Photojournalist Alan Chin
"Camera is a passport – allows me to talk to people, be anywhere"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / September 15, 2021
(Credit: Graham Morrison)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
1) My father was a great amateur photographer.
2) Growing up with seminal images of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other watershed moments of the Sixties, the time of right before I was born, I always felt that I had missed one of the most important eras to be a photographer. I admit, in some ways, that I’ve spent my whole career inspired by and pursuing such intersections of public conflict and personal engagement.
3) I think of myself as a shy person and the camera is a passport – allows me to talk to people, be anywhere.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
1) For film, Leica M2 and M6, Rolleiflex 3.5F, Voigtlander Bessa II, Widelux, fun point and shoots like Canon MC, Olympus XA, and Lomo LC-A. The original Nikon F, maybe the FM3a.
2) For digital, currently Sony A7ii, Fujifilm X-E3, and Nikon D600
3) Lenses: favorites include Communist lenses: East German 35mm f/2.4 CZJ Flektacon and 50mm f/1.8 Meyer Oreston, USSR 58mm f/2 Helios 44m-4
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Alan Chin: I always forget extra memory cards or to charge up batteries // I’m inordinately proud of myself if I do remember!
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Alan Chin: Documentary photographer. What am I trying to say? How about: “Death to fascism and freedom to the people”?
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Alan Chin: Anything from 1 to 500?
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Alan Chin: I made photographs in 18 states and Washington DC last year, for book project on the year 2020 in the USA. Drove 20,000+ miles in my old 2006 Toyota Corolla and also 3 rental and other such cars, flew 3 times only.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Alan Chin: Finishing my Toishan, China book project. Finally.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Alan Chin: Photographs of my family. Special for obvious reasons
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Alan Chin: Didn’t you ask this above? “Death to fascism and freedom to the people.”
(All images © Courtesy of Alan Chin)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Alan Chin: Is there a mathematical formula? Composition x lighting x texture divided by narrative with emotion in parentheses? : C x L x T / N ( E) = GREAT ?
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Alan Chin: See answer to Q11.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
1) Though meager, the camera is still an ATM. One can always make some money, no matter how little
2) Pure pleasure of pushing the button. Winogrand-itis.
3) Motivation : is this another formula? Aesthetics (Beauty) x Experience (Pleasure) divided by Meaning ? A x E / M = Motivation ?
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Alan Chin: Becoming a photographer. Should have gone to law school.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Alan Chin: To relive 1968.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Alan Chin: Drive stick shift. Speak several languages badly. Read a map, use a compass.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Alan Chin: It’s stupid and harmful to our credibility.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Alan Chin: Never care about the story or the photo more than the people involved.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Alan Chin: Role doesn’t change, platforms, technologies, practicioners do. Not losing its importance; definitely losing its once dominant sense of a common culture.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Alan Chin: Read more. Write more. Worry less about video unless that’s what you want to do.
Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Central Asia, and Ukraine, as well as extensively in the United States. He is a contributing photographer to The New York Times and many other publications, Adjunct Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and The New School, and his work is in the collection of the Museum Of Modern Art. The New York Times twice nominated Alan for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 and 2000. Currently, Alan is also Managing Director of Facing Change: Documenting DETROIT, a community-based photojournalism initiative for which he is a winner of the 2017 The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Detroit Arts Challenge, and 2019 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) ArtWorks.