Though New York-based photographer Alan Chin gets good-natured ribbing from his friends for being a film camera evangelist, he insists he is not overly avid about classical equipment. Yet he likes manual typewriters. He frequents a flea market in Park Slope. He’s an amateur historian who likes secondhand books. And, oh, he confesses that he has a stereo that uses vacuum tubes.
Over coffee on the Brooklyn waterfront, he shows me a classic Leica. Later at his apartment, he shows me a Nikon F with motor drive. Alan insists he has nothing against digital cameras. He himself uses them when the deadline pressure of an assignment calls for it, but he takes issue when people claim that digital technology is superior to film. He admits a penchant for the traditional look of black & white film. There is a sameness to a lot of digital imagery, he says. A lot of photographers are using the same cameras and digital sensors. Contrast that to the heyday of film when photographers would experiment with different film, chemicals and paper to get very different looks.
Alan grew up in New York’s Chinatown, where his parents worked in the garment industry. His parents came to the United States in part to escape a turbulent China. Alan’s father, Fow Sang Chin, came to the United States in1951. For several years, Fow Sang worked as a “presser,” one of the garment industry’s better paying, but more physically tasking jobs. His mother, brother and sister came to the United States much later. Alan was born in New York. Alan says his father was an avid amateur photographer, and he remembers being spoiled by the type of cameras his father had around the house.
Alan went on a scholarship to the “prestigious” and private Collegiate School For Boys, but much to the disappointment of his parents, he was “too rebellious” to finish. During what would have been his senior year, he traveled around America, hitchhiking for a good part. The work of artists like photographer Robert Frank and writer Jack Kerouac resonated with him.
Going Back to His Roots
Alan’s mother had not been back to Asia for years—and partly to see her own dying mother, partly in the hopes of motivating Alan to get back on track for a more “traditional,” professional job—his parents decided to take Alan back with them to see his maternal grandmother in Malaysia. Though Alan’s family is from Guangdong Province in China, the Asia trip also took them to Beijing, where as fortune would have it, the Tiananmen Protests were occurring. It was June 1989. Over several weeks, Alan covered some of the protests in the square, but he was on the outskirts of Beijing when the soldiers entered Tiananmen to clear it by force. Alan remembers rushing back. He found an abandoned bicycle and used it to get around the city, shooting photographs of that tumultuous time. He ended up selling some of the photos to Reuters.
When Alan got back to the United States, he entered New York University to study photography. After graduating, he went to work for the Bettmann Archive, which he remembers as a place where you were scolded if you were five minutes late getting back from lunch. The Bettmann Archive was acquired by Corbis, the image library founded by Bill Gates. One day Alan was wolfing down a dish of rice and beans so that he could get back to work on time, when he suddenly asked himself, “What am I doing? If I want to be a photojournalist, what am I doing running back to work for a company that is owned by the biggest tycoon of our times?” He says he went back and quit on the spot. With one last paycheck, he turned to freelance photography.
From New York to Global Hotspots
Alan got his break from The New York Times. He had four assignments handed down to him in quick succession in Sarajevo, Bosnia. “I don’t think they knew how young I was,” he says. Soon afterwards, bureau chief Chris Hedges had to fly out of town for a story that was breaking in Israel, and asked if Alan would mind going to London to take a satellite phone to Times correspondent John Burns, whose own satellite phone had been stolen while en route to Afghanistan, where the Taliban had just seized power. Only a few years ago, satellite phones were large, expensive (more than $30,000) and weighed over 25 pounds, Alan recounts.
To his surprise, by the time he got to London, Alan was then asked if he wanted to go to Afghanistan. As he was handed a plane ticket, an editor asked him whether he needed anything else. “Do you need cash?” “Uhm, sure,” he remembers saying. He says the editor handed him an envelope with $5,000 cash (the days when editors were that cavalier about money are long gone, he notes), heady times for a twenty-something-year-old, aspiring photographer. After the Afghan assignment he returned to the former Yugoslavia many times, to cover the war in Kosovo and the breakdown of Serbian society.
When he came back to New York, he still had to go about marketing himself like any other freelance photographer, but he now had some good assignments under his belt that he could show to editors.
In the Balkans, photojournalists had the ability to range freely (a contrast to his later experiences in Iraq, where he says it has become simply unsafe to travel so freely), and Alan roamed the country to cover story ideas. One that resonated with him was the discrimination against the Roma, or gypsies, who were disliked equally by both the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians.
Alan has been to Iraq several times to cover the war. The targeting of photojournalists in Iraq makes it very difficult to go out and interact with the local population, though, he says, adding that an intense debate erupted over whether journalists should arm themselves or work with armed guards.
Back stateside, he was blown away by the devastation to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. [See galleries at Huffington Post and Bag News Notes.] He has made frequent visits back to the city since first covering the storm’s immediate aftermath. He has documented the city’s return of Mardi Gras, the musicians and social life—to see what the locals are doing to bring back a semblance of their old lives. Though folk music has become a niche, festival-oriented music in many places, in New Orleans music is still intertwined with the people and the culture, Alan notes. Among Alan’s photos from Hurricane Katrina is the photo of a woman, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, draped in a soiled blanket that is emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. She looks exhausted by the storm and the long wait for her government to lend a helping hand in the aftermath. It is iconic. The photo appeared in Newsweek.
Alan does not like to over-manipulate his prints: nothing heavily toned or burned, not too much contrast. He also strongly dislikes images that are set up, which is why Eugene Smith does not rank among his most favorite photojournalists (he explains, when I bring up the name). (Smith touched up the eyes of the peasant women at the funeral in his famed Spanish Village photo essay, because he wanted to change the direction in which the women were looking). Alan does want everyone to question the authenticity of photojournalism. He says people these days are much more skeptical of journalists and their perceived agendas.
“It is interesting that the most iconic photos from the Iraq War so far are the photos out of Abu Ghraib, most which were taken by the perpetrators of the abuses themselves, and the video of Saddam Hussein’s execution, illicitly filmed on a cell phone,” he says. “The scene is poorly lit. You see Saddam falling through a trap door, then the corpse illuminated by a camera flash, presumably from the official photographer on hand, as he starkly lights the aftermath of the execution. The verbal taunts, the cries of ‘Moktada, Moktada, Moktada.’ Who is your favorite film director? Nobody could have lit the scene better, or could have set up the situation more dramatically, in its sinister horror.”
On the other hand, Alan is fascinated by and has been documenting World War II re-enactors. While one of Alan’s friends, Katja Heinemann, plays up the absurdity of the role-playing using color and close-ups to highlight that the re-enactors are usually well beyond the age and shape of true soldiers, Alan takes a different tact. He uses cameras of that vintage and shoots in black & white. With the re-enactors so meticulous about every detail of their uniforms and weapons, Alan’s photos startle in how they throw you back to that era. He openly wonders why there is such an interest in Nazi memorabilia and such a large number of re-enactors who want to play German soldiers.
Alan thinks his late father, before he passed away, ultimately became proud of him and his work—even though his father never directly told him so. He stayed true to tough love form. “If I had a photo on the front page of The New York Times, he’d ask why I didn’t have one on the front page every day. He’d wonder why I was getting beaten out by other photographers,” Alan says with a laugh. Sifting through his father’s old negatives (which he recently rediscovered and began printing), makes him realize how good an amateur photographer his father was.
Apart from Robert Frank, Alan counts Larry Burrows (in particular, he points to his Vietnam helicopter story, “Yankee Papa 13”) and Gilles Peress among his inspirations. He likes the directness of Diane Arbus. “For war photography, Robert Capa, of course.” Alan says that the students graduating from today’s photography schools are well-trained technically and have “a sense of framing” that is beyond where he and his generation of photographers were when they themselves were coming out of school. Young photographers have been weaned on a steady diet of the photographic history that came before them. Yet a lot of the new photography coming out of them so far still lacks soul, empathy and understanding of the subjects photographed. “I’m not sure if that comes from experience or something else,” he says
At age 36, Alan says he is more practical then when he was 25. He wishes photographic programs took more effort to teach students about running a small business (including how to calculate tax deductions), marketing and promotion. He is much more practical about money. Though he does frequent assignments for journalism clients, for instance, he is not above doing weddings, because they pay far better than the magazines, and he can be choosy about the clients. Being pragmatic in this way helps him fund his longer-term projects, such as the hurricane recovery efforts by the citizens of New Orleans.