“Dear Thuriya / Bright is the Night”, a solo show by documentary photographer Jean Qingwen Loo, co-curated by Objectifs for The Esplanade will be exhibiting at the Tunnel (B1) from 13 Apr to 6 May 2012.

We first met Jean fresh out of university in 2008, as a participant for Objectifs’ annual mentorship programme Shooting Home. The “never-say-die” photographer has since been commissioned to work on various projects, including documenting water and sanitation issues for Lien Foundation in Children of Mekong and youth expeditions for HSBC Bank in Puerto Rico and Iceland. She has also garnered awards at the International Photography Awards (2009) and was recognised in the Photo District News Photo Annual (2009 & 2010). Emmeline Yong from Objectifs catches up with Jean to find out more about “Dear Thuriya” and her career so far as a documentary photographer.

EY: Tell us a bit more about this upcoming series Dear Thuriya. You first starting shooting the boys in 2009 , how did that happen? How has that project and your relationship with them evolved over the years?

JL: “Dear Thuriya” is a personal record of my relationship with Ashin Thuriya, a young novice monk and his brothers, Ashin Wimala and Ashin Tezawbatha, who live in Mandalay. It all began during a chance encounter in 2009 in a quiet neighbourhood in Mandalay where I was photographing for a long-term project on monastic education in Myanmar. Thuriya caught my eye and I approached them with my guide, Soe Soe. We followed them back to their home at Sulamuni Brick Monastery and that’s how the story began. 

The boys come from a village in the tea-producing province of Thibaw in the Shan State of Myanmar. After their mother died of illness, their father sent his sons to Mandalay to receive an education. This mirrors the situation in most of Myanmar where monastic schools serve to cope with the growing number of orphans and children whose families are living in poverty. Today there is an estimated 200,000 students – or 16 per cent of Myanmar’s school-going children – studying at over 2,500 monastic schools. 

I feel that this is an important story to tell, especially in light of Myanmar’s recent developments and its highly ambitious drive to reform. The monastic education system has played various roles through Myanmar’s history and it will be interesting to see how it adapts alongside its modernisation. On a personal level, having observed how Thuriya and the other novices grow up in an environment of strict rules and routine, I wanted to explore a childhood that was vastly different from mine. I want to find out how this predominent collectivist culture will shape him in years to come, or will it? A bigger influencing factor was one of my personal heroes –– Aung San Suu Kyi –– Her story drew me to Myanmar and I quite simply, fell in love with it. 

The boys know I am from Singapore — I’ve tried to show them on a world map where I live. Thankfully for my wonderful, patient Myanmar friend Soe Soe, we would spend hours in “conversation”, just hanging out and laughing while trying to speak bits of English and Burmese. I guess part of my motivation is to encourage them to study harder because there is a lot out there: I make it a point to take them out for excursions beyond their neighbourhood in Mandalay where Soe would tell her stories and I would soak it all up with my camera and print pictures for them to keep. My friends and I collected picture books and I am slowly hoping to build up a small library for them at the monastery. 

Still, I cannot explain why I feel so strongly about Thuriya and his brothers. Our differences? Fate? But I hope to stay photograph them through the years for as long as I can. 

EY: How did you get started in documentary photography? At which point in your studies or after graduation did you realise that it was something you wanted to pursue professionally?

JL: I studied journalism at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and it was during a photojournalism module where I got acquainted with the works of James Nachtwey, Mary Ellen Mark and Sebastiao Salgado. This exposed me to a whole new world beyond the comfortable environment I grew up in Singapore. In many ways I am extremely thankful because it made me do a lot of questioning on my purpose in life. I suppose at the age of 22 these questions were pivotal in shaping my values and priorities as I transited into the “adult world”. 

However, it was only when I worked the ground as a student journalist during my Final Year Project (2006 – 2007) with two friends where I decided I would pursue documentary photography as a career. We were blessed to receive a grant to produce “Changing Phases”, a book of illustrated features on issues affecting children in Southeast Asia, in conjunction with the ASEAN 40th anniversary then. This grant took us to Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar where I photographed and co-reported on a variety of stories on the subject of religion, education, technology, urbanisation and modernisation. It was a dream project to work on as it gave me opportunities to learn about project management, planning logistics, the importance of research and relationships. In a way, photography itself became secondary was there was always so much to prepare for and learn before I could actually put the camera to use.

My motivation then, for the project, was to humanize big policies and issues to see how they affected people on the ground. I think it kind of became one of the fundamental principles guiding my work in the last four years. I see my work as a passport for me to get the most out of life simply because I learn so much from the people I photograph or interview. These lessons are intangible but help to broaden my outlook and perspectives, which I really treasure because the world has so much to offer. 

EY: It’s tough making a living as a freelance documentary photographer, anywhere in the world! Some would say it’s tougher in Singapore than say the US or Europe, because we don’t have that many publications, grants and foundations that pay documentary photographers for stories. How do you manage?

JL: The first two years were kinda tough because I came out of school armed with a journalism degree but limited skills to survive photographing commercially. Thankfully, I don’t know why I had an abnormally strong never-say-die attitude and belief that it would all be okay if I worked hard enough. I also had to persuade my parents to give me a chance to strike it out on my own, so I settled on a three-year-plan to achieve 3 simple goals:  1) Earn a decent salary 2) Get very busy doing work that matters 3) Stay hungry and happy. 

Glad to say I’ve survived so far and am still excited about the future!

Looking back, it was quite frightening. I had rejected a journalist job offer and was determined not to regret. This spurred me to work harder: I joined Objectifs’ Shooting Home (2008) which gave me an insight into why it was so important to have personal motivation in one’s work, to question, to feel. I also took a range of courses ranging from digital asset management to portrait photography, basic lighting and the business of photography simply because I was technically weak, unaware and these were essential things I had to know. I made it a way of life to travel widely to boost my portfolio and work on stories that I could write about. Again, the fee wasn’t fantastic, but this was necessary to slowly build up a showcase of published work. More importantly, travel groomed me to be more worldly. 

Group exhibitions and photo fairs were also wonderful experiences to meet people and connect. Sometimes I teach classes, other times I do a whole lot of writing in between commercial photo gigs. I also started producing short documentary-styled films where I tell stories with stills, moving interviews, sound and words. In between all this I still push myself to learn through collaborations with my peers or more classes. I make sure I travel constantly and always stay inquisitive and excited. All these have helped paved the way towards a stronger belief in the power of documentary (and a healthier income.) I have also been blessed to be surrounded by supportive friends, comrades in the field, mentors and clients turned friends who provide invaluable advice and concern. 

In a way, working independently has groomed my entrepreneurial spirit because I become solely responsible for my own career and future. It’s empowering to discover means of harnessing my interests or bring together friends who might create sparks. And when there are those dream gigs that involve traveling, advocacy work or working with people I admire — I am always thankful because nothing’s a given in life. 

I see photography, journalism and films as channels for me to do what I love to do, which is really to live an adventurous, meaningful, colourful life. Making use of my different skills has helped me survive well so far, but I am always wondering what to do next…Still figuring that part out so we’ll see how it goes 🙂

EY: You’ve travelled all around the world, from China, to Puerto Rico to Iceland, etc. What are some of the stories/people/places that have really stayed with you?

JL: They have all definitely impacted me in one way or the other. I think that’s the beauty of experience. 

Nothing can replicate the fatigue and sinking feeling of almost getting lost in a rainforest in Puerto Rico with 10kg of gear in the rain and getting on all fours alongside scientists who spend years geotagging trees as part of a longterm experiments towards sustainability. Interviewing a farmer on how water has improved his family’s life in a mountainous village in Yunnan taught me to better appreciate the basic blessings of city life. Spending time in a railway community in Jakarta where I had to ask kids in a crumbling makeshift school under a highway what their ambitions were made me rediscover dreams. Hours spent on a safari searching for a pride of lions in Kenya against the vast African landscape were precious humbling moments that will stay with me forever. 

“Character-building exercises”, as a friend aptly puts it.

Nature has its ways of putting things into perspective and I am glad to have found photography to remember my experiences.

EY: If budget, time, family obligations etc were not limiting factors, what would your dream photo project or assignment be?

JL: Woah this is a tough one. Always changing with each new thing that excites me but there are a few influences I dream of working with on my “Someday I hope & I will” list: 

1) Documenting Aung San Suu Kyi 

2) Working with Faye Wong and Jay Chou

2) Exploring the Arctic 

3) Documenting Thuriya as he grows up and old

4) Working on a film set with Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Shu Qi