Based in Beijing and Singapore, the indefatigable photographer Stefen Chow has worked with clients in more than 20 countries; has had his works published and awarded by PDN, Photographie de la Paris, International Photo Award, Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, amongst others; co-developed a social-documentary project “The Poverty Line” which explores the contextuality of poverty; and photographed/climbed several mountains, including Mount Everest. Emmeline Yong from Objectifs chats with Stefen Chow about how he got started and what keeps him going in this interview. 

EY: How did you get started in photography?

SC: I wasn’t interested in photographing street or general scenery photography when I was younger. I got started when I was part of a mountaineering team to scale Mount Everest in 2005. I was designated the team’s photographer simply because I had the biggest camera then. We were involved in multiple expeditions in the Himalayas and Karakorams, and my interest in capturing meaningful and dramatic photos started there. 

EY: On your blog, you mentioned that you started shooting 10 years ago, and thought of turning professional 7 years ago. Was there a turning point, that made you realize that this was a viable career path for you?

SC: I met a renown photographer years ago when he was in Singapore to give some talks, and my friends knew I was photographing in the mountains then. He offered to meet up with me, and after he saw my pictures and closed the book, he looked me in the eye and asked, 

“What will you do after climbing Everest?” 

“I might go back as being an engineer.”

“No, you become a photographer.” That night changed my career path. 

EY: As an independent photographer, how do you find inspiration and ways to keep ahead?SC: I take a walk, I watch films, I talk to people. I read a lot, ranging from politics, economics to science and human psychology. I find most inspiration when I take a long run. I like to learn things constantly.  I am rarely comfortable with where I am, but I am contented with what I am. 

EY: You’ve worked with many different companies and locations. How do you prepare for a shoot in a new location? Any particular memorable assignments?

SC: As a freelance photographer, there are no off days, only first and last days. Every client expects you to give your all, and you either deliver the pictures or there wouldn’t be another job. There are no excuses in my industry. I often prepare for a shoot by understanding the norms, the time of light, and even research on existing pictures of the place before throwing myself into a new environment. Taking deep breaths before an important portrait session helps. 

One of the most memorable assignments was when I was working for Li Ning, China’s biggest sports apparel company and I was assigned to be Shaquille O’Neal’s personal photographer, their biggest spokesperson for a week across 10 cities in China. I had the first row seat of celebrity mania surrounding Shaq, and it was meaningful understanding what it means to be the other side of the lens. We had 10,000 people waiting for us at the Shaolin temple on a Monday morning. It was crazy and we had a good laugh over it. 

EY: You also take time off your corporate work to go hiking (where you shoot your adventure/landscape work), develop personal projects like The Poverty Line and recently attended an artist residency in Arles – how do you find the balance between professional and personal? How do you keep the passion going?

SC: At some point in my career, I decided that as a photographer, it is really not about the money. I might have learnt that too while I was climbing Everest! I went into photography because of the passion, and I love the diversity of life that I have experienced so far. The Poverty Line kept me informed of social issues happening in the real world, and doing the project was two fold – educating others and educating myself. The personal work works as a balance to what I want out of this career, and it has also helped keep my focus on life. I treat both elements as equally important, and I think the balance has kept it interesting so far.