The Pulse

Singaporean Photographer Edwin Koo: Views from Pakistan to Kathmandu

On travel and the importance of passion in photography.

Describing himself as an “accidental photographer,” Edwin Koo is an award-winning Singaporean documentary photographer who produces work that is striking and evocative. So much so that his body of work on Swat, Pakistan, titled Paradise Lost: Pakistan’s Swat Valley, won him the Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography in 2010.

In an interview with The Diplomat, Koo speaks about the importance of getting out of one’s comfort zone, his love for Kathmandu, Nepal, and his exciting, annual photography masterclass, Kathmandu INSIDE:OUT, due to take place this December.

You were a news photographer for a few years until you branched out as an independent documentary photographer. What prompted the career jump? 

News photography was exciting for the first two or three years. I was shooting celebrities one day and natural disasters the next day, but adrenaline can only do so much. Contrary to popular belief, most news jobs are unexciting and uncreative. Handshakes, funerals, and award ceremonies are part of the drudgery of news work. By the fifth year, it felt like too much of a grind and I wanted out. But I knew I loved visual storytelling and I loved the power of truth in real documentary work. Hence I decided to go out on my own.

In an interview you stated that the toughest part about making the career switch “was wrenching yourself from the comfort zone.” How important was quitting a stable job to challenge yourself as a photographer? 

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Not everyone needs to do that. For the more lazy ones like me, you need to create a little crisis in your life to push on. I have seen many hardworking photographers who manage to excel without taking drastic measures. It really depends on your personality, and the kind of work you want to produce.

What are the differences between working full-time for a publication and working independently?

When you work for a publication, you are pretty much a cog in the machine, doing what you need to do to benefit your employer. This can be limiting to a creative. When you work for yourself, you never really have to work. You think of a thousand and one things to do, and very often, you have ten project ideas floating in the air while you’re chasing two or three of them. I think I’m ploughing many more hours into photography now that I’m on my own. I run my own photography business, I run a gallery, I conduct an annual photo masterclass. Plus, I do my personal projects. I’m always doing something related to my work, but I don’t feel tired because the freedom that comes with being independent is exhilarating.

Paradise Lost

Sher Zaman, 50, squeezed 10 people into his LPG-powered auto-rickshaw on his flight from Swat Valley to the city of Mardan. He now stays in the tent village of Sheik Yasin, Mardan, Pakistan. More than two million refugees have poured out of Swat Valley as the Pakistan army launched a massive operation to eliminate Taliban militants, after the breakdown of a peace deal in early May 2009. The exodus of refugees is the Pakistan’s largest since the Partition in 1947. Pakistan. 2009/05/20

You lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, for two years (2008-2010). What did your work focus on during that time, and more importantly, how did it shape you as both a photographer and an individual? 

Frankly, it was all a blur in the beginning. I photographed anything and everything – festivals, riots, street scenes, etc. But as I photographed more, I discovered I was drawn to certain types of stories. Two projects stood out during my two-year-stint there: Maoists fighters and Tibetan exiles. I revisited these themes again and again, and made photographs without thinking of what I will do with them in the short run. Later on, I realized that I was rather obsessed with the ideas of home and utopia, both of which are themes in the projects I have undertaken so far.

You visited Pakistan in 2009 and left with a body of work titled Paradise Lost: Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Tell me about your experience photographing refugees, daily life and culture in the valley. What did you take away from it?

The project has been renamed Paradise, because I realized I am not in a position to judge whether or not it has been “lost”. I think Paradise taught me to be patient with my work. Each time I return to the subject and photograph, I see new things, glean new insights and move the story forward. In July-August 2013, I made one more trip to Swat, to find the content to finish my upcoming book, Paradise. I faced many obstacles – self-doubt, disappointments, non-access, and illness, just to name a few. Nonetheless, I was blessed with loyal friends who helped me in every instance, and I would say the trip was a success. The book is due to launch at the end of this November, in Singapore, and will be distributed internationally.

Will you consider coming back to Pakistan in the near future for more projects? If yes, what would you really like to photograph on your next trip here?

Yes, of course. I think I’m very fascinated by the northwest and some of the places I would like to photograph are Chitral and Hunza. They are paradise in their own rights too, I think.

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Paradise Lost: Pakistan's Swat Valley

Muslims gather at the ruins of Bilal Masjid, popularly known as the “Rock Mosque”, for evening prayers. Built 3 years ago by an Arab Sheikh, the mosque was the biggest in Bahrain, with a capacity for 500, before the flood washed away everything except its foundation. Bahrain, Swat Valley, Pakistan. 2010/09/24.

Is it imperative for a photographer to photograph their subjects minus emotion? You know, switch off, get the job done, then switch back on and allow yourself to feel what you’ve just photographed.   

Definitely not! A photographer should allow his/her emotions to permeate the imagery. That’s the difference between a machine and a human. A camera doesn’t take pictures, but a photographer does.

The mention of Kathmandu always gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is not the best city to live in, of course. In fact, it was placed among the “10 worst cities to live in the world” by The Economist. But it taught me to feel for my work, and I feel my personal growth was strongly inspired by the place. I felt that it brought out the storyteller in me, and I wanted to share this experience with others.

Funnily, the tourism tagline for Nepal is “Once is Not Enough.” And I must say I fully agree with it. I would encourage all photography enthusiasts who are looking to go beyond “postcard perfection” in their photography to give the Masterclass a thought. The eight-day visual storytelling bootcamp is no walk in the park. Kathmandu is no easy place to work, but I guarantee it will change your life and the way you photograph, as it had changed mine.

Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected]