PHOTO © STEFEN CHOW
DEFINING IMAGE: Chow used this night shot of the Everest Base Camp for promotion on a business card, sparking much conversation and enthusiasm for his work. For more about this image, check out the article PDNedu Asks Photographers.
It’s no coincidence that people compare doing really difficult things to climbing Mount Everest. The highest mountain in the world measures about 29,000 feet, with 100 mile-per-hour winds at the top and a third of the air we’re used to breathing at sea level. Scaling it has cost more than 200 climbers their lives since 1953, and about 120 corpses still lie in Everest’s snowy valleys. If Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is any indication, you have to be a serious badass to even consider it.
In Stefen Chow’s case however, climbing Everest is no analogy. He’s actually done it—along with Gasherbrum II in Pakistan and Mount McKinley in Alaska—all with his camera in tow. But the difference between Chow and other mountaineers who record their summits for the folks back home is that for him, capturing the wildness of the mountain has spun into a professional photography career.
At first, it was just a hobby.
Malaysian-born, Singaporean-raised Chow became a mountain enthusiast on his first climb of Mount Ophir in Malaysia at age 15. The 4,000-foot rainforest mountain climb was thwarted when his group was attacked by bees, but Chow was hooked. “I was unscathed, and I got very intrigued with the mountain, as it revealed the best and worst in people, including myself,” Chow remembers. “It just got me going for more.”When it was time for college, math/science-inclined Chow majored in mechanical engineering at the National University of Singapore, graduating in 2003. He then took a job in Singapore with the German company Optibelt Asia Pacific. But as customary with recent college graduates looking for something more in life, Chow daydreamed of snowy mountains, not engineering. He started training to climb as a representative of his university, first traveling to New Zealand for a foundations course in mountaineering and then making seven expeditions in the Himalayas and Karakorams during the next three years. All this climbing was in preparation for the big one—Mount Everest—and through it all, he was snapping photos of his travels.
“Every time I went up the mountains, I had to take pictures,” says Chow, who started with his father’s old Nikon F2 film camera before graduating to the F60, F80 and eventually Nikon’s D3X and D3S. “I wasn’t that excited about taking pictures before, but on the mountains, I kept pushing myself, and the obsession to improve my photography became stronger each time.”
Naturally, Chow showed his images to his friends and family, who encouraged him to consider shooting professionally. But in Singapore’s equatorial location—where visions of high peaks are a rare novelty—he figured it was just lip service; his friends would be impressed by anyone’s adventure travel shots. It wasn’t until Chow began taking his book to local photography exhibitions and lectures that he thought there may be something to all that praise.
During one such exhibition, attended by New York–based United Nations photographer John Isaac, Chow approached the photojournalist, hoping for an informal review of his work. “I said, ‘Hey, John, I have some photos that I really want your opinion about,’” Chow remembers. “After he saw the first two Everest photos, he hugged me.
I was quite surprised by the reaction, but he told me that my work was really strong and that I needed to get it out to people. That confirmation got me thinking that maybe my photos are special in some way.”
After that, Chow knew he would have to forge ahead quickly in order to seriously consider photography as a profession. In 2007, he left his then fiancée in Singapore and flew to New York City to photo assist and take classes at the International Center of Photography. Living on Rector Street in downtown Manhattan, Chow says the eight-month experience was invaluable.
“As a young, starting photographer, I was lost, but in New York, I was surrounded by people with the same dreams and photographers with 30 and 40 years of experience that I’d seen in magazines and posters,” he says. “It’s an infectious, incredible atmosphere, and I felt very welcomed by people who were willing to share resources and information.”
During his stint in the States, Chow worked with editors from Sports Illustrated, Bloomberg News and the Associated Press. He also attended the Eddie Adams Workshop, which he counts as a defining chapter in his career. “So many photographic greats that I respected were there in the flesh and willing to talk to attendees,” Chow says. “I asked questions like ‘Is the work that I am doing right?’ and ‘What does it take to be a photographer for a lifetime?’ Both questions were answered at length, in depth, and the workshop blew my mind.”
Chow’s mentors suggested that with his fluency in English and Chinese, China would be a great base for getting substantial photography assignments. So he made plans to move to Beijing in 2008, not entirely sure how he would fund not only himself but also his new wife, who would be a full-time student.
Six months before their scheduled move, a lucky break came through in the form of Chow’s first major job. Keppel Shipyard—which converts super tankers into floating oil refineries—offered Chow a two-year contract to document its massive Singapore facility. “They wanted me to do a book for them, so I had full access to the shipyard and the 18,000 people they employed,” Chow says. “It was incredible; I felt like I was an engineer again, but this time going in as a photographer.”
The Keppel assignment paid enough to cover Chow’s travel costs between Singapore and Beijing, thereby assisting with the couple’s transition to China. “We didn’t have enough savings to support my wife’s education and living for two years at the beginning, but I said I would figure it out,” Chow says. “It was photography that supported us all the way.”
With photos documenting several different genres as a result of the shipyard assignment—from adventure to corporate to editorial—Chow’s original idea to be a photojournalist had expanded. Rather than boxing himself in by focusing on where his photos would eventually land, he started building his identity by his images’ voice and style. “I’m not really a photojournalist; I would call myself a photographer,” he says. “My images look authentic, and there’s a voice and concept behind them. I can lend my voice to any topic.”
So far this tactic has worked. In addition to corporate assignments, Chow has gotten his share of editorial work in Beijing—most notably, a 16-page layout in the German magazine GEO, documenting China’s top scientists and science facilities. Editor Ruth Eichorn wanted a modern, commercial feel, with all the lights and softboxes of a major production. Chow’s background in engineering—with hours spent in the lab and a familiarity with how scientists conduct experiments—proved invaluable.
“Scientists are not used to working with a photographer for ten hours a day and are not professional models—especially in China, so it was very challenging on multiple levels,” Chow recalls. “I did specific background research on each scientist so I could discern how their instruments and lab surroundings relate to their specific field of study. Then I did a mock shoot to show them what I was trying to do, and once they realized I was serious and professional about it, they were willing to invest their time in me.”
Other clients have invested in Chow as well. He’s worked with Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Cartier, among others, and is currently represented by Aurora Photos. He was nominated for PDN’s 30 and the World Press Photo Masterclass, and his personal and professional works have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Paris, Beijing and Singapore.
With all the success of the past five years, Chow says the most useful tool in building successful relationships is consistently producing good work.
“It’s not difficult to make a first contact with a magazine or company, but especially if you’re just starting, magazines want to see both your personal work and your client work, plus know that you can do it on a consistent basis,” he says “This is more important than a fancy e-mail, promo or gifts to a magazine, and it allows me to operate far from where many publications are based and still get regular work.”
And if this philosophy suddenly fails him, Chow will still be climbing. In addition to scaling Denali last June (hauling 127 pounds of gear, 40 of it camera equipment), he’s planning a South African climbing trip in mid-2011. He was featured in a group exhibition at ICP in January and is regularly getting assignments from his home base in Beijing.
“It’s important to know that as a photographer, you’re helping someone do his or her job,” he says of his accomplishments. “An editor is always looking for a good photographer but also for someone who’s pleasant to work with; you want to build bridges, not burn them. That attitude has helped me secure many long-term relationships.”
PHOTO © STEFEN CHOW
THE SUMMIT IN VIEW: Everest climbers approach the 8,000 meter mark, with the summit in view at left. Altitudes this high are known as the Death Zone, because the amount of oxygen present can not sustain life.How does Chow actually maneuver his camera equipment and climbing gear while on the side of a mountain? Here’s what he said:
“It is probably one of the only forms of photography where you have the same duties as an actual expedition team member while doubling as a photographer. I take more weight (my load was 127 pounds on Denali) and split the same chores with the rest of my team. When we reach our destination after a long ten-hour slough uphill, I am the first team member snapping away, so we don’t miss the crucial moments. Even if I’m exhausted, I know this is the point when emotions are laid bare; it’s the most honest form of photography. One of the most important points is to let your teammates know your role and how it will affect them. Sometimes I get ahead of them, and they might have to wait for a while (it feels longer at 23,000 feet). At times, they might have to wait on the rope while I concentrate on a landscape shot on a 45-degree slope. Their understanding makes pressing the trigger a lot simpler—it doesn’t stop their grumbling, but at least they understand.”
Cameras: Nikon D3X, Nikon D3S, Nikon D700
Lenses: Primes: AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4D IF, AF NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED, PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED
Zooms: AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
Lighting: Nikon SB–900 and Nikon SB–800 AF Speedlights, Bowens and Profoto Light Systems, Pocket Wizard transmitters
Audio: Zoom H4N Sound Recorder, Rode Videomic
Media: Sandisk Extreme IV Compact Flash Cards, Lexar Firewire Card Reader
Storage: Western Digital Hard Disks (MyBook and MyPassport)
Additional Gear: Gitzo Mountaineer Tripod, Manfrotto 055CXP RO3 Carbon Magnesium Tripod, Really Right Stuff Camera Supports
Bags: Think Tank Airport International Roller Bag, Shape Shifter Bag and Skin Modular Set
Computing Power: Apple 15-inch Mac Book Pro, 21-inch and 24-inch iMacs, Apple iPhone, iPad, Wacom Tablet
Editing Software: Adobe Photoshop CS4, Adobe Lightroom 3, Capture One Pro