Welcome to 10.Q Interviews.This section usually features interviews to Humanitarian, Cultural & Travel Photographers, their work and photography.
This week in 10.Q Interviews, D. Shun-Luoi Fong:
“Shun-Luoi is a cultural and humanitarian photographer who captures the beauty, dignity and stories of people and cultures. With a focus on serving non-profit organizations and NGO’s, Shun-Luoi provides compelling images that can serve to support the field work and fundraising needs of organizations. Shun-Luoi has a strong vision for storytelling and a special compassion for the poor, the suffering, and marginalized people and cultures. Recognizing the beauty and dignity of all people, Shun-Luoi loves to engage the people and their culture in order to be a blessing to those who have need.” [More about Shun-Luoi...]
1. Tell us about you and your photography. How long have you been shooting? What kinds of shooting have you done?
I think of three specific influences from my younger years that paved the way for me to pick up the camera. First, I was blessed to grow up in a family where I was encouraged to express myself creatively and explore different forms of art. That freedom and encouragement from my parents created a wonderful environment in which to explore the world around me. Second, my father was a college professor and therefore had significant vacation time during the summer. I have fond memories of spending my vacations traveling around the United States, exploring the different regions and sub-cultures. Those experiences really nurtured my love for travel, meeting other people, and engaging other cultures. Third, my father loved to carry his old Minolta camera and take photographs of his family. The camera was a constant presence in my life as I sat for photos too numerous to count!
There were other influences that encouraged my pursuit of photography. However, the above three influences in particular laid the foundation for me to pursue photography as a way for me to express myself and my view of the world. While I always loved viewing photographs, it took a while for me to discover my passion for creating photographs. I had taken some photography classes when I was younger, and I took photos for my high school yearbook, but it wasn’t until after I graduated from college almost ten years ago that I picked up the camera for myself. I have been shooting ever since.
For much of the past ten years, photography was a creative outlet; a way for me to engage the world around me when I wasn’t at the computer working as a web developer. I didn’t really have a strong vision for my photography or sense for what I loved to shoot. This led me to pretty much shoot everything. I lived in and traveled to quite a few locations and enjoyed capturing images of the people and places that I observed. I shot weddings. I shot portraits. I shot nature and landscapes. I took many photos of my own family (I figured I have to make my children sit for at least as many photos as my father made me sit for). I was all over the board when it came to my photography subjects. Despite my lack of vision for my photography, for the most part I was enjoying the process, and can now look back and see it as an important part of my journey as a photographer.
2. We all know that you don’t get into humanitarian photography to become rich, so what does humanitarian photography means to you? What’s your vision for it?
I see humanitarian photography as a collaborative process where I am given the privilege of sharing life with those whom I photograph and of telling their stories through images. It is an opportunity (and challenge) to look past the surface to see and share the beauty, dignity and stories of the people and their culture, while also remaining aware of and sensitive to the difficult circumstances in which they may live. It is a responsibility to create images that make a significant and lasting impact, both for those whose pictures I am taking as well as for those viewing the images.
My vision as a photographer is to creatively tell the stories and communicate the beauty and dignity of people and cultures around the world in order to foster dialogue, peace, healing and redemption.
In photography and every other area of life, I try to live according to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
3. How did you get into humanitarian photography? Where did you get the idea to shoot these kinds of people and groups?
As mentioned previously, I spent a number of years without a strong sense of vision for my photography. From 2004-2005 I spent a year living and working in Thailand, but then spent the next few years working on and off as a web developer with a various jobs and photography gigs in between. At the beginning of 2010, as I was considering my plans and goals for the year, I knew I needed to find some focus and vision. I needed to take the leap to more intentionally pursue photography, or simply be content that it would remain on the side as a creative outlet. I didn’t want to look back ten years from now and regret never giving it a shot. So after much deliberation, and with my wife’s encouragement and support, I made the decision to pursue photography. I still wasn’t sure, however, what kind of photography I wanted to pursue. There were a couple of factors that moved me to pursue humanitarian photography. First, I have always had a desire to work with and minister to people who don’t have a voice in this world, to people who are living on the fringe of society, to people living under oppression, in poverty, and in other difficult circumstances. Second, I reflected on my time living and working in Thailand. There were so many ways in which I felt completely in my element there. I loved teaching. I loved learning a new language. I loved engaging people and their culture. And compared to much of my photography up to that point, I was most moved by my images from Thailand. These two factors opened my eyes to the possibility of using my love for photography and people to make a positive difference in the world.
Shortly after making the decision to more intentionally pursue photography, I was given the opportunity to travel to Haiti and Peru. In Haiti, I worked with a church from San Francisco that supported a missionary who had committed her life to the Haitians. As I shared, through photography, the work of this missionary and the people she was impacting, I felt like I was finally doing the work for which I was created. It was a very confirming trip for me. Shortly after my work in Haiti, I traveled with a couple of friends to Trujillo, a city located on the northern coast of Peru. I had two objectives for this trip. The first was to explore beyond travel guidebook descriptions to discover the stories of people living in significant poverty on the outskirts of Trujillo. The second objective was to share these stories with local church and business leaders in order to challenge them to better care for their impoverished neighbors. I traveled to various communities, as well as to the landfills of the city, hearing and photographing many stories. While my time was short and I could document only a few stories, I was profoundly impacted by the joy and generosity of the people. Despite significant poverty and the challenges of surviving day to day, they welcomed me into their homes and freely shared their lives with me. This time in Peru further confirmed to me that pursuing humanitarian photography was the right direction for me.
4. What are the challenges of shooting for NGO’s or non-profit organizations?
A lot has already been said in previous 10Q interviews about the challenges of limited budgets, educating NGO’s on the value of the work, communicating to NGO’s how images can be used effectively, etc. Generally I agree with most of what has been said on these issues. They are significant challenges.
Another challenge that I have faced is the time constraint that is often placed on me to capture the images. My desire is to spend time engaging people in conversation, learning from them, and hearing their stories. I believe the images I create are often stronger as a result. However, when an organization is asking me to complete a project in a limited timeframe, I don’t always get to spend time with the people like I would like, and even think I need in order to effectively tell their stories. This challenge isn’t all bad, however. It is encouraging me to explore ways I can be a blessing to people, whether I get days, hours, or only minutes with them. It is also giving me the opportunity to grow in my ability to capture powerful images even when given a small amount of time in which to capture them.
5. How often do you travel every year? How do you manage your family time?
I am early in my journey as a humanitarian photographer, so have not, as of yet, traveled extensively. However, as I continue to pursue this type of work, I will need to give more consideration as to how often I am willing to travel, and how best to balance it with other areas of life. I have a wife and son, as well as a daughter on the way. It’s a challenge for me to be away from them for long periods of time. It’s a challenge to maintain a healthy balance, not just between family and work, but in every area of my life. My wife and I have had many discussions about what this looks like for us as individuals and as a family, and as we continue this journey together, I’m sure we will continue to discover how best to balance everything. There is one thing for sure…I am very thankful to have the full support of my wife as I pursue my calling as a photographer. There is no way this would happen without her support and encouragement.
There are a couple things I have learned so far that have helped me maintain a healthy balance. The most important thing for me was, up front, making the decision and commitment to always keep my family as a priority over my work. Just making the commitment was an important value to establish as I began this journey. With that commitment made, it becomes easier for me to keep the proper balance and communicate well with my wife and invite her into discussions about my travel, workload, potential projects, and business decisions.
I try to also keep the perspective that work and family are not necessarily mutually exclusive aspects of my life that need to be juggled. Rather, I try to find ways to bring the two together. My desire is for my wife and children to feel like they are involved in the work that I do, whether it is accompanying me on trips, helping me with various aspects of the business, or staying in close touch with them when I am traveling. On the flip side, I remember that life doesn’t stop for my family when I am traveling. Whether I am at home or traveling, it is just as important for me to stay involved in the things that are important to my wife and children.
It’s an ongoing process for me, because there is always work to be done whether I am traveling or at home in the office. However, with forethought and help from my wife, mentors, and close friends, I am learning how to establish healthy boundaries that keep my priorities in order and my life in balance.
6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired?
It would be difficult to list all of the ways I stay inspired because inspiration comes to me from so many different places and in so many different ways.
Here are a few that come to mind. I’m inspired by 1) the stories and lives of the people whose images I am privileged to capture. It is these people who keep me shooting. 2) my family (wife, son, parents, siblings) and friends, 3) Random conversations I have with strangers. I am amazed at the inspiration I receive from strangers I come into contact with each day. 4) engaging people, cultures, and ideas that are different than my own. They challenge me to think more creatively and they expand my world. 5) movies, 6) a good cup of coffee and a good book. I love to read and get many ideas from the variety of books I read.
Also, and perhaps this should go without saying, but I stay inspired by shooting a lot. Sure, I have my moments while shooting when I feel like a complete hack. But generally I find that the more I shoot, the more inspiration and fresh ideas come to me.
Regarding photographers who have inspired me and continue to teach me (including through their blogs), the list is long. I’ll specifically mention David duChemin who played a huge role in influencing me to pursue humanitarian photography. I have also been inspired by many of the people whom you have already interviewed in this series. Other photographers I am inspired by and always learning from: Chase Jarvis, Jeremy Cowart, Zack Arias, Steve McCurry, and Galen Rowell, just to name a few. Recently I have also been inspired and challenged by organizations such as IGVP and Focus for Humanity.
A couple of other recent inspirations I should specifically mention: The work and words of Makoto Fujimura, and the book “Walking on Water”, by Madeleine L’Engle.
7. How do you normally approach people from other cultures? What are your limits at the moment of shooting people in need, or in a complicated situation?
It is important to approach people first as a fellow human being and as a friend, rather than simply as a photographer. I must be willing to care for them as a person and take the time to build a relationship with them, even if that means I don’t get the image. I have found that my camera sometimes serves as a bridge to engage people, and sometimes it is a hinderance. Especially for those times when my camera is initially a hinderance, I try to set it aside and simply engage the person in order to get to know them and learn from them. When they see that I care for them more than just taking their picture, I have found that my camera quickly becomes a bridge and I am given much more freedom and insight into their lives to tell their story through the images I create.
I have also experienced how children can serve as a bridge to draw people together. I have seen this with my own son when my wife and I have connected with people in ways that probably would never have happened if our son hadn’t been the point of contact to begin a conversation. I see the same thing when traveling in other cultures. Children have such a joy and innocence that can overcome suspicion and bring people together. I love interacting with children from other cultures; playing with them, teasing them, taking their photographs and showing them the images on the back of the camera. I have found that when I engage the children, it opens many doors to begin engaging the adults. This relates back to genuinely caring for the person rather than simply wanting to get a picture. When people, who may be more reserved and/or suspicious, see that I desire to engage them with respect and humility, and genuinely desire to build a relationship with their children and other family and friends, they become more open to me and my camera.
Regarding my limits at the moment of shooting people in need, I am challenged by the limitation of time. I often don’t get to spend time sharing life with, or ministering to people like I would want. I am often rushed to capture images and move on. This can be a frustrating challenge to me as it runs counter to the way I would like to engage and photograph people. In addition, the lack of a common language also makes it challenging to engage people like I would want to.
8. How important is social media for you? How do you manage it in your work? Any tips to share?
Social media services such as Twitter and Facebook are becoming increasingly important to me as they are allowing me to connect with other photographers/creatives and potential clients. These services also provide a quick and convenient way to share content that may be valuable to the larger community, as well as find valuable content that others share. In fact, I look at my RSS feeds less and less because the people I follow on Twitter usually point me to the best blog entries, websites and other resources to read. My Twitter feed has become my main source of content aggregation. I also am in the process of using my own blog as a way to share about the work that I am doing and the lessons I am learning as I continue my journey as a photographer. And of course I am using my own website portfolio as a way to present my work and connect with others.
As valuable as social media can be, it can also be such a time waster if not used well. For me, it is important to schedule specific times during the day to use social media as well as establish a strategy for why and how I’m using the services. I don’t want my use of Facebook and Twitter (the two primary services I use) to simply be a soapbox for me to talk to no one in particular. I try to think well about sharing content that can provide valuable contributions to the online community.
9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career?
I have bought a fair amount of gear this year that has proven very valuable while traveling, but one piece of gear that quickly comes to mind is my Think Tank Urban Disguise 60. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to bags and packing equipment, and the Urban Disguise is one of my favorites. In terms of camera equipment, the Nikon D700 was a great purchase for me. It’s a solid camera that has served me really well in the field, and I definitely appreciate having the full frame sensor.
I’m not sure I can point to a specific piece of gear that has been most important to me thus far in my career. Most of the gear I use has been important to me, especially when it allowed me to create the image I was after. One piece of gear that isn’t quite as sexy as the camera equipment, but is just as valuable to me, is my Moleskin. I carry it around with me everywhere and use it to write down my thoughts, record stories, sketch out ideas, etc. I can’t imagine working without it.
10. What are the characteristics that a good humanitarian photographer needs to have? What would be your advice for a photographer who is just starting out in this field?
Vision. Passion. Compassion. Perseverance. Humility. Good humanitarian photographers must always seek to honor the people they would like to photograph, even if that means not taking the photograph. They should value the person and relationship more than the photograph. They should always be engaging the ethical questions and tensions that exist every time they create an image in difficult circumstances. They should learn to see past the surface to see and communicate the beauty and dignity, as well as the brokenness, of the people and cultures they engage.
Regarding advice, 1) finish reading this interview and get out and shoot. Keep shooting. 2) Learn the craft of photography. 3) Slow down and think more intentionally about every image you create. 4) Learn the principles of good storytelling. 5) Find a mentor who will walk alongside you as you grow in this field. 6) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. They are an important part of your journey. 7) Know yourself – your values, passions, strengths, weaknesses, boundaries, limitations, goals, vision.