IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Motivated by badly taken photos

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 10, 2014

A set of badly taken photographs shot during a mountaineering course in New Zealand motivated Stefen Chow to refine his photography skills and eventually led him to pursue photography as a career.

It was 2001 and he was on the course with about 20 other National University of Singapore (NUS) mountaineers, training to scale the Himalayas.

Assigned as team photographer, he snapped the pictures with what knowledge he had about photography then.

"The pictures were very bad and wrongly exposed. Apart from the snow and the beautiful skies, I felt the experience was not recorded well. I felt it was a wasted opportunity because I was given the responsibility and I did a bad job."

Chow, 33, did research on photography and started showing his work to the professionals he knew.

Eventually, a team, including him, scaled Mount Everest to commemorate NUS' 100th year of founding. He took photographs of that journey as well.

"By the time I finished climbing Everest, that was in June 2005, I became so hooked on photography that I decided it would be a career for me," says the mechanical engineering graduate.

Today, the Singapore permanent resident is based in Beijing, where he lives with his wife and nine-month-old daughter. There, he has done commercial, advertorial and editorial shoots with clients including Dalian Wanda Group, the biggest commercial property company in China, sports brand company Li-Ning and Apple.

His portrait of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei won second prize in the People-Staged Portraits Single category of the prestigious annual World Press Photo contest last year. It is organised by World Press Photo Foundation, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

His winning photograph is on show at the World Press Photo 2013 Singapore exhibition at the Raffles Hotel.

He is thankful for his family, who run a food business in Malaysia, for being supportive. He has two older sisters who are in the family business.

"My parents started having a very flexible set of expectations of me when I started climbing higher and higher mountains," he says, referring to his interest in mountaineering.

However, it was photography that he turned to. "When I got into photography, it was another twist for them. I won't say that they were disappointed but I would say that they were no longer as surprised. I made a pact with my father. I said, 'Don't say anything now, give me two years and if by two years you don't like what you are seeing, you let me know. I will be more inclined to listen to you.'"

That was in 2005.

Within six months, he staged his first exhibition with the photographs he took during the Everest expedition at the then newly opened National Library.

Since then, he has worked with Wall Street Journal and The Guardian newspapers, and Time magazine, among other publications.

He also embarked on a personal project, titled Poverty Line, with his wife Lin Hui-Yi, 33, an economist by training who works in market research.

For the project, he photographed the amount of food a person living on the poverty line in a particular country can afford with his income, against a newspaper background. He has shot people in 21 countries and is planning to continue it in more countries. The project won him and his wife the grand prize at the 2011 Arles Photography Open Salon.

He says of his World Press Photo win: "World Press is like the Oscars of photography. When you take part, you don't expect to win. It's almost like taking part in a lottery because the standards are so high."

Although his entry was for the Staged Portraits category, Chow says his portrait of the artist, taken for the Smithsonian Magazine, was an unplanned moment during a shoot. The photo shows the unsmiling artist holding his mobile phone and staring straight into the camera.

He says: "I know Ai Wei Wei has this habit of photographing whoever comes to photograph him. It's his way of recording who comes to his studio. So as I posed him in various photos, he took out his phone and wanted to photograph me. And so, it was a chance moment and I chose to capture it as well."

In the beginning of 2007, after freelancing at The New Paper as a photo- journalist, he packed his bags for New York, where he stayed for 10 months.

"I was living between eating bagels and drinking coffee, assisting photographers and learning my craft all over again because in my mind, New York is a city which is passionate about photography. It is also a place where standards are set," he says.

Asked what he would like to specialise in, he says: "I think my specialisation is being versatile and diverse. I am very clear that this is what I want to do."

And he adds that it is not a photographer who has inspired him but an artist - Picasso, who created diverse work throughout his career.

He says: "In the photography sense, this is crazy because it means you are reinventing yourself every five, 10 years. But for me, he's an inspiration because I don't think he really cares very much about what other people think, but rather what really satisfies him.

"He was creative up to the very end and I think that is my underlying push as well. As a photographer, I want to feel constantly challenged and inspired."

rachell@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 10, 2014

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