How far would you go to convince a Chinese miner, terminally ill with silicosis, that you would share his story with the world? Beijing-based documentary photographer Sim Chi Yin travelled for hours by plane, bus and motorbike to reach a tiny mining village in China’s rural and mountainous Shaanxi province—only to battle with his disinterest for days.
“In rural China, where reporters and photographers are viewed with suspicion, personal stories – whether tragic or triumphant – are not willingly shared, nor openly discussed,” says Chi Yin, summarising the difficulties of her task.
Yet, it is in this challenging environment that the newspaper-journalist-turned-freelance-photographer has thrived for the past four years.
Her impressive portfolio spans top international publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time and Le Monde.
Armed with just her camera and a steely resolve, she has committed her career to shedding light on labour and migrant issues that are often bypassed by the mainstream press. “I want to give a voice to those who can’t otherwise be heard—whether that means sleeping in a tiny room above a Chinese miner’s fruit stall for a week to convince him of my sincerity, or entering the cramped underground homes of migrant workers in Beijing to document their lives,” she says.
Such a unique mix of authenticity and dedication is what makes Chi Yin’s body of work so compelling. Not just an objective fly-on-the-wall photographer or a spellbinding storyteller, she is a rare mix of the two, managing to stay true to the world of her subjects while creating powerful visuals that require no written narrative.
Oh, and she’s only 35 years old.
IN THE PURSUIT OF PASSION
Chi Yin has built a successful photojournalism career in just four years, but her resume prior to that was already impressive.
She received a scholarship from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), and studied history and international relations at the London School of Economics (now the London School of Economics and Political Science), graduating top of her cohort with first-class honours in 2001.
She spent the next nine years reporting for The Straits Times, during which her hard-hitting features on migrant and labour issues established her voice in civil society and made her an expert in these fields. She has also won both local and international editorial acclaim for her works—her stories on Indonesian migrant workers, the Athens Paralympics and the Khmer Rouge, for instance, won multiple Feature Of The Month honours at SPH. She also bagged the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2008 and 2010.
In 2007, she became the China correspondent for The Straits Times. Based in Beijing, the job came with all the prestige and perks associated with a cushy overseas posting. It seemed perfect, at least on paper—a stable, salaried life and a blossoming career. But Chi Yin knew her real ambition didn’t lie behind a pen but behind a lens.
She recalls: “My heart has always been in photography—something I’d fallen in love with when I was in my late teens. Even though I was deemed ‘too qualified’ to be a photographer after I graduated with a Masters degree, the truth is I’ve never felt more alive than when I was creating images, capturing the intersection of time, light and life.”
As a journalist, Chi Yin tried to find middle ground, indulging in her passion by taking photographs while reporting for the newspaper. But she quickly realised that as a print journalist, her pictures always ended up playing second fiddle.
The turning point came in 2010, when she was awarded a Magnum Foundation scholarship for a three-month summer programme in documentary photography at New York University. “Meeting other documentarians, interning at Magnum, and basically soaking up all that knowledge in New York laid the foundation for my second career as a freelance photographer,” she says.
So in 2011, Chi Yin quit her foreign correspondent job – but remained in Beijing – to pursue her dream of becoming a documentary photographer.
“Photography felt like a long-rejected mistress whom I needed to get back to,” she says with a laugh. “So I did.”
GETTING INTO THE GAME
Chi Yin’s mid-career move has proven to be a good decision. In June 2011, she was selected for the prestigious photo agency VII’s Mentor Program, where she was mentored by renowned documentary photographer Marcus Bleasdale for the next three years.
Last year, she won the Discernment Award and the People’s Choice Award at the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu awards, Singapore’s most prestigious photography competition. She was also a finalist in the 2013 W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography, was among the Photo District News’s top 30 emerging photographers last year, and was on the British Journal of Photography’s Ones To Watch list for 2014. All these were, of course, secondary to her growing portfolio of work for top international dailies and magazines.
However, breaking into the international market and achieving success has given rise to some misconceptions about her career, Chi Yin lets on. This is especially with regard to the fame and money that supposedly comes with her international photojournalism role.
“I have a constant stream of work, but I’m always incredulous when people assume that photographing for top international publications means I’m raking it in,” she says. “Since leaving The Straits Times, I’ve cut my expenses to a third of what they used to be. I’ve had to downgrade from my fancy apartment and truly learn to run a business—including managing my own archives, funding, gear and accounts.”
She reveals that her late entry into photojournalism made the initial adjustment period more challenging. Unlike many of her peers, who’d been on the ground since their early 20s, Chi Yin was 31 when she got into the game, and she had to learn everything about being a freelancer from scratch.
Chi Yin credits her mentors, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale and Fred Ritchin, a professor at New York University, for getting her through those first few months, which were overwhelming. “They were my sounding board on stories, issues and practical questions—it made all the difference.”
One upside was being in China. “There are many jobs for freelancers here,” she explains. “I love Beijing’s complexity—it offers varied realities, with so many stories to tell.” Which explains why four years after leaving her foreign correspondent role, she still has no desire to leave Beijing.
This year, she was made a full member of VII, the only photographer to be voted in this year. This makes her VII’s 20th member, the only Asia-based photographer to have made the cut.
SUCCESS FOR THE PASSIONATE SOUL
Ask her about her achievements and Chi Yin is quick to wave them off—this is one lady who focuses on her work, not her accolades. Little wonder then that she prefers looking at the world from behind the camera than standing in front of it.
She’s always been passionate about her work, she says. It’s a sentiment shared by those who have known her since her days at Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (SCGS).
“She was always an old soul, quiet and observant in a way that made her thoughtful beyond her years,” says Julie Lee, former registrar at SCGS. “As the school’s unofficial photographer, she displayed a meticulous and perfectionist streak even while capturing something as mundane as the installation of new water coolers in the hallways.”
It was at school that Chi Yin developed a passion for social justice, sensitising her to the plight of the less privileged. “I never had one big moment of social awakening. Instead, I think my teachers slowly shaped my thoughts about moral courage and living a purposeful life. It’s a consciousness that carried me through my years as a journalist; it fuelled my work at the grassroots level to address under-represented labour and migrant issues.”
So invested was she in labour issues that between 2006 and 2009, while holding a full-time job at The Straits Times, Chi Yin made multiple trips to Java on her own time and at her own expense to photograph female domestic workers who were preparing to make their journey to Singapore. In 2011, she compiled her photographs and essays about their struggles and triumphs into a book titled The Long Road Home, which was published by the International Labour Organization.
AN EYE FOR DETAIL
Although Chi Yin rarely writes now, she still spends months researching her topics before photographing begins, speaking to everyone from experts in the field to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). She also keeps detailed journals of her thoughts, feelings and interviews.
Her diligence surprises even close professional collaborators. Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author who has worked with Chi Yin on stories for The New York Times, jokes that her level of commitment can be intimidating, especially when she knows more about the story than even the journalist writing it. “She takes time to understand the story behind the picture before documenting it,” he says. “That’s quite rare and refreshing for a photographer, particularly one who’s relatively new to the game.”
This authenticity in her work manifests in the intimacy she captures in her photos. These range from a quiet embrace between husband and wife before the latter leaves for Singapore to work as a maid, to the pained expressions of a Chinese miner struggling to breathe as his lung disease slowly enters its terminal stages.
BATTLING THE ODDS
Chi Yin insists that she has a lot more learning to do. One of her greatest struggles is having to negotiate a balance between being emotionally guarded and avoiding becoming distant and jaded.
“While working in China, I’ve had my camera taken away, been cornered in a street by thugs and had my email hacked,” says Chi Yin. “But for me, the biggest challenge is when you’re required to be professional and emotionally brave… even in the face of the most trying situations.”
And she’s had her fair share of tough moments, especially while working on her ongoing project, Dying To Breathe, which just might be her most difficult one yet. It chronicles the life of a miner dying of silicosis, an irreversible lung disease that results from long-term exposure to silica in mines.
“I built a deep relationship with this miner and his wife over the past three years, staying at their home for weeks while photographing their lives,” she tells me. “I’ve eaten many bowls of noodles with them and had the privilege of watching their beautiful love story as a fly-on-the-wall photographer. But that also made it so much harder for me when he repeatedly collapsed, running out of breath, and all I could do was hide behind my camera.”
She has shed many tears for the couple – the raw emotions rendered her unable to edit the photos without feeling intensely sad for weeks afterwards – but being the only witness to these emotionally wrenching scenes also kept her motivated. “These people let me into their lives, so I owe it to them to be true to their world,” she shares. “Being a photographer should be about more than getting a tear sheet in a big international magazine; the best of documentary photography gives a voice to people who don’t have one. It’s quite a responsibility, but it’s also what makes the job meaningful.”
For Chi Yin, it is imperative that her work doesn’t just stop with her pictures. While working on Dying To Breathe, she collected footage to create a short film to accompany her photographs. She is also working with a Chinese NGO to run health-education campaigns to educate and engage mining communities as well as government bodies on the issue. An app to increase awareness is also in the pipeline.
“Silicosis is irreversible once contracted, but it’s completely preventable with simple protective measures such as masks, water drills, good ventilation and regular health checks,” says Chi Yin.
“If my work can help increase awareness among miners, mining companies and the government about the small changes they can make to save lives, the story would have made a difference.”
MAKING GRANDFATHER PROUD
Chi Yin gets excited when she talks about her new project, which explores how her family’s fortune changed after her grandfather was deported to China during the Malayan Emergency in 1949.
Thought to be a Chinese Communist Party guerrilla cadre, her grandfather was detained without trial in mid-1948 by the British colonial administration, then deported to China with other suspected leftists in a move to curb the Malayan Communist Party insurgency. Upon his return to China, he took to the hills to fight the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Party. Chi Yin’s relatives said he was captured at 38, jailed, then shot dead.
Though her grandfather is listed as a martyr in China’s official historical records, he was never brought up in conversation by her family while Chi Yin was growing up. Fearful that the family would be considered communists, her grandmother severed ties with relatives in China when they moved to Malaya.
Three years ago, Chi Yin came across a photograph of her grandfather – tanned, with a box camera slung around his neck – and her interest was piqued. Recently, she went with her family to Gaoshang village in the Guangdong province to visit a monument dedicated to him. Her research unearthed that he used to be chief editor at Ipoh Daily Newspaper and possessed a strong sense of social justice and advocacy, speaking up for his community in Malaya whenever necessary.
I point out that she’d turned out to be uncannily like him: Both share a strong sense of conviction and commitment to fighting for causes close to their hearts. She jokes: “Finding out about my grandfather’s life made me feel vindicated about my career choices. Even my parents now say that perhaps the social-consciousness genes skipped a generation and I inherited my sense of social purpose from him.”
It really does seem as if Chi Yin is following in her grandfather’s footsteps. Though little is known about the man or his life, one thing can be said with certainty: Chi Yin would have made him very proud.