A Decade’s Work – Part IV

LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN

One of my photo editor, Philip’s grand schemes for TNP Photo was to create a new class of photojournalists – a photographer who could shoot and write at the same time.

In the beginning, I was very excited by the idea. Wow, a one-man army, being able to parachute into any news event and be able to bring home the entire story package.

Of course, in my youth (I’ll say this many times), I didn’t know what I was really facing.

But let me digress a bit.

The relationship between journalist and photographer is a very critical one. Think of the photographer as the eyes, and the journo as the mouth. Together, they formed one being who could see and talk his way through any situation to bring the story back.

I learnt this fact early during my internship days. I was blessed to have seniors like Jonathan Choo, Mohd Ishak, Kenneth Koh and David Tan accompany me on many of my early jobs. They taught me how to stay cool during heated situations, asked additional questions during interviews to help me plug the holes I couldn’t see, and pointed out stuff I completely missed in my frenzy to get the story angle right.

But the best advice probably came from the now-retired Suan Ann from ST Photo. I was raring to go get the interview for a crime story. He said: “Eh, have a kopi first and eat some food. No food, cannot think well, cannot work well.”

Then he said the golden line: “You’ve gotta work hard, but it’s more important to work smart.”

That mantra has stuck in my head ever since then, and I’ve always looked for more efficient (but not lazy) methods of getting the job done well.

But when it came to doing both pictures and stories, that’s when I found it increasingly difficult to work smart.

See, first you’d have to get the story angle right. One half (I have no idea which side) has to absorb the verbal, visual and other types of data, then process quickly to figure the best questions to ask, and manage the various branching story angles that invariably appear during the course of an interview or news event.

Then, the other half has to work furiously as well to come out with an aesthetic picture (or several) to sell the text.

I hate it when people say: “Oh, all you do is just press the shutter button right?” The reality is that your eyes have to go into the zone and your brain account for a dozen niggly details when you home into a shot and start framing it to present the scene as you envision it to be.

It was exhausting to strain the brain this way. Although I didn’t have to do stories for every photo assignment I did, I felt that what we were being asked to do was next to impossible in the long term. It didn’t help that the turn of the millennium was a time when the media kept talking about “multi-tasking” and the rise of The Platypus Reporter.

This was also the period when Mediaworks was set up and SPH print journos suddenly found themselves in front of the camera as well. To much sniggers from both internally and externally I must say.

Thankfully, that chapter is closed for good, as it was realised print, radio and broadcast journalists required very different skill sets for their platforms and the twain really didn’t meet.

The one-man-op worked best on overseas assignments which were not time sensitive. In other words, feature packages where you could take your time and process everything without burning your brain out.

I did that in Thailand, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Shanghai and several other countries with good results. But man, you can’t imagine the amount of gear I was lugging around and how lonely it got without a partner. Journalism may be a solo operator job, but it’s always fun to work with someone.

One of the best things I got out of being a photographer, was that I got to know how every one of my colleagues practiced journalism whenever I accompanied them on assignments.

It was great because I learnt many good lessons and was able to avoid many pitfalls made by rookie journalists. I still stand in awe of senior writers who basically go into a tough story and make it look like they’re drinking water. I was also able to observe, through a photographer’s eyes, the common life cycle of a local journalist and why they embark on certain career decisions within certain periods of time.

By end 2002, it was time to end the photography stint and I returned to the newspool to become a courts/crime reporter again. For the longest time, my colleagues kept referring to me as a photog, when they had forgotten I actually started as a writer.

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