The Power of the Still Image: An interview with photojournalist, Michelle Siu

Field Notes Interview #71: Michelle Siu, Photojournalist

We find value in celebrating different forms of art and those who create it. Similar to music, we feel that photography deserves to be highlighted and appreciated. In an effort to bring attention to artists, we’ve decided to invite award-winning photojournalist Michelle Siu to share her work with us, and more importantly, you. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing a story on America conceptualized and created by photojournalist, and told through photography on our Instagram account.

A still image can can be a conversation, a conversation that sticks with you. there's something about a still image that inspires stillness in return — a moment to stop and observe. A still image does not mean that it doesn't have it's movement, there's a lot that goes on outside of the frame. Enter the work of photojournalist, Michelle Siu. Her work is compelling to the core and speaks to a greater social narrative. As a freelance photographer based in Toronto, her work requires her to travel to great lengths and distill stories within days, which in turn creates art that gets right to an emotional crux right out of the gate. Her work can be found in publications including The Atlantic, Time Magazine, New York Times, Mother Jones, Wall Street Journal and Discovery Channel.

We managed to catch Michelle in between trips and chat about her experience crossing borders and discovering social and political differences in each place she goes. 

Over the next few weeks, Michelle's photo essay "The Forgotten Dream" will be taking over our Instagram. During this time, portraits of people will balanced with portraits of place. Please keep checking in to see how the story evolves.


M: Who are you and what do you do in the world?
MS: I am a self-taught documentary photographer and freelance photojournalist based in Toronto, Canada but often elsewhere. I shoot for a variety of editorial publications which is how I make ends meet but what got me into this business is my love for working on long-form personal projects which includes this recent project on Niagara Falls, New York. Most of my long-form photo essays are centred around social issues of those who live in marginalized communities.

M: How did you come into photography?
MS: When I was in high-school I was very introverted and reserved. So when I was 16 I built a darkroom in my parents laundry room where I logged many nights developing really lame photos I had taken of my feet and flowers and other incredibly boring things. But essentially it was the solace of that laundry room that bred this love for photography. 

M: What's a day in the life of a working photojournalist?
MS: Well everyday is a little different. Most of the photojournalists I know can’t stay still, have a strong affinity to adventure and don’t mind the uncertainty of what tomorrow brings in terms of schedule and pay. I could be shooting anything from a portrait of a CEO in a towering building to gritty crime scenes to going on the road with pro basketball players. I also shoot for international aid organizations which takes me to some interesting corners of the world a few times a year. And of course I dedicate a lot of myself to working on long-form photo essays like this Niagara project. It’s a really mixed bag. Photojournalism is a pretty bi-polar occupation and by that I mean the highs are high and the lows are low. I think that is true to many artistic pursuits. Making pictures you are really proud and telling stories you feel are important is incredibly rewarding but in many ways I’m a perfectionist and always want to be better and to be doing more and that can lead to a lot of frustration.

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M: How did you come into this project?
MS: Niagara Falls, New York lies on the Canadian border. I have driven through the city countless times and I have always been curious about it. I was approached by an American organization— Economic Hardship Reporting Project— who asked me to pitch them a project centred around poverty and economic insecurity in America. Niagara Falls immediately came to mind as I knew there was much more to this city than the boarded up buildings I saw through my car window.  I decided to shoot landscapes and pair them with portraits to try an describe the physical beauty that endures amongst the faces of those who live the struggle of a city that faces an economic downturn. This was my first foray into shoot film professionally (instead of digital). I shot the whole story over several months and in total I took 300 photos in total. To give you some perspective—when I am shooting digitally I can shoot this many photos on a one hour assignment. So the process of shooting film not only gave the images a different look and feel because of the film grain— but it also slowed me down. Every click of the shutter equated to something like $3 per photo that I took (factoring in the cost of the film, development and scanning) so I had to be very intentional and think hard about each photo. Digital pictures can make you a bit frantic— people shoot a ton hoping to pick a good one out later. But sometimes less is more. Slowing down, thinking hard about what photo you want to make helps my racing brain find focus. Shooting on film is a big risk, you can’t check the back of the camera to see if you got the shot—- there is no certainty except for a gut feeling if you got the photo. In addition, the setting are all manual and you can only afford a few frames in each setting. So in that way I am very proud of this project because I shot within these limitations and created a body of work that is a big delineation stylistically from my past work but I feel also does this story justice. Also access was very difficult for this story. As a small Asian girl in some rough all-white or all-black communities I stood out. A lot of people told me to F*** off when I asked to take their photo. But rejection is something photojournalists are used to. So I found an approach-- I started knocking on doors of those who hung the American flag asking them why they hung it and what it meant to them. And from there this project was born. 

M: What makes a good story?
MS: There are good stories everywhere. If i walk down any given street there is a person, an organization, a community that has an important story. To me a good story is up to the photojournalist. I have made stories about a simple 90-year-old farmers in Missouri to maternal fatality rates in Guatemala— photographers need to figure out what’s important to them and shoot the hell out of it and keep on shooting it until you feel you have told the story the best you can within the limitations of time and cost. That’s how you make a good story.

M: What's a particularly difficult project you've been involved with?
MS: I have been following a Canadian First Nations community that was intentionally flooded by the Manitoba government to keep the province’s capital city dry. This story should make headlines nationally but few know about it. The entire community was displaced five years ago and they continue to displaced in the city that was saved at the expense of their ancestral land. When you spend weeks on end with a community their issues at times weigh heavily on you. As a result of working on that story I have people calling me from prison and I have had long conversations with a mother struggling to find a reason for tomorrow. This project breaks my heart and also makes me angry— which I guess is good motivation to continue to give a voice to a community that doesn’t seem to have one. 

M: What's the last album you've listened to?
MS: This is an easy one — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Push the Sky Away. It’s been a while since a record has had such visceral affect on me. It’s sort of been my anthem for 2014-2015. The song features these French choir kids who apparently sang the words phonetically because they didn’t speak English which gives a dark eeriness to the song. To me the song (the record’s namesake) is about feeling like the sky is closing in on us but trying everyday to push it away and reach of happiness. There’s another song called the Higgs Boson Blues— which I have to tell you about. The song references this really dark science, I’ll try not to bastardize it’s meaning. But from what I understand the Higgs boson is this particle nicknamed the “god particle” that in short explains some key elements to humanity’s existence. And so Cave wrote this song about the depression and sadness that would ensue for physicists if they were able to prove that this existed because it would negate the existence of god and a lot of life’s mystery. Anyhow, I loved this idea that life needs an element of mystery. Anyhow, there's something really calming about this record that I can't grow tired of. It makes me feel at home. 


M: How do you feel Toronto has inspired your work?
MS: Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities I’ve been to and have been lucky enough to live in. I think being exposed to so many different types of religions, foods and cultural experiences in one city has fostered a deep respect and love for far away places.


M: What are the main cultural differences you experience when traveling to the states to work?
MS:
It’s funny even though at first glance the border countries seem so similar the differences are nuanced and others are pretty significant. The issue of healthcare came up many times when I spoke with people for this Niagara project. The cost of healthcare had put a lot of people in debt who I spoke with and although our Canadian system isn’t perfect most of us don’t have to think twice about seeing a doctor or go to an emergency room.

M: What do you have coming up on the horizon as an artist?
MS: I’m headed to Zimbabwe and China over the next few months with an aid organization. When I get these types of assignments, I shoot what is required of my clients and try and work on my own personal project independently after my shoot is done. Since I am visiting the two countries a few months apart, I am thinking of working on a story about Chinese economic interests in Zimbabwe. I hope to shoot an interconnected story from both China and Zimbabwe. But who knows— stories always change and photojournalism can pave way to strange and beautiful corners of the world that you never planned to go. It gives you a purpose when you travel and I think this unpredictability is part I love most about it.

Posted on January 25, 2016 .