Two months was the entire time 39-year-old documentary photographer and former Her World Young Woman Achiever recipient Sim Chi Yin and first Singaporean Peace Prize photographer had to pull off a series of photographs that illustrate the nuclear weapons issue that we live with in the world today.
In that two months, Chi Yin went on a whirlwind journey across the China-North Korea border and six states in the United States as part of a commission to showcase this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapon.
Recounting her experience working on the project, she shared that time or the lack of was the biggest challenge that she had to overcome. “Having just two months and with an ambitious concept to boot made it all the more challenging. Also, it took a lot of strategy and wits to work at the China North Korea border.”
The fruit of her labour is “Most people were silent”, an exhibition composed of photographs taken in the vicinity of nuclear sites in North Korea and the United States of America. Collectively titled “Fallout,” the series was first commissioned in 2017 by Oslo’s Nobel Peace Centre and was reconfigured for LASALLE’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore.
The photographs were a “deliberate pairing between the two places (China North Korea border and the United States) to try to get people to ask questions about what they were looking at.”
“On first look, you can’t necessarily figure out where you’re looking at and that is a deliberate confusion I want to get at because I want people to ask be able to ask themselves questions on how do we judge certain countries in the world that we point fingers at and why? Why do some countries get to call others rogue states? And who gets to decide just how many wars is one too many?” She added.
Her photography works are driven by a desire to move people and sometimes them to action. For her, photographs have an important role to play in campaigns, even those for social causes, because we are an increasingly visual culture.
Read on to find out more about Chi Yin’s journey as a photographer and her experience working on the commission.
How does it feel to be the first Singaporean Nobel Peace Prize photographer?
As it is a very prestigious commission, I just said yes when they asked. I think Singaporeans tend to want to be the first in the world to do this or that. I think Singapore is a small country and I think it’s right that we are very self-conscious. But being first in Singapore is not something I think about. I see myself as a practitioner working in a very vast world pushing boundaries constantly without being self-conscious about it. This is a great honour and that is why I thought I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it as well as I could and without relation to my nationality or any other considerations.
At what point did you decide to pursue photography as a career?
I was exposed to photography in my late teens but I didn’t really get the chance to pursue photography as a career until until 2010 when I quit my job as a foreign correspondent at The Straits Times in China.
Were there any challenges along the way?
The path of a freelance visual practitioner is like any other artist or freelancer. Full of challenges and rejections. I think the successes that people see on social media make up five per cent of the time. The rest are failures. A lot of people ask me about going into the field because they see me as someone that has broken some glass ceiling as one of the very few Southeast Asian female photographers in the world.
I often say to them that you have to prepare for a lot of rejection if you want to get into this line of work and you have to be very resilient.It’s hard work and you have little breakthroughs every now and then but the successes that people see from outside are less than five per cent of the time. I’ve been lucky to meet mentors and I think I tried to maximise every opportunity that has come along.
As a female photographer, what are some of the roadblocks that you face in your line of work?
Your work should be judged on its own merit and not because you’re a woman. I don’t know that there have been ostensible roadblocks as a woman.
I think that male photographers get just about as many rejections but certainly there are physical limits. I am not as strong as many men and I choose to work in my own way with gear that I can manage and photograph in ways that I can cope with.
People are usually quite surprised to see a woman in the field. You walk into situations and people would already have their mind made about you. I either ignore it and get on with my work or I shatter their notions of what women can do.
Are there any misconceptions (about photography) that you would like to dispel?
Hopefully, with the inundation of pictures and imagery around us, we become more visually literate and professional photographers have to up their game and bring something more than just a great still image to the table.
Also, in Singapore, people have the idea that a photographer is a technical job but I think there’s a lot more to storytelling and knowing how to create narratives in your pictures than the term photographer connotes.
What has the Nobel commission allowed you to do that you’d not be able to do otherwise?
I wasn’t working on the nuclear issue before I got the commission. I really got into the issue and gained access to many places that I wouldn't otherwise have been able to. Also, it’s completely funded by the Nobel Peace Centre so it was amazing. Obviously shooting for the Nobel Peace committee opens some doors in the United States and people were genuinely very excited. Even in the missile silos, we got permission pretty quickly. I was able to walk all over these facilities. I think it was a great way to open doors for this sort of work in the future.
Sim Chi Yin: Most People Were Silent
Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore
Earl Lu Gallery
LASALLE College of the Arts
Now - 10 October 2018