If you have been following the current protests in Hong Kong and its now famous Umbrella Movement, chances are you’ve seen a photograph by Lam Yik Fei. Yik Fei is a young Hong Kong photojournalist who is fast making a name for himself, and not without reason. He is one of the hardest working photojournalists in this part of the world, filing quality reportage images left, right and centre. So what’s it like being an independent photojournalist walking the talk?
Invisible Ph t grapher Asia (IPA): Let’s begin with an introduction.
Lam Yik Fei: Born in 1986, I am an independent photojournalist based in Hong Kong, China. I work for The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and other leading publications on a freelance basis. My works are also distributed worldwide via Getty Images and Bloomberg News Photos.
Graduated from the photography school in 2004, I started my career as a staff photographer at Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong and then worked for Next Magazine. During the seven years, I was commissioned to cover a wide range of stories in the region.
Passionate and eager to take on exciting challenges, I established myself as an independent photojournalist in May 2011. After gaining solid experience in local media, I choose to explore photojournalism on the global stage. My works strive to bring visual awareness to social, environmental and human related issues. I documented the refugees’ lives in Thai-Burmese border, and accessed the Fukushima evacuation zone during Japan’s nuclear crisis. Apart from still images, I tell stories with multimedia. (Website: http://www.lamyikfei.com)
While everyone seems to be talking about the dismal state of work for photojournalists, you seem to be thriving and really carving a path. What are your thoughts on this, and your secret?
I am against the statement of “dismal state of work for photojournalists” or even “the death of photojournalism”. With technology advancement, the threshold of getting your photos published quickly is lowered and everyone has the potential to be a citizen journalist with a smartphone in hand. However, the importance of professional photojournalists is underlined at the same time. Speedy first-hand images from passers-by are valuable, but they cannot replace the reporting by professional journalists. We need more in-depth professional feature reporting in this age of information to tell the truth.
On the other hand, some attribute the dismal state of photojournalism to the rise of videos and new media. I see it as an opportunity rather than a challenge. The most invaluable thing for professional photojournalists is their ability to tell stories by visuals. Still image, motion, or new media are only mediums (or vehicles) and something technical. A successful and sensitive photojournalist should be able to make good use of all sorts of visual mediums and select the best one suitable for a particular story.
What are your thoughts on being an independent photojournalist versus having agency representation?
Having agency representation would be easier for a photojournalist to be recognised and pitch stories. But thanks to technology advancement, we do not need to fly to New York to submit our works to a photo editor nowadays. This can be done simply by sending an email. Thus, even if you work independently, it is not difficult for you to deliver your works to editors or even media outlets if they are good enough. The direct communication between an independent photojournalist and the client may be beneficial to the works too. Yet, I am more than happy to work with agencies if there is such chance.
What do you think of Nachtwey’s shot of Joshua Wong and the Time Cover itself?
James Nachtwey’s work is outstanding as always. An interesting observation is – James is so famous that many photojournalists or even protesters in Hong Kong recognise him. Some requested to take photos with him even when he is working. Some viewed his appearance as a symbol that Hong Kong has become a war zone. I realise that being extremely famous may not be a good thing for photojournalists as we always want to be invisible and bring less (personal) impact on the events we are covering.
What are your thoughts on Hong Kong Photography now and the future, in light of the current climate with China. Where is Hong Kong’s place and identity in photography?
Hong Kong enjoys a unique role. The city is a gateway to China, and enjoys much more press freedom than China. China as a rising power is full of news stories. Many foreign reporters dream to base there. We the Hong Kong photojournalists should cherish our competitive advantages and bring more good stories to the public. Besides, Hong Kong can serve as a bridge between China and overseas. We should build more connections and exchange channels with photojournalists in China and outside.
When we saw the Hong Kong protests and how the police reacted, we asked the question “Are the Policemen Hong Kongers as well?” So I guess the question to you would be how do you handle objectivity and subjectivity as a photojournalist when covering such events?
To my understanding, objectivity and subjectivity are not mutually exclusive. We should not blindly achieve the so-called objectivity or balance by giving same proportion of coverage to police versus protesters. That is not what a professional photojournalist should do. Instead, we should bring out a viewpoint that is built on solid ground of fairness, justification and facts. Then, we serve not only as a recorder, but also to tell news stories and the truth.
You have also covered the protests in Taiwan extensively, how was that experience similar or different to your own country Hong Kong?
I covered the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Frontline student protesters in both movements are of similar age. They share the same root causes like fear of the invasion from the Chinese Communist Party. Unlike the Taiwanese who view China as a foreign nation, Hong Kong protesters are having a complicated feeling. Most understand that the city is a part of China, but they are in the midst of an identity crisis after reunification with China. Separately, Taiwanese protesters are more open-minded towards physical actions or violence used in expressing their views. Hong Kong people tend to disconnect with all kinds of physical violence even when they protest. Perhaps that is why the Umbrella Movement earned a lot of support around the globe.
You have also travelled far for assignments in Africa. Tell us about that.
I went to Sierra Leone with MSF in March, mainly covering the lassa fever there. During the trip, I witnessed how fragile life can be. The patient I talked with in the morning might die on the same night. Every time when I took photos in the ward, I had to wear full protective gear to prevent infection. My trip was right before the outbreak of Ebola. I would hope to cover how medical officers fight against Ebola if I have the chance.
What or which was your most rewarding assignment or project to work on?
It is difficult to select one or two most rewarding projects. And it’s usually the people I come across with, instead of the project itself, which brings me the most reward. I am grateful that I have met many good fixers, friends, or even common people who offered help during my trips.
Besides, I feel accomplished when my story gets published. I enjoy fulfiling the obligation of telling the truth that I ought to tell. Sometimes bonuses come when readers offer assistance to my interviewees who were suffering.
Do you have time and interest for personal work outside of assignments?
I love photojournalism. It is my top interest. I am most grateful that I can make a living with what I am interested in, thanks to the freedom I enjoy as an independent photojournalist.
How are your influences as a photographer? in Hong Kong or internationally?
I think all photographers in Hong Kong can be the bridge between Hong Kong and the outside world. They can bring the stories in Hong Kong to overseas, and bring the international news back to Hong Kong people. Telling news stories to the most common people is the greatest influence we can have.
Is talent born or bred?
I think talent can be both born and bred; and paying efforts is more important for you to sustain and continuously develop good works. However, I think on top of talent or skills or techniques, your empathy to human nature, care about the world, and thirst for truth are of utmost importance. These are the real qualities for a professional photojournalist.
We just checked our archives, and you have contributed some work to IPA since 2011 when you first started your independent career. It’s great to see that your hardwork has paid off very fast and you’re getting more well-known now. What are some advices you can give to aspiring young photojournalists?
IPA is a good platform for photojournalists. It is based in Asia but have a global view. Its audience covers renowned photo editors and photographers. Some photo editors I worked with told me they saw my pictures at IPA before. I think young photojournalists should make good use of this platform, by submitting your good works and learning from other excellent stories published at IPA. By exploring all possibilities (and all you view as impossibilities), you will improve.