World Press Photo exhibition: ST speaks to Sim Chi Yin, Sarker Protick and Pete Muller

The World Press Photo exhibition, presented by The Straits Times, showcases some winning photos from the annual photojournalism contest of the same name. Neo Xiaobin and Desmond Lim speak to contest jury member Sim Chi Yin and award winners Sarker Protick and Pete Muller

Pete Muller


PHOTO: REMI POGNANTE

An image of medical staff escorting a man, weak and delirious in the final stages of the deadly Ebola virus attack, back into the isolation ward from which he has escaped, starts the winning sequence of photographs on Ebola in Sierra Leone by photographer Pete Muller. The series won the General News, first prize stories in last year's World Press Photo contest.

But for the 33-year-old American photographer and researcher based in Nairobi, Kenya, his favourite picture in the set of 10 is the most "un-Ebola" picture of them all. It shows residents of the town of Kailahun in eastern Sierra Leone, a place most heavily affected by the outbreak, along a river at dusk.

"I feel that the picture is a really important picture that gives people room to step back and remember that this was happening in a beautiful place where people were just trying to keep living their ordinary lives in all that chaos," he explains.

"There's just too much of a tendency for photojournalists to go to a place and every picture you see is of the thing that everybody is interested in or expecting to see. In many instances, there is a lot going on around the outskirts of such pictures that is both interesting and important."

 
 

The quiet photo, depicting a man standing in a corner, a boy lying on a rock and women washing their clothes in the river as the sun sets, is reminiscent of landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt and other painters of the Hudson River School, whose works emphasise humans dwarfed by the beauty of the environment.

Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, in museums and darkrooms, Muller comes from a line of visual artists. His mother is a press photographer who gave him his first camera, his father an arts conservator, his paternal grandfather was a studio portrait photographer, and his maternal grandfather was Leon Kelly, one of the pioneers of surrealist painting in the United States.

As much as he resisted their influence when he was younger, the environment became a subconscious influence on his style and visual aesthetics.

A member of an eight-man photographic collective, Prime, he began his career as a journalist in 2005 in the Palestinian territories as he wanted to see how the IsraeliPalestinian conflict transpired on the ground. It was one of the central components of his historical study - he studied the contemporary history of modern ethnic conflicts at the American University in Washington, DC.

Muller transitioned into photography after two years because it allowed him "to not only engage in journalism and history, but also do it in a visually artistic way".

His work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic magazine, among other leading photographic outlets.

In 2011, as a contributing photographer to Associated Press, he was named Wire Photographer of the Year by Time. In 2013, his work on gun culture in the US was awarded third place in the Sony World Photography Awards and, in the same contest, he received honorable mention for his coverage of the border conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. His series for Ebolaalso won first prize in the World Health category, Pictures of the Year International, last year.

He has worked in Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and his work focuses largely on conflict, masculinity and national identity in post-colonial states, issues that resonate because of his lengthy struggles with the conventional masculine identity.

He was raised in a community where it was considered unmasculine to express sadness, dejection and depression. He participated in fist fights until he was in his 20s and it felt like a badge of honour to be a tough guy. It was only later that he realised his anger was really a lot of sadness that he was not connecting with.

Muller, who is married with no children, says: "My feeling is that for men who are inclined to express themselves in rage, violence and anger, often times there's a lot of emotional complexities under that. If we can grapple with how we define masculinity, maybe we can see some positive developments in terms of dealing with men and violence."

Neo Xiaobin


Sim Chi Yin

(Top) Former gold miner He Quangui, 41, who is dying of silicosis, with his wife Mi Shixiu, 36, who takes care of his every need and the family. The pair were part of Sim Chi Yin's (above) Dying To Breathe project.
PHOTO: ALAN LIM

"A world-famous photojournalist and a human rights activist."

This was what a classmate in National Junior College had predicted for Sim Chi Yin, written down on a Filofax page 20 years ago.

It could not have been more accurate. Sim, 37, is now an award-winning photojournalist focusing on social issues in Asia, doing photography, video and multimedia commissions for major publications such as Time and The New York Times.

She is represented by the prestigious New York-based VII photo agency.

Next month, she joins the 2016 World Press Photo contest as a jury member. This year's photo contest will be chaired by Francis Kohn, photo director of Agence FrancePresse.

She is the third Singaporean to be part of the jury after Ms How Hwee Young last year and Mr Wee Beng Huat in 1985 and is looking forward to an intense week of debates and discussions with fellow jury members from both journalism and art backgrounds. Mr Wee was then group picture editor of The Straits Times, while Ms How is European Pressphoto Agency's chief photographer for China.

"I think it'll be an amazing experience seeing the spectrum of documentary photography that has been produced in the past year," she says. 

Her work is driven by a sense of social justice, whether in photographing Chinese miners affected by silicosis - an occupational lung disease caused by the prolonged breathing of coal mine dust - in Dying To Breathe, a four-year personal project released last year, or in The Long Road Home that was published in 2011, in which she documented the lives of Indonesian women migrant workers.

Sim's father is a retired teacher and her mother, who is also retired, used to run a childcare centre.

Describing herself as "obsessed with the idea of usefulness" in her late teens, she says: "I knew exactly how I wanted to be a useful person in society and how I would live it out - through writing and photography."

For her, advocacy and journalism go hand in hand. "Photography and art are very good ways of surfacing some of those hard issues in a softer kind of way."

She notes that in many countries, photographers, artists, film-makers and writers are often the ones at the forefront of surfacing social issues and getting them into the public consciousness.

She read history and international relations degrees at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Based in Beijing since 2007, she was a journalist and foreign correspondent for The Straits Times for nine years before quitting to pursue her first love - photography.

In the five years since going freelance, the petite photographer received the Her World Young Woman Achiever award in 2014 and was on the British Journal Of Photography's One To Watch list of photographers. In 2013, she was among PDN's 30 - Photo District News' top 30 emerging photographers, as well as a finalist in the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. 

Accolades aside, the path of a freelance documentary photographer is not an easy one. 

The past year was challenging. In May, her right thumb was dislocated and her ligament torn when North Korean workers in north-east China attacked her for photographing them on assignment for Le Monde, a French daily newspaper.

She has undergone two operations - the most recent during this month, when a new ligament for her thumb was micro-reconstructed using a piece of tendon from her right wrist. The whole area had scarred over and fused following the first surgery in Hong Kong last June. 

It is the first time that she has suffered a major injury and she doubts she can recover her full thumb function.

A business travel insurance that Le Monde bought covered her surgery in Hong Kong. The newspaper also paid her for three months of lost work. But rehabilitation was not taken into account by the insurer and newspaper and she had to pay for subsequent treatment. 

While the injury made her rethink some of the assignments "where one can expect confrontation in a not so fruitful way", it has not made her rethink her career choice. 

While her injury has laid her off for most of the past six months and full recovery will take another six to nine months, she has not been idling. 

She is still trying to go deeper into her family history. Roots: A Granddaughter's Belated Search, a selection of 15 images she made over multiple trips to her ancestral village in Guangdong, China, marks the first chapter of her investigation into her paternal grandfather's history.

It was published last year as part of TwentyFifteen.SG, a collection of 20 photo books published by Platform, a volunteer group that promotes photojournalism.

She is hoping to work on the northern Malaysia and Perak chapter, where her grandfather spent the bulk of his life. 

She is also working on VII photo agency's new group project documenting life on China's borders with Asia Society's ChinaFile. She pitched and conceived the project.

Sim, who is single, spent two weeks in Kinmen, where she shot one part of the Taiwan chapter before her second surgery.

"Spaces in between countries and cultures are interesting and China has borders with 14 other countries," she says. "The project also looks beyond physical borders - borders in time, history and culture."

Neo Xiaobin


Sarker Protick

Sarker Protick's photographs of his grandparents (left) won him an award in last year's World Press Photo contest.
PHOTO: JASPER BASTIAN

Serendipity led Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick to start photographing his grandparents.

The 30-year-old visited the elderly couple to spend more time with them, but soon ran out of things to talk about. So he started photographing them to fill the awkward silences.

The idea for the photos may be accidental, but the quality of the photography certainly was not.

The intimate series, titled What Remains, impressed the judges of last year's World Press Photo contest and bagged Protick a second prize in the Daily Life category of the prestigious photojournalism contest.

The bachelor added another feather to his cap in June last year after he was recruited by VII photo agency - a prestigious photojournalist collective with 19 members worldwide. This was a coup for someone who started his professional career just less than four years ago after graduating from the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute.

"I'm really lucky and blessed. Many of my colleagues have been photographing for longer than I have lived," he says.

The Dhaka-based photographer now divides his time between shooting editorial commissions, personal projects and a teaching gig at his alma mater. An exhibition of What Remains is also in the pipeline, he says.

Protick photographs mostly in his home country because he feels "it's the place where the artist can relate to best". Recent projects include stories about the film industry and life along the rivers in Bangladesh.

His mother is an elementary school teacher and his late father was a businessman.

Despite his successes in photojournalism, he hesitates to call himself purely a journalist - at least not in the traditional sense. He believes the rift that exists between journalism and art should be bridged.

"A journalist can be an artist and an artist can make art about news. I don't work as a journalist and I don't work like a journalist," he says.

But photojournalism purists have come down hard on the awardwinning series of photos of his grandparents.

They feel that the photos - which have an ethereal quality and desaturated colour palette - are too processed, do not reflect reality and hence lack journalistic integrity.

Protick, however, stands by his work and explains that the tone was achieved through a longer exposure in the camera and that he did not do any heavy post-processing to the images.

For him, the colour palette is more than just an aesthetic choice - it has strong symbolism. "The walls were white and my grandmother's hair was turning white. And the colour white has a lot of relation to peace, heaven and death."

He believes that the key to staying relevant is for photographers to be exposed to different fields and media. For him, a source of inspiration is music.

Adept at various string instruments, he listens to "all kinds of music", naming Parisian avantgarde pianist Erik Satie, Estonian sacred music composer Arvo Part and British post-rock band Radiohead as his favourites.

He says: "If I'm looking only at photographs, I would be stuck and repeat myself."

Desmond Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'In the picture'. Print Edition | Subscribe