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An interview with Alan Chin

conducted by John Clay
Home of Alan Chin, New York City, July 2003
Good World Bar, New York City, August 2003

page 1 of 2

i n t r o d u c t i o n

"I'm on the steps of City Hall. Two people have been shot. Can you call me in an hour?" No problem. I was meeting Alan Chin, a photojournalist whose images of conflicts around the world have been published by The New York Times, US New & World Report, Newsweek, COLORS, and Esquire. Now, once again, he was in the middle of mayhem: It was exactly this penchant of his that had drawn my attention to him earlier in the year, when I had heard him speak about his work at a panel discussion at the Asian American Arts Centre, here in New York City.

Now there was nothing for me to do but settle in and wait. I had a coffee, followed by a beer, at the meeting place we had agreed on, a bar in Manhattan's Chinatown, run by Swedes. It previously had been a Chinese barbershop, and the new owners kept the old name, still legible in Chinese and in English on the sidewalk awning—Good World. Alan arrived an hour later, as promised, for what would be the first of a two-session interview about capturing life, and sometimes death, on film, so that it does not pass unnoticed. The murder of New York City Councilman James E. Davis would have been noted in any event, but the same cannot be said of the many men, women, and children who become the "collateral damage" of war. We jumped in Alan's car and sped to his apartment, where he answered my questions while uploading his City Hall photos to the internet for immediate distribution to news services. In the excitement of the moment, I fumbled with the buttons of my tape recorder—and much of the session was lost. I made the most of a very humbling situation by refining my questions for the second session, which we completed successfully a couple of weeks later back at Good World Bar.


i n t e r v i e w

CLAY: As a photojournalist, you have covered warfare in Bosnia, Kosovo, the West Bank, Afghanistan, and most recently Iraq. Have you ever been wounded in the field?

CHIN: No. I've been lucky.

CLAY: What is the most dangerous situation you have ever faced?

CHIN: I think that in the risks we take, the most dangerous things are the unknowables. The decision to go down a road that you don't know much about. This wasn't so much the case in Iraq, but oftentimes there are no real front lines, so you don't really know in which jurisdiction you are—which army controls which area. So you go down these roads, and it's often very unsettling. You are checking something out: There might be combat or something going on in a certain area, but you have to get there. The worst is when there is no one around at all, when an area is absolutely deserted because the population has fled. Soldiers—we saw this in Iraq—can often be very trigger-happy. Not because they are bloodthirsty or insane or brutal but because they are scared. So if they see a car coming down the road that they don't recognize as one of their own military vehicles, they might just open up on you. Or if you approach a checkpoint too quickly.

CLAY: Do you get scared? How do you handle it?

CHIN: I can count on my two hands the number of times I've been under close fire. And in those situations, it's twenty guys shooting at each other. Yes, it's scary. But you get down and chances are you'll probably be okay. I've also been very lucky that I have usually covered situations where there is not that much airpower and artillery on the other side. The biggest thing the Iraqis threw at the Americans was maybe a twenty millimeter mortar—which is big, that would demolish half this building—but its not like you see in the war movies, two hundred guns firing at once. It's not like that.

CLAY: Tell me about your recent work in Iraq. What did you see there?

CHIN: We visited a number of Saddam's former Baath secret police headquarters, and inside many of them there were entire prisons. Even in the first weeks of the war, before it became clear that Saddam was done, people still had this incredible fear of these places and the people associated with these places. In the town of Azu Zubayr, which is in the south near Basra, we explored a Baath party headquarters, and we started picking up some of the documents that were scattered about. The building had been demolished by an American bomb. But even as we were picking up documents, there was a group of four or five guys who came out of nowhere who made it very clear we shouldn't be hanging out around there. So clearly in many places the regime had melted but not disappeared.

I should also mention the mass graves. In Hillal, local villagers found a grave with about five thousand bodies, which, if anything, was underestimated. Usually in a lot of [war zones] the numbers are exaggerated. In the Balkans or Afghanistan you could never get a firm grip on numbers. Someone would say, "a thousand people have been killed", and it is really a hundred. And that's still a crime by any standard. But in Iraq, if anything, the numbers are too low. They are finding enormous graves. I went to the Abu Ghraib prison, and there we found nooses that were still in the execution chambers. It is just astounding the level of state violence that existed under Saddam. Covering the war, as a photographer and journalist, what is really stunning that you can never really convey, even through your photographs or your words, is how deprived of spirit Iraq is. Afghans are not deprived of spirit. The Balkan peoples are not deprived of spirit. They might be at war, and in Afghanistan they might live at a fairly primitive level of technology, but the cultures are intact. But Saddam Hussein had a police state. I don't know if there is any place else in the world quite like it. Maybe North Korea is the only other place at this point.

CLAY: Working as a photojournalist, how do you switch jurisdictions, from one army's territory to another?

CHIN: In a low-intensity war, the main roads often remain open. In Kosovo, the main roads were open, so while you had this guerrilla movement in the countryside and in the mountains that controlled anywhere between twenty and forty percent of the country, the rest of the country was still under government control. The roads were open, the telephones worked, the electricity was fine for the most part. You could drive off the road and you knew that literally just an hour later you would hit a guerrilla position. And you could spot the lines fairly easily. Also, civilians in most of these places have some kind of mobility. People are always still trying to get to work; they are trying to get food or water for their families.

CLAY: So, in a sense, ordinary life continues even in wartime?

CHIN: I think the issue of food and medication and water is the most critical. In Basra, in this war [in Iraq], the British decided not to storm the city. They surrounded the city for about eight days and slowly degraded the Iraqi military, such as it was. And during that time, civilians could walk in and out of the city, and cars could come and go. The British army would search them and certain people were arrested or detained if they were suspected of being Iraqi military or police or Baath. But by and large people could move relatively freely. That can often not be true. In the West Bank, the Israelis will shut everything down. They will impose a curfew and they will give people four hours of movement every week. Can you imagine being couped up in your house every day except for a few hours once a week to do your shopping! That is a lot more draconian, a lot more severe. But even in those circumstances people will—they have to—get food for their family.

Iraqis were quite interesting. Even in the West Bank and Israel where you think people are quite used to war, whenever the shooting starts, everyone clears out and goes home. The is the normal reaction. In New York on September 11th, after the initial panic and the evacuation of downtown, people stayed indoors. Iraq, for some strange reason, is an exception to that. When I entered Baghdad on the first or second day after it fell, there were still sporadic gun battles, there was still a lot of military movement, and yet there were traffic jams. It's the first time I have ever entered a city that had just fallen and encountered traffic jams.

CLAY: And it wasn't just an exodus?

CHIN: No, it was people trying to get things done! It amazed me. There was very little real information in Iraqi society. So people lived off the shortwave radios and rumors. In that kind of country, many of those people in the traffic may not have known that there was some level of danger. If you're in a traffic jam, you 're not thinking about a gun battle, you're thinking about honking. The honking may be louder than the gunfire down the road.

CLAY: You remarked in your online Kosovo Diary that, at a certain point in the life cycle of media coverage of a conflict, the sports photographers and financial reporters show up. Tell me what that's about.

CHIN: That was a mean comment on my part. It's funny, I'll tell you why. When a story gets big, the glare of the media eye gets focused on one place and one time, and it is like insects buzzing a light. Say you are one of the relatively small number of people who have been there and worked on the story when it wasn't that big a story—most of the time in Kosovo there was a core group of around thirty to sixty of us—and all of a sudden there are maybe a thousand journalists from around the world (and I have been part of that pack too, who come in late), and they often have a lot more lavish equipment and money, you do feel a certain resentment. You feel like: Where have you been?

I said sports photographers because a lot of peacetime photojournalists will use fairly long lenses because that's just how its done. Whereas when you are on the ground covering a conflict, you tend not to use that kind of equipment. The equipment tends to be lighter and smaller and more simple. When you cover a place for a long time, the idea is to become more intimate. The idea of taking a picture from down the street when you could walk up and photograph it up close—if you look at the history of photojournalism, there is a lot of caddy debate over this. I use a long lense sometimes. But there is a sense that people who use a long lense are less intimate, less familiar, and the pictures reflect it. A long lense picture will often grab something out of the scene, like a close-up of an old woman's face. But if you have been covering a place for a long time, you would rather be up close and take a picture of the old woman with her family or with her house or with her belongings. You want to engage in more of a conversation—which may not be what your editors want, but at that point you don't care because you are more interested in just being true to what's really happening. And the dig at financial reporters—that really was unfair of me. [laughter] It's just the idea that everybody shows up.

CLAY: What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about photojournalism?

CHIN: There is a misconception that it's really dangerous, that it's crazy—Oh god, you are going to get killed! The reality is, yes, there is some level of risk, and journalists do die. I've lost a couple of friends over the years. It's very hard to assess the risk. If it's a controllable thing, then it's not that scary. You go through moments of intense fear, intense stress, but then those moments are over and you get back to whatever you are trying to accomplish.

CLAY: Are there things you do to prepare yourself to go back to the front lines?

CHIN: I don't think there is any real way you can get ready for it. I'm a little bit like a Boy Scout. I try to have all my equipment in good order, I try to have books that I can read. I get a little bit anal when I go through the checklist. And it's a pain: You are dragging three or four heavy bags. Often getting into a place is the hardest part. Yeah, you can hire a taxi, but can you trust the taxi driver? So you can't even leave the car, because your stuff is in the car. You've always got to worry about your stuff. Another thing I do is, I resolve that I'm going to take it easy for the first few days, that I'm not going to do anything that crazy, that I'm going to just slowly adjust to it, and that I'm going to do my best not to be bothered by that competitive urge—when your colleagues get something while you're still at the airport. When I went to Iraq, the war started on the day that I left, so in the New York Times the day I was on the airplane was the story of the first strike on Baghdad, the so-called decapitation strike at the beginning of the war. And of course you're feeling: I'm missing it! I'm missing it! But of course the reality is, you can miss this or that, but there's always going to be something else. So I try not to get too crazy about that.

It is also strangely reassuring once you're back into it. There is something very liberating about conflict, because the normal rules don't apply. I remember in Kosovo maybe four months after the war was over, a cop pulled me over and said I was driving too fast, and I was like, What do you mean? The war was over, the rules were back. But the thing is you do get used to this sense that, I'm only going to worry about the job. I'm going to worry about taking pictures. You keep your eyes on the prize when you are working.

CLAY: How do soldiers in the field react to the photojournalists?

CHIN: Oftentimes people react to me very uniquely because I happen to be Chinese-American. I have not ever covered a war where anyone looked like me. I think this has helped me in a lot of places. Because if you are a Chinese guy with a couple of cameras you are certainly not going to be mistaken for one of the combatants, you are not going to be accused of being a spy or working for the other side. It's obvious you are from somewhere totally different. I think this is unique to me and other members of funnier, more unusual minority groups. It probably hurt me in some small ways: People think a photojournalist is supposed to look like a white guy from Chicago. They aren't as quick to trust me as they would a typical white American. (People always think I'm Japanese. The whole world for some reason knows about the Japanese but not about the Chinese.)

The reality is that journalism is a profession that is still dominated by whites, and white men in particular. I don't have a particular problem with it, because I don't think that there are necessarily great barriers in the way. I think if you happen to be someone like me and you have a desire to do this, you will be able to do it. I think the reason there are not more women doing it is that basically war is a boys' thing. And I think if you want to talk about why there aren't more Chinese or blacks or other minority groups doing this, it is that we are still at the stage in this country where most American minorities are still more interested in getting into the system. I think most Chinese kids are more interested in making sure that their life in America is stable and settled.

CLAY: They are looking for more conventional roads to success?

CHIN: Exactly. In a way it's a luxury to do this. Anybody who wants to cover conflict—if you have enough skills and instincts to do this even on a small level, chances are you would probably be pretty good at some regular job that would make a lot of money.

CLAY: How about the reaction of civilians to photojournalists?

CHIN: In Iraq during the first two weeks there was intense fear. A lot of people didn't want to be photographed because they associated that with being above ground. And in any totalitarian society, you don't want to be noticed. But in general people are much friendlier than they are here in America. And I think that is the privilege of being a foreigner. Certainly as an American covering overseas conflicts you are usually quite welcome, because people know that their message will get out through you, that you are the closest thing they have to a voice. If your son or daughter is killed by a sniper or in a massacre, you want the press there. You want to be photographed and be interviewed. They know the power that the media has. And certainly in places like Kosovo, people wanted us there because they knew that it was the only way to trigger some kind of intervention—which in the end did happen. That's true in Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians feel that their only chance is to get their message out, to show the world how much they suffer under Israeli occupation. That's the only chance for foreign governments to put pressure on Israel. There is no way they are going to win that war militarily. Suicide bombings? You don't win a war that way.

CLAY: How did you get started in photography?

CHIN: My father was an avid amateur photographer. There is a level of geekiness about it. Kids who love playing with those science sets might end up being scientists. And kids who, like me, really loved playing with a camera, this becomes what you do. More directly, when I was eighteen I was in China and I ended up inadvertently photographing Tianenmen Square and the events there. It was there that I realized that I had a certain affinity for this and it was something that I could really do. Part of me has always wanted to be a writer. There is a joke that half of all photographers are failed painters and the other half are failed writers. I think I'm a failed writer! I think also photography is one of the only professions where you can write your own ticket and have an excuse to be anywhere. You have to be there. It allows you to indulge your curiosity about things. What are those kids doing skateboarding? I can always just walk up to them and say, Hey man, my name is Alan and I'm a photographer. Can I hang out? What are you guys up to?

CLAY: So its a way to explore the world, and also a way to tell a story?

CHIN: That's the flip side. Your curiosity gets you there, and then once you're there, it is your responsibility to tell the story and to do so as well as you can. It's a building block of stories. Think about things you don't know a lot about. Like, I don't know a lot about penguins. What little I do know about penguins probably comes from photographs from magazines and television. That's how our society educates itself. Imperfectly. Through pictures and the words that are with the pictures. To get photographs and have them published or even just have them shown—this is storytelling, this is narrative, and it's really important. But there is a lot that's wrong. Photographs are ambiguous. They tell a story, but which story? You can look at a photograph and feel one way and then find out that it's something else entirely.

CLAY: What can you as a photographer do to fight that?

CHIN: On a basic level you try to write accurate captions, you try to be as honest as you can, you try never to impact the subject in any way, obviously you don't set anything up. But when you show up somewhere with a camera, people obviously react to you. So on a certain level it cannot be helped, but you try to keep that within reasonable limits.

CLAY: How do you handle the possibility that you might be pulled into the events you are covering?

CHIN: Some people will adopt an orphan. The most I've done is give out a bit of money, give someone a lift to the hospital. I've done small things. But the reality is, you have to keep yourself a little bit insulated. We have these satellite phones, so everyone will run up to you and say, Can I make a phone call? My brother lives in Australia, I want to let him know I'm ok. My mother is in Germany, and I don't know if I'll ever see her again. Obviously you can't let everyone make a phone call. So you have to really draw the line, and even with friendships. The people who work for us—the drivers, the translators, the local journalists—become friends as well as being colleagues. There are those who become real friends, people that you don't treat any differently from your friends back home. But then there are other people with whom—because of the cultural gap, because they want something from you, because of whatever—it's not possible. For one thing, if they work for you, there is the dynamic of being the boss and knowing when to say no. If you pay someone fifty dollars a day, it's a lot of money in a poor country. So what if the person you are paying has nine children: Should you be paying them one hundred dollars instead of fifty? Okay so maybe you do pay them a hundred dollars, and then they come back and say they want a hundred and fifty. What do you do? There are a lot of tough, awkward situations. People invite you into their house for tea, and you photograph them and listen to their whole story. And then they say, Can I ask you a favor? And you have to say, There is nothing I can do. I'm sure they feel a little betrayed: Hey, I've invited this guy into my home, I've made him tea, I've told him my whole story, he's taken pictures, he pretended to be friendly, but then he just walks away.

CLAY: But by taking the photos aren't you helping them tell their story?

CHIN: In the general sense—yes. In a specific sense—maybe not. That picture may never be published; that story may never be told. I think there are times when you do feel guilty about that. And then there are times you feel a little cavalier about it and you want to say, Just leave me the fuck alone, I'm not a welfare service, I'm not a humanitarian organization. I'm actually a for-profit business, if the truth has to be told. So how do you balance that?

CLAY: In your online Kosovo Diary, you wrote of being especially affected by the death of one young boy who was doing chores with his father.

CHIN: You never quite lose your ability to be shocked. But you do sometimes lose your sense of individual death. Especially with a mass grave, thousands of skulls and fragments—you find someone's sneaker in the ground, someone's wallet that's all rotting, but you never feel like you know this person. Whereas if someone's dead only a day, only an hour, there is still very much a physical body there. You are shocked because that's a person who was living and breathing only a few minutes or hours ago. You mention the case of this eleven year old boy who was killed while out chopping wood with his father: This was a case where he was particularly young, he was particularly innocent, and his mother and father were there. And let's be really selfish about it, the picture I took was actually really good. So all those factors make it memorable. You know, three thousand people died in the World Trade Center and most New Yorkers never actually saw that happen. We saw the buildings blow up, and we knew those people were dying, but we didn't see the deaths, we didn't see bodies—not too much. And of course the American media is weird in that it doesn't like to show that to its own public. I happen to disagree with that. I don't think there is anything wrong with showing fairly atrocious scenes. Not for the shock value but just because that's what it is.

CLAY: Is there a danger of desensitizing people?

CHIN: Look, we have movies where people are killed like nothing. You know, bang bang, no blood. Real death is not that romantic. Maybe people do need to see more of it. Then maybe they won't flock to see these Schwarzenegger movies. Although that's probably not true. They might go anyway.

CLAY: On the one hand, people want their stories to be told. But on the other hand, do they resist the photographer's intrusion into their lives?

CHIN: You cover a total stranger's tragedy. I think on one level you have to be very sensitive. You have to say, I'm sorry that I'm here and doing this, but I think you know why, and I hope it's okay. And that's all you can say. Here in New York there was a kid who was murdered on the Lower East Side not too long ago, and I photographed the crime scene. Usually there's nothing really to photograph—some yellow police tape. But while I was there, the family showed up—the mother of this kid who was 22 years old, a new college graduate who moved to New York to get a job and was murdered, dead. The family were crying and praying, and I took some pictures of them. And this time I did take it with a long lense because I didn't want to be in their space. And I walked up to them and said, I'm sorry I'm doing this, but I'm on assignment for the New York Times and unfortunately this is news.

In the case of a family where the person died from political violence, they want you there. Oftentimes someone will pull you, Come, come, this way! And they show you. So you are part of the story at that point. When they think about how their brother or their son or whoever was killed during the war at the age of eleven or nineteen or whatever, they might also remember: Those foreigners came and they filmed us, and it was noted. It was noted.

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interview © 2003 John Clay