By Tan Lee Kuen (writer and photographer/Malaysia)
Passionate young documentary photography from China documents the Mekong River
Tell us about yourself and how you got started with photography.
I grew up in Wuhan, China, that’s my hometown. Before I was 18, I was a traditional good boy, like most people. But I read a lot of books about travel and freedom, books like On The Road, in high school. I started to plan to have a great trip when I graduated from high school. From 2012, I started to travel all over the world. That was the first time I touched a camera after nearly 2 years. I met a professional photographer on the road. He taught me a lot about photography and showed me a lot of his works. I was shocked, like wow, that’s what I really want to take, that’s photography. I was so lucky to stay with him for half a month and I think that time totally change my whole life.
Tell us about your Mekong River series, why did you start this project? What story did you want to tell with this work?
I have been to Yunnan province, Tibet and Southeast Asia many times. I grew up in Wuhan, that’s a famous city located in the middle reaches of the Yangzi River. I don’t know why but I really have a special feeling towards water. I love cities that are by the water and I am interested in different religions and cultures. Although most people around this area are Buddhists but there’s still a lot of different branches. When I was thinking about what can I do for this magic land, I checked out the map and the Mekong River showed up. I thought, I have to say hello to this river again with a new face. Then I started to read books, collect information and planned the route in this area and along this river.
You have done projects in places like India, Kurdistan and Iran; why are you interested in these countries?
The first time I was in India, I told myself that this is the only one pure land in the world. Maybe it’s too dramatic to say that but I have a project in India that will take 10 years to complete. This year is my fourth year in India. Many friends ask me why I like India so much. I think there are two kinds of people who go to India: one that loves India so much, the other one who will not want to return to India again. Obviously, I’m in the first camp. With Kurdistan, Iran or any other place, it is the same, I have to go there to feel it then I can say if I like it or not. Every project I make is from my heart.
What kind of stories are you interested in?
All the stories that I’m interested in are about humanity. I like the song Imagine by John Lennon. To make the world a peaceful place is our duty and as photographers, we can’t only pay attention to our inner thoughts. We should dig out the world’s problems to let more people see it in different ways. And push the world to be better and better.
As a young photography doing documentary work in China, what is your situation like?
I don’t know much about the situation for young documentary photographers in China because everyone says documentary photography is going to die and it’s hard to get support for your project. I think it’s so lucky if you can finish your project without any pressure but I don’t think that it is easy to apply for support. We do have some foundations and organizations. It depends on what kind of projects you do. But many of these organisations and foundations only support projects about China, so for me, it is very hard to keep going.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the Kurdistan and Yangzi River stories right now. The work on Kurdistan will finish this year and Yangzi River will continue for another two years or more. I am still working on the East Time Zone series for another four years and India for also another four years. After these projects, I will work on new projects about China.
Tan Lee Kuen
She is a writer and photographer from Malaysia. She is also the founder of Asia PaperCamera, an online project celebrating photography in Asia with stories and interviews.
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