli and Palestinian. Neither justifies many of the actions that happen, but what’s for sure is that civilians on both sides end up paying the price for the often misguided decisions of politicians, military leaders and militants.
What is it like to be photographing in a war zone? How does this work, on a practical level?
Photographing in places of turmoil can be difficult, and there is a lot of preparation that one has to make. Safety is the top priority before heading into any conflict zone. You have to consider every variable, and imagine every situation that may occur, and have a plan in case something happens. Every situation is different, and you just need to be able to quickly adapt to anything that comes up.
I try to carry around as little as possible so I can move around quickly. In breaking news situations, I often have to photograph and send off images as quickly as possible so they can be used in print the same day, or often the same hour on the internet. It can be intensely stressful at times, juggling personal safety, being where the key moments are happening, and also being able to send off your photos. But it is also quite rewarding and humbling when your images are used to show things as they happen, and add to our collective consciousness and inform the world.
How has the TED fellowship had an impact on your life and work so far?
So far the TED fellowship has been an amazing opportunity to connect with likeminded individuals, and to find drive in inspiration through other people’s passions — even if it is in no way related to my field. While we may have been in disparate professions, I found we had a lot in common, a lot of the same aspirations, goals and, oftentimes, insecurities. It was a kind of group therapy for geeks and overachievers. I left the conference with a newfound sense of conviction in what I do, and couldn’t wait to get back to work.