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.

A decade’s work – Part III

You meet all sorts of people on the job. Almost all taxi drivers converse with me in Hokkien from the get-go, without asking if I can actually speak dialect. And I, like many other SPH journos, never tell them my real job. I usually tell them I’m a clerk or something.

Because if you don’t, you’ll have to roll your eyes the whole journey as they rant about everything from horse-racing rigging to how to fix the PAP. As far as they’re concerned, they know how to run the country.

Well, as long as they don’t cheat on the taxi fare, I’ll gladly agree with them. I did try arguing with a few over some issues, but I never won, so I stopped doing so.

But these are not the weird tales I’m going to talk about. And here I go with one from my PJ days…

WEIRD TALES

The Lizard’s My Son

In 2001, this particular tale was picked up by the wires a few days before I headed to Thailand for a junket. I told my boss I was going to do a follow-up on it, since there were no detailed stories, only a picture story.

The story – This lady, living in a rural area in the outskirts of Bangkok, had claimed that this huge monitor lizard was her reincarnated son and had become fiercely protective of it/him.

It took me some time to track her down (with the help of a very street smart hotel driver) and it was really odd to see this old lady carrying a huge lizard like a big baby (it would hug her shoulder and she would coo to it).

She didn’t want to talk to me at all, especially after the earlier press coverage. My Thai driver then spun a long and wild tale about me to convince her why she should open up. (It’s very important to have local people help you during overseas assignments) She was still wary though, and looked me in the eye and asked: “Do you believe that this is my son?”

I looked at the lizard long and hard. According to her, it had appeared at her gate a few weeks after her young son had died in a road accident and waited there patiently until she called her son’s name. Usually, such lizards avoid human contact, but here I was looking at it being fed milk from a baby bottle and looking really contented.

How not to believe?

A few weeks later, Thai newspapers reported that the lizard had become gravely ill and the vets were trying to persuade the woman to give the animal over the right people for proper healthcare. She refused, saying that no one was going to take her son away from her again. I didn’t follow up with the story again after that, but I believe the lizard died, breaking the lady’s heart one more time.

A decade’s work – Part II

THE LONGEST-SERVING SPH INTERN

Yes, I challenge anyone to beat my record of 18 months as an intern at SPH. I didn’t intend to serve that long actually. And most newsmakers didn’t know I was an intern, because I usually didn’t tell them I was one.

As a newly-minted scholar, I was expected to serve an internship every year = 6 months of internship for three of my remaining undergrad years.

I did my first internship at The New Paper, and naturally went to the Straits Times next.  I returned to TNP for the last mandatory internship.

It was during the third internship that my career took a drastic change in direction. I had started to pick up photography in Dec 1998, after visiting gorgeous Nepal with Liu Xinyi and her family. I bought a Canon film SLR and brought it along with me on my ST and TNP news assignments so I could do some hands-on training, as well as see if I could get my own photos published in the press.

It was fascinating, learning how to develop, cut and examine your own negatives in the old Times House Group Photo Services office. Other older photogs would give me a strange look but leave me be.

One day in TNP, I had to do this story on a downtrodden family and I took my own photos because there were no photogs available. When I came back with the negatives, then photo boss Philip Lim looked at them and said : “From how you’ve framed the shots, you know what you want in the frame. You have a future as a photojournalist in my department.”

It’s always good to be praised, but what I didn’t know was that a few days later, Philip was to ask me: “I’d like you to join my department, but you have until tomorrow to tell me if you want to.” Being young and unaware of the risks involved, I thought hard about it and said what the heck.

I had no wish to follow the paths of all other scholars before me, I wanted to learn a new skill, and back then, I really wanted to be the best photojournalist I could be.

And boy, did Philip pile on the assignments to get my skills up to speed. I was doing up to four assignments a day, and covered soccer with a manual 300mm f2.8 lens. I covered every damned thing from fashion to product shoots to car accidents, and there was even the famous nipple hair incident (that’s for another day). My back ached from carrying a 14kg camera bag with loads of batteries and film but I was lovin’ it.

So I went on to do my 6-month professional internship with TNP Photo, and because I had finished my 3rd-year modules early in NTU, I volunteered to work another 6 months as a part-timer, also in Photo. That’s how I did 18 months.

The payoff? On my first day of full-time work in 2001, the photo I took won SPH’s Feature Picture Of The Year.

A decade’s work – Part 1

I’m a bit tired of explaining to people why I’m changing jobs come 19 Sep.

There are, as usual, many reasons for the things that I do, and well, ultimately it’s about moving on in one’s career. I won’t be saying here which job I’m taking up on 24 Sep until that day comes along, because most of my friends and colleagues already know. If you don’t know, your grapevine is obviously very slow but you can ask me personally lah.

Still, I thought it’s a good opportunity to write some anecdotes about my journalism career (by the way, it hasn’t ended) starting from nearly a decade ago in May 1998. As you know, whenever I start writing some long series (eg Photo Philosophy and Writing Well) on this blog, it often never gets concluded. Well, I’ll try to this time.

Note: This series, like all my previous blog postings, does not contain any mud-slinging, confidential info or newsroom gossip fodder. So look elsewhere if you need that kind of entertainment.

TAKING UP JOURNALISM

There are people who spend their entire lives wanting to be journalists, feeling the itch to be a newshound and wanting to be a legitimised busybody. Others just want to see their names in print on a daily basis, and be able to wield power with the pen.

For me, I needed the cash from the SPH scholarship, plain and simple. Journalism was not a career I had entertained until I was in university. Then, I didn’t even know who Bob Woodward was.

Back in 1998, my mum’s cancer looked like it was making a comeback (and it did) and I felt that being the only kid still dependent on my mum for pocket money, I should try to be financially-independent. 1997 also saw the global economic meltdown and I feared not being able to get a job upon graduation in 2001. (Which turned out to be true when recession hit in that year)

Personally, I never wanted to take a scholarship. I had gone through OCS and seen half my friends getting deferred and flying off to a great overseas education while the rest of us continued to dig trenches. Because I only had one S-paper distinction during the A-levels, I knew I needn’t bother with most of the govt. overseas scholarships.

Nevermind I had 4As and a solid ECA record (how many people you know won an international dragonboat race?), you know how this country works. So I was quite happy to be a normal person and get on with my life as I liked it.

But as I said, I needed the money and I applied after my first year in Comm Studies at NTU. The SPH scholarship was the most obvious choice, given my faculty and my abilities. I wrote fairly well and I liked talking to people.

My first internship at The New Paper was really stressful, and I still attribute the beginning of my loss of hair to that period in my life. My first story was covering the funeral wake of the two Muslim girls who had died when a car crashed into the Bendemeer bustop.

Not the most fun first assignment and the first of many funeral wakes I was to attend as an intern.

Apart from doing crime stories, I was also tasked with doing a 10-part, 2-facing pages-each-week sponsored series on SG expats. Even though Gus Pang and Pradeep Paul gave much guidance, it was still no joke.

I underwent a nerve-wrecking scholarship interview with Cheong Yip Seng where he dished out some really good advice I’ve followed till this day. I thought I failed that interview, especially since I didn’t receive any news while other interns already did. I had to go ask HR myself and they said: “You got it, didn’t we tell you?”

That internship ended with me doing a series on Sarong Party Girls, and after that stint, I really didn’t take my NTU journalism classes very seriously ever again. What was taught in class and what I had seen in the real world was just too different.

Theory vs real-world emotions vs bottomline – I wish we were taught more of that in class.