Interview: Seeing Through The Eyes of a Photojournalist and Documentary Photographer

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Kenji
Kenji Kwok

Kenji Kwok is photographer who has a good heart, great eye for detail and excellent ability to communicate. Recently the founders of F Stop Lounge sent Kenji on assignment to Vietnam to document the life of the locals and make a difference in the world by helping out people in need. After returning we caught up with Kenji to ask him a few questions about what it’s like to practice his craft as well as find out what his doing locally in Singapore.

What does the title humanitarian photographer mean to you?

Humanitarian photographers strive to move people to action through their photography, and going the extra mile to show how their lives can be improved if change was implemented. That part of the documentation process helps give people hope to make a difference, either to advocate a good cause or to put an end to bad practices around the world.

To me, that is just one of the ways where we can use our skills to help improve what is happening around us, and photography is that tool that helps me best express my concerns about social issues.

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When you are out and about on a project or assignment what subjects or things do you look for or seek out?

I look out for individuals who seem to be in a daze while going through their daily routine. It makes me very curious to find out what is going through their mind, and often it’s the look of worry that makes me wonder if there is an interesting story that I can find out more about.

When I am looking for scenes to photograph, I am very interested in juxtaposed elements, such as an old senior on a wheel chair beside a toddler on a pram. In a way, I let my curiosity choose who I want to photograph.

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When you travel to distant places to document life what do you take with you?

I try not to bring too many things with me when I am out to do a photo story. That also means that I can avoid having to carry a large bulky bag that would hinder me from getting the shots that I want. Other than my Fujifilm X-T1, I would bring an extra lens at most, rather than a couple of other photography equipments that I would probably not be using.

I’ve recently added the Fujifilm Instax Share printer to my camera bag so that I could print instant photos for the people I meet on the streets. Other than that, I would also bring along a Moleskine notebook for me to jot down notes for a story, as well as the quotes from my photo subjects.

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F Stop Lounge recently sent you on assignment to Vietnam, can you tell us a bit about your trip and what it involved?

Vietnam was one of the places that I’ve always wanted to visit because Vietnamese people are extremely hardworking and willing to share about their lives. Although the language barrier was a big issue for the trip, the people there were very patient with me and often finding new ways of communicating with me — Gestures and even more gestures. I avoided the usual tourist spots as I wanted to find out more about how the locals went about during an ordinary day.

This led me to markets and places where I could see the original scenes in Vietnam. Essentially, I wanted to fit in as a local and just be an observer rather than a tourist. It was very interesting to document scenes other than those we see on a travel site. That is often also the place where you really see what a country has to offer, through its culture, heritage, and its people.

I’ve also had the pleasure of being invited to a friend’s house where she showed me around her place and to share with me a little bit about her life. This different lifestyle intrigues me every time I travel and it’s very interesting to find out about the different forms of homes in different countries around the world. If you’re shy about approaching someone to take a photo, Vietnam is a great place to start with. This lady made sure her son was smiling for the camera and I got a photo of him pouting instead.

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If you could have any job in the world what would it be and why?

I would like to be a photojournalist and documentary photographer so as to give a voice to individuals who might not have the opportunity to raise their concerns. I find photos being an extremely effective medium to tell a story and to move people into instigating changes to the many problems that plague our world today. Rather than being concerned about job opportunities for this industry, I feel that there are so many pressing issues that could be documented to both expose injustices and to move people in authority to do something about it.

For me, photography is the only way that I can help do something about what is happening around the world, to help others or the international community better understand the grievances of these individuals.

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As shown in your recent video ‘Kenji Kwok: A Photographer with a Cause’ what was your motivation to document and help the people you came across?

In my photography work, I kept asking myself how I can do a story not just because it’s interesting, but also how the story could be used to bring about an even more important change. I find it more purposeful to do these stories and to do more than just taking nice photos. I don’t want photography to stop at that when it has the potential to create good changes for our society.

I believe it is also due to my upbringing where I was taught to give others in need if I have the ability to help. I’ve therefore always been doing stories that I want to be both visually impactful and interesting, and also good enough to move people to share the story, all in hopes that it will be able to kickstart discussion and changes for these issues.

What do you think makes a great photo?

I find it impossible to pin-point elements that make a great photo and by doing so, that might also limit creativity in how we photograph people, landscapes, and things. There isn’t any rule that determines that it would make a good photo if you have this particular element. In my photos though, and only in my opinion, I always look to focus on emotions in my photos.

I do that through photographing both expressions and also posture of my photo subjects. These non-verbal gestures tend to help shape what I want to tell through my photos.

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Do you have a favourite lens to use when documenting people’s lives?

I love working with prime lenses. I find having a fixed focal length being very helpful in my field of work, where I am able to frame my photos and anticipate a moment before it happens. I prefer to be closer to my photo subjects rather than photographing them from afar, and having a fixed focal length also allows me to just move closer or further away to frame my shot rather than having to fumble with the lens.

My favourite lens is the Fujinon 23mm f/1.4, which is optically brilliant and it also offers a 35mm FOV on a 35mm-equivalent focal length. It gives me that extra flexibility to capture the other elements around my photo subject, and at the same time not having to step too far back from my subject.

What do you try and capture in someones portrait?

Before photographing someone, it is crucial that I learn more about their life. That gives me a good sense of how they are like and how they are usually — Happy and smiling, or feeling down most of the time. Through learning more about my photo subject, I will be able to photograph them in a way that shows their true personality.

Most often than not, they would try to look perfect and that is also the facade that we all have and wish to look like in photos. But that isn’t what we are and how we really feel. I want to show their true emotions through the portraits. It’s natural, it’s accurate, and it helps others relate better to the photo.

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