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READING: How to Photograph Pain
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LAST SEPTEMBER, Singaporean freelance photographer Sim Chi Yin was commissioned to shoot the Nobel Peace laureate. The only hitch was that she had no clue who her subject was going to be.

“When the Nobel thing came up, some people were like, ‘What if it’s Donald Trump?’ Which means hanging out in Trump’s white house for a week,” says Sim. “I’m open to shooting anything and anyone. Of course, there are people I photograph but may not want to have late night drinks with. But I think every person has a story, it’s just a matter of whether you draw them out.”

That uncertainty was put to rest on October 6, 2017. The winner wasn’t a single individual. The challenge was to capture the spirit of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a global activist group.

“I have a geek side of my brain, I like to get my head around tough issues. Then I tried to figure out how do we make this very heavy, technical, very polarizing topic, interesting and accessible for regular people,” says Sim.

To capture last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Sim Chi Yin travelled to the Chinese-North Korean border and the United States. Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft
Singaporean Sim Chi Yin isn’t concerned with labels. Call her a photojournalist or an artist, it doesn’t matter as long as the story gets told.Photo by Joel Low / Hair & Make up by Benedict Choo

If anyone could do it, it’s Sim, says Liv Tørres, Nobel Peace Center’s Executive Director.

She told Keyyes: “Out of the large pool of talented photographers worldwide, we believed that Sim Chi Yin —with her portfolio and experience in documentary photography, together with her unique perspective and creativity — would be able to provide us with an evocative and vivid exhibition.”

The Beijing-based photographer’s resume is brimming with an ever-growing list of accolades.

Sim’s photos have graced world famous publications such as The New York Times, National Geographic, and The New Yorker. In June 2018, she became the first South-east Asian to join Magnum Photos. The prestigious co-operative is home to the world’s best photographers, such as the late founder Henri Cartier-Bresson.

She is also the first Singaporean Nobel Peace Prize Photographer. The gung-ho lass embarked on a two-month trip, capturing images at the China-North Korea border and the United States of America.

The multi-disciplinary installation titled Fallout is now on display at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Tørres says: “Chi Yin managed to capture the reality, tensions and human perspective of the nuclear threats and our current global challenges.”

For now, Sim has brought her work back to the country she calls home. Her exhibition Most People Were Silent, featuring her Fallout series, will be exhibited at LASALLE College of the Arts’ Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore from now till Oct 10.

Sim talks to Keyyes about the hard-hitting world of documentary photography.

Keyyes: Where do you start, to photograph a crisis?

Sim Chi Yin: I don’t think it works to just document what is extremely dramatic. One of my mentors, Fred Ritchin, always said: “Don’t photograph where the rock hits the water, photograph the ripples it creates.”

How do you remain objective when documenting pain?

As a documentary photographer, objectivity goes out the window. You can’t pretend to be objective (like a news reporter) and demand full access to somebody’s time of crisis. It just doesn’t work that way. If you want this kind of access, which you need to make those stories, you have to give something back.

It’s not rocket science to figure out that if I spent three years in this person’s life, I am either angry, upset, or I’m passionate about an issue. I don’t pretend that silicosis is something that I’m objective about. I’m not. It’s China’s leading occupational disease. It’s incurable once you get it, but it is actually preventable, that’s why I was extra upset. 

Most People Were Silent is shown at LASALLE College of the Arts’ Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore till Oct 10. Photo Courtesy of LASALLE
Sim’s project Fallout is part of Ban the Bomb exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo. Photo Courtesy of Nobel Peace Centre 

How affecting was it chronicling the demise of Chinese gold miner He Quangui, whose lung tissue hardened to the point it was hard to breathe? 

I was emotionally spent creating the series Dying To Breathe. I cried for years for this family, of no relation to me. Their fate was part of my life for four years. Every up and down, I was there. I was He Quangui’s counsellor, his son’s counsellor. I flew out there to take him to the hospital for surgery. I became much more involved in their lives, more than I expected and bargained for.

I can’t keep doing that, emotionally, it was very draining. I decided to take a break from very direct work. It’s a very moving kind of photography, it makes it accessible to regular people. But it also simplifies the issue. The issue of silicosis is much more complex than the story this one family conveys.

How has the way you present your work evolved?

I’m really in an experimental phase with my practice. I’m figuring out how best to convey very complex ideas in an accessible way. But with slightly more sophisticated messaging and more nuanced layers of storytelling.

Now my work is more research-based, it’s slower, it’s more intentional. It is also tied to the fact that I was injured three years ago — my thumb was ripped by North Koreans (in the course of work). I became more reflective. I asked myself what am I doing in the world. All these short-term news stories, running and gunning, risking body parts to illustrate somebody else’s words. I asked myself is this what I want to do as I go into my forties. The answer is no. I want to do work that is more thought through. 

A photographer needs an audience. Who is your audience? 

I don’t know if I have a specific audience in mind. I think anyone who is a concerned citizen of the world should care. They see the photos, hopefully, it makes them contemplate. Why should we care about the nuclear issue? It’s a global issue, it ranks alongside climate change as the two biggest threats to human life as we know it. You can try out the Outrider website, it brings home the idea of the threat to people which can feel abstract.

We think that it’s for the governments and defence ministers to solve. But I think we can get our heads into it, try to understand it. The argument of anti-nuclear groups is that as individuals you can write and lobby your country’s politicians. At ICAN website, you can send a letter to your local MP.

Do you have to be fearless as a social issues photographer? 

I don’t think of myself as fearless. I deal with each situation as it unfolds. Of course, I’ve done some crazy ass things like infiltrating a gold mine by pretending to deliver lunch.I went in with a gold miner’s sister-in-law. We were sloshing around for two hours inside and we were completely lost. That’s when it hit me, that it was a really bad idea.

At that point, I wasn’t thinking of how dangerous it was. If I can’t show them the source of this disease, how can I make people understand where it comes from and why people get sick?

Everyone takes pictures so easily today. What are you bringing to the table?

I think I bring that layer of thinking. That layer of intention. I think that’s what is necessary now. Everyone can take a nice decent single image now, even my mother would compete with me to take a nice portrait of my grandmother. My lighting is better, I’m there with my reflector and she is there with her little Samsung handphone snapping. My mother is 72.

See more of her work at Sim Chiyin Studio