Spotlight: Edwin Koo (Winner of ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu 2012)
1) Tell us about your winning work, and why you chose to shoot them.
I began shooting these pictures when i moved to Nepal in 2008 to work as a freelance photographer. When I left the newspapers, I decided that one thing i needed to do more was to tell stories which I am personally interested in. Being a freelancer gave me this freedom.
A little bit on the three projects that make up the winning series: A Strange Place Called Home. We Would Be Heroes - the work on Maoist fighters - was the first one I started on back in mid 2008. I went on to visit them several times in their remote cantonment in Western Nepal, and tried to tell the story from their perspective, away from the mainstream media approach. Dreaming of Phayul - about the Tibetan exiles - began when I photographed them on March 11, 2009, during the 50th anniversary of their failed uprising. Paradise Lost began with another news event - the mass exodus of more than 2 million people from the once-beautiful Swat Valley. I think what is similar in all three projects is the way they began - as news stories that could be fit for print in magazines. But they took on a different dimension as I started to ask more questions, and tried to represent my findings and responses in pictures. Each of these documentary projects deal with the concept of "home" through their own perspectives, and collectively, they come together to represent my personal response to the idea of "home".
2) What were the challenges faced in shooting these stories?
Inertia and self-doubt. In all long term projects, these are your greatest enemies. Because it is easy to say "who in the world would care about what I am photographing"and move onto the next story that is more "sexy"and sells better. Also, when you get rejections from editors, the going can get very tough. Self-doubt will prevent you for pursuing the project. And inertia will set in when you start doing things that are easier - like corporate photography - in which every hour is converted into income. Rewards come easily for commercially-useable work, but not for personal work.
3) Why did you decide to adopt Black and White?
Black-and-white is just my preferred medium, just as how some painters prefer oil to watercolour. It's simply a different kind of medium. Also, I think black-and-white removes the veneer of colour that somehow dilutes the emotional intensity of some images.
4) What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about photojournalists?
That photojournalists are donkeys who can do the work of two (writer and photographer) for the price of one.
5) How do you feel about digital photography being so prevalent?
Digital photography may seem like a threat to professional photography in the beginning, but with a wider audience being interested in the craft, it can only mean higher visual literacy in the long run. And a more visually literate audience means more appreciation from the consumers of photography. But that also puts more pressure on the professionals to produce truly outstanding work that separates them from the amateurs.
6) What sacrifices have you made in your life en route to establishing yourself and winning accolades thus far?
No car, no house. Not much money in the bank. And no promises of success.
7) Who is your most ardent supporter?
My wife Maria. I wouldn't have accomplish anything without her.
8) What is your vision in being THE photojournalist?
I am far from THE ideal photojournalist, but i would give it a try. A truly outstanding photojournalist should have the grit of Robert Capa and the poetry of Henri Cartier Bresson.
9) How do you constantly keep a keen eye when fatigue is always around the corner?
Keep this in mind: Your best picture is yet to be shot.
10) What kind of work or project will you be embarking on next?
More long term projects... and longer long term projects. I feel a kind of satisfaction from such work because they are more enduring. They remain in the collective memory long after the subject is no longer "hot". Also, I will be working on a few Singapore projects too, but maybe departing from current approach. Stay tuned!
Edwin Koo is a Singaporean documentary photographer best known for his black-and-white imagery that reveal deeply-rooted social issues and raw human emotions, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. After 5 years as a news photographer, Edwin continued his career as an independent documentary photographer. Apart from his latest ICON prize, he was also awarded the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography, and third place in the UNICEF Photo of the Year contest.