©Stefen Chow

Why I mentor photographers, and maybe you should too.

This year, I celebrated my 9th year as a professional photographer. It doesn’t seem very long, except this period marked the closing showdowns between 35mm film and digital cameras, the introduction of the first DSLR that shoots HD video, ISO going well beyond 800, an internet that streams video and transitionary graphics with ease, a print industry slipping into steep decline, and the tremendous rise of the smartphone and other smart devices that take high resolution photos and videos that you can literally strap on your head. Wow.

I used drones to photograph playgrounds across Singapore for a SG50 project. Photo Credit: Stefen Chow

In other words, I felt quite old rather quickly in an industry that has rapidly changed. I was on a recent panel in Hong Kong with respected Photography Director of GEO Germany Magazine, Ruth Eichhorn, and she was asked about the state for young photographers today. She responded,

“Compared to photographers of yesterday, photographers today need to be smarter in many more ways.”

Documenting a medical expedition on a 7000m peak in the Himalayas for GEO magazine is more than clicking the shutter. Photo Credit: Stefen Chow

My early work on my Mount Everest expedition in 2005 gave me some form of prominence on this craft and I was asked to give talks even before I finished my transition to photography as a full time profession. I enjoyed the Q&A sessions as well as providing context to my images and thought processes. I often felt that providing a talk or mentorship was a two way education for the speaker and the viewer as well.

How do you photograph a global campaign in 13 countries, including Paris, while undertaking the necessary production for a project this scale? Photo Credit: Stefen Chow

It was in autumn 2008 when I saw the true power and impact of mentorship. I was super excited to be accepted into the Eddie Adams workshop, one of the best things that has ever happened to the photojournalism world. Founded by Vietnam war renowned photographer by the same namesake and a few of his friends, they offered a pro bono workshop for young and talented photographers in a barnhouse in upstate New York. Today, the workshop has been running on an annual basis since 1988, where 100 young photographers are handpicked and mentored by 150 of the most experienced and passionate veterans in the industry.

Understanding the ethical boundaries between editorial and commercial assignments, and the thinking process behind a memorable portrait of artist dissident Ai Wei Wei. Photo Credit: Stefen Chow

I went there as a wide eyed participant, and the instructors: photo directors from the biggest magazines such as National Geographic and Time, Pulitzer and World Press Photo awarded photographers, war correspondents, were all present. It was gathering of some of the best photographers in a barn, and they were all there for the singular purpose of teaching and imparting their knowledge and wisdom to emerging photographers like me.

From there, I felt there was no greater gift than to be a receiver of such unsolicited good will, and I also felt motivated to do the same for my peers when I became more experienced.

Today, at the almost decade mark of my career, I decided to give back to the community, and I also urge my contemporaries to consider to do the same.

The Poverty Line — Cambodia. What you can choose food wise in a single day if you are poor in the country.
Solo Exhibition, The Poverty Line for the Les Nuits Photographiques at the Carre de Pavillion in Paris, France. Photo Credit: Stefen Chow.
I spoke at the University of Science Po, one of the top political universities of France. Photo Credit: Shawn Koh/Feng Studios

These are my reasons for providing mentorship to photographers.

  • You learn as much when you teach. When I started giving workshops and lectures at the beginning of my career, I realised that in order to explain my sense of aesthetic or technique, it was important to communicate in a way where my audience could understand from their own point of view. I know some photographers have difficulty explaining their photographs and also to let their photos do the talking. There is certainly no right or wrong rule. However in my opinion, being able to teach and mentor with clarity helps us photographers articulate our own vision to ourselves and serves as a single point of focus. It almost seems like a different kind of mediation.
A talk I made at Temasek Junior College in Singapore. I have given more than 100 talks to schools in Singapore for the past 15 years.
  • The industry is changing rapidly. Mentoring helps you build a community and keeps you aware of how the industry moves. No man is an island, and I do not profess being a know-it-all. However, I try to keep my mind as open as possible, and when I mentor photographers, I find that it keeps me abreast of the trends that are happening. In today’s world, I strongly believe that we have to be versatile visual practitioners rather than being purists in order not just to survive but to thrive in this competitive climate.
I work constantly on personal projects, and regard them as important as my commercial and editorial work. Big City Small Things, Beijing.
  • There is frankly nothing to hold back, as the open internet has plainly made the industry a wide open book. There is an old Chinese saying of teaching kung fu. The master will teach 10 strokes of a deadly skill, only to keep the last stroke for himself to protect himself. In today’s world, this simply wouldn’t work. Everything has become so porous and transparent such that photographers within a community that does not share their knowledge to the less experience will suffer as a whole. The strength of a demographic of photographers is dependent on the overall baseline, not just the superstars at the top. When the photographers as a whole does good practice in producing strong visuals, able to negotiate through deals, communicate with clients, and build their own careers steadily over time, it is good for the community as a whole. Withholding knowledge in this day and age will only backfire in your own backyard.
A year long project with Taiwanese band, Soda Green for their upcoming album and promotion
  • As I have said earlier, I received mentorship early in my career, and there is no greater gift than to be a receiver of such unsolicited good will. The pay-it-forward attitude has been ingrained right from the start, and I am a firm believer that giving is a much better joy than receiving.
  • It builds your overall standing in the industry. I know this point sounds rather self serving, but hear me out. When I became a photographer, I had rather high ambitions. I wanted to be a photographer of international repute, and while the bar was set high and seemingly impossible then, you start deconstructing the steps to get there. It is crucial for people to feel the work they do is important. One of the ways is that if you are convinced about a certain opinion, one of the ways it will get more influential is when the message is amplified to more. I certainly feel so for many of my projects, and I felt that by imparting my knowledge and mentorship, you can also create ripples and effect on your community far more than what you can do yourself. It is a cycle that keeps feeding itself.
Photographing Wang Jian Lin, China’s richest man for Fortune Magazine

So there. 5 reasons why you should mentor, and why I do the things I do.

I am also doing an open call for mentees for my mentorship programme 2016. It will be a programme for photographers that will benefit from my tutelage, and the programme last through the calendar year of 2016. It is limited to photographers based in Singapore. The mentorship will be a combination of web conversations and face to face mentorship when I am back in Singapore. If you are interested, submit a selection of 10 webres pictures or a link, whatever you think best represents your vision, and a simple essay, ‘Why’. Please send it to stefen@stefenchow.com . The closing date for this will be 31st March 2016, and the announcement will be mid April.

The Eddie Adams application is currently on, and it is the best photo workshop in the world in my opinion. Closing date for the workshop is 3rd June 2016. More details can be found at http://www.eddieadamsworkshop.com/


Stefen Chow

Stefen Chow is a World Press winning photographer/film maker well versed in editorial, commercial and fine art genres. His works are in the permanent collection of Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago) and has exhibited in the CAFA Museum (Beijing), Les Nuits Photographiques (Paris), PMQ (Hong Kong) and International Center of Photography (New York). He is the co founder of The Poverty Line, a global visual project that contextualises poverty and was referenced by the World Bank. He is based primarily in Beijing, China. His work is found at www.stefenchow.com

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