Singaporean photographer is first Asian to join prestigious VII photo agency

Freelancer Sim Chi Yin joins the prestigious photo agency, the first Asian to do so

Photographer Sim Chi Yin’s Rat Tribe series of photographs portrays the lives of migrant workers who live in basements and underground air-raid shelters in Beijing. -- PHOTO: SIM CHI YIN/VII
Photographer Sim Chi Yin’s Rat Tribe series of photographs portrays the lives of migrant workers who live in basements and underground air-raid shelters in Beijing. -- PHOTO: SIM CHI YIN/VII
Photographer Sim Chi Yin. -- PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
(Above) In this photo shot in Myanmar two years ago, the locals experienced a tentative hope as the country opened up. -- PHOTO: SIM CHI YIN/VII

At just 1.52m tall, Sim Chi Yin is petite by any standards. But the 35-year-old photojournalist will now stand shoulder to shoulder with the giants of the photo world.

Sim is the first Singaporean and Asian to join the ranks of the exclusive VII photo agency this month first as an interim member, then with full membership on the cards, subject to voting by other members, two years later.

The VII photo agency, so named because of the number of its founding members, was established in 2001. The founding members are famed photographers Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Christopher Morris, John Stanmeyer, James Nachtwey and the late Alexandra Boulat.

Though new members have joined and others have left over the years, the agency, with 21 members now, remains one of the most recognised in the world.

Based in Beijing for the past seven years, Sim got the phone call informing her of the news from her mentor and VII photographer Marcus Bleasdale on a Saturday night about three weeks ago.

She said: "I answered and he said, 'Congrats, you're in - if you want it'."

It was good news but the gravity of those seven simple words soon bore down on the photographer.

"It's a great honour to be in an agency with living legends in the field, with photographers whose life's work sit on my bookshelves."

"I'm excited and, at the same time, a little scared. I'm still growing in my craft and have a lot to do to work at the top of the league," adds Sim, who has been in the VII mentor programme for the last three years. It is a professional development programme where senior VII members handpick and mentor emerging talents.

VII photographer Ed Kashi says via e-mail that he is excited at having the Singaporean in the cooperative and calls her "a hard worker, great journalist, team player, smart and good person".

A history and international relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Sim is a former Singapore Press Holdings scholar and Beijing correspondent at The Straits Times. In 2010, she quit her reporting job to return to what she calls her "long-neglected mistress" - documentary photography.

In the few short years since becoming a freelance photographer, she has muscled her way to international recognition in the competitive world of photojournalism.

Sim was a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography last year. She was among the Photo District News' (PDN) top 30 emerging photographers last year and on British Journal of Photography's Ones To Watch list of photographers this year. Her works have been exhibited in New York, Cambodia and Oslo.

She now regularly shoots commissioned works for major publications such as The New York Times, Time magazine and Le Monde. While based in Beijing, she also takes up assignments outside of China.

"I've long had an intellectual interest in China and studied Chinese history at university, and I'm working to document slices of what the country is today and where it's heading," says Sim, who has no long-term plans to move out of the country.

"There are many stories to tell here and I can go local - working on my own to get close to people and deep inside situations," she adds, switching effortlessly between English and Mandarin while speaking to Life! over the telephone from her apartment in Beijing.

Joining VII and having the agency represent and distribute her works is a major milestone in her career, but Sim is not about to take her foot off the pedal.

She currently has her plate full, working on personal long-term documentary projects about her ancestral roots in Guangdong, the urbanisation of China and the issue of silicosis - a deadly occupational disease that afflicts miners when they breathe in silica dust.

A film version of the silicosis story, which Sim is co-directing, is also in the works.

The photographer has travelled to a mountainous rural village in the Shanxi region of China about 10 times in the last two years to document the plight of a silicosis-stricken Chinese miner and his wife.

Some of the photos show her emaciated subject writhing on the bed as he gasped for air. The images are stark, intimate and can sometimes be hard to look at.

"The level of intimacy Chi Yin managed is testament to the amount of time and effort she put into the project. And also testament to what the (miner's) family thought of her," says her mentor Bleasdale.

Sim also put the miner in touch with a Chinese non-governmental organisation, which provided him with medical assistance.

The family now calls her "jiu ming en ren" (Mandarin for "saviour").

The socially conscious photographer is adamant that advocacy goes hand in hand with her photography.

"We need to ask why we are taking those photos in the first place, why we set out to do the documentation," she says with a conviction and intensity that belies her age.

"A sense of social purpose is always important to me. It's about what issues you care about and how to make people care about it also, in a very noisy world."

The former reporter is not new to standing up for the underdog.

She was prolific in producing stories about migrant worker issues as a journalist at The Straits Times and spent her days off travelling to Indonesia to document the lives of domestic workers headed for Singapore.

The awardwinning body of work was published as a book, The Long Road Home, in 2011.

In that same year, Sim also produced the Rat Tribe series of photographs, shot between 2010 and 2012, which documents the lives of migrant workers who have made their homes in the basements and underground air raid shelters of Beijing.

Veteran Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas called the Rat Tribe project "outstanding". Magnum Photos, founded in 1947, is a photo agency many regard to be the best in the world. Founding members include legendary photographers such as the late Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa.

"Chi Yin has a committed interest in stories that are often not the most obvious, but ones she deeply connects with in an intuitive way. I could feel her curiosity and seriousness when we first met in Singapore in 2006," says Meiselas, who helped Sim secure a place in the Magnum Foundation's Photography and Human Rights fellowship at New York University in 2010.

Sim's membership at VII comes at a trying time for the industry as print publications, hit by declining circulation globally, are cutting back on their photo budgets.

VII photo agency has not been spared from the state of flux. It closed its physical office in Paris and its gallery in New York earlier this year and employs a skeletal staff to keep itself nimble. Members pay a monthly fee and work with the agency on pricing for their images, while the agency takes a commission.

According to Kashi, the collective is also actively exploring new business strategies involving the use of different media such as film and working more with schools and non-governmental organisations.

Early last month, VII had a week-long "print flash sale", where some of its member photographers' prints went on sale for US$100 (S$124) each.

Magnum followed shortly after with its own 67-hour US$100 print sales to commemorate the agency's 67th anniversary. The photo agency has also partnered start-up company Photo.Clothing to provide images for printing on T-shirts.

These unprecedented attempts at capturing the mass market hint at how uncertain the market is, at a time when a question mark hangs over the relevance of independent photo agencies.

But Sim remains unperturbed by these trends. She says: "I want to try to look under the hood and learn how things work in the agency and industry and do what I can to contribute to the agency."

Mercurial market conditions are not the only challenges she has to contend with.

"The move from a cushy staff job to becoming a freelancer is a major transition that I still grapple with," admits Sim.

"I was naive in thinking that I just want to take pictures when I started out freelancing. I didn't realise it also means running your own business. The constant worry about money is actually very taxing."

She adds: "My parents thought that I was throwing away a good job. My dad was aggrieved that my pictures were no longer in The Straits Times for him to tell his friends about and quietly clip and file away."

"But I tell him, 'Pa, but my pictures are now on the front pages of The New York Times','" she adds. Her retiree parents who live in Singapore have since come around and are quietly supportive of her choices.

She hopes that becoming the first Asian to join VII will help more Asian photojournalists get a footing on the international stage.

"My dad used to tell me: 'Bie ren mei zou guo de lu, ni bie zou'," Sim says, which means "don't take the road that no one has travelled on" in Mandarin.

"But how can I do that? I'm a journalist." she adds.

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