A voice for the voiceless

A voice for the voiceless
Freelance photographer Sim Chi Yin.

A visit to the hospital topped her to-do list when documentary photographer Sim Chi Yin arrived home from Indonesia last month. She needed to have her left eye checked.

A few days earlier, she was on a photo assignment at a tin smelting factory in Indonesia when a smelter, burning at 1,300 deg C, spat a fleck of tin at her. She felt something flying towards her but was too absorbed with getting the best shot to dodge.

The shard hit the lower corner of her left eye. It was fished out, flicked aside and she continued clicking away even though she felt the area around her eye swell. It was only after the day's assignment, when she was taken to the modest clinic in the factory, that she panicked.

She says: "A nurse shone a torchlight in my eye and said 'bakar'. I don't speak Bahasa Indonesia but I know the word. You have ikan bakar, which is grilled fish."

Sim is speaking to Life! at a cafe in Queenstown about 10 days after the incident. Throughout the more than two-hour interview, her mood is much like this, a mix of earnestness and gentle amusement.

From the factory, she was rushed to a hospital on the island. The doctor there spoke English and offered reassurance: the membrane lining the inside of her eye had been hurt but she would be fine.

Back in Singapore, doctors gave her the all-clear and she appeared relaxed, in a loose celadon cotton qipao, at the Her World Woman of the Year awards ceremony. She was receiving the Young Woman Achiever award for her accomplishments as a photographer devoted to social issues. The only signs of her arduous week before were her sunburnt arms and lightning bolt-like sandal tan lines, which she had little success hiding with make-up foundation.

The award is the latest accolade the petite 35-year-old has earned in her barely four years as a freelance photographer based in Beijing.

Since she quit her job in 2010 as The Straits Times' China correspondent to pursue photography full-time, readers have woken up to her gripping images of life in China on the front page of newspapers such as The New York Times and Le Monde.

In January, the British Journal of Photography named her as one of 30 emerging photography talents around the world. In July, she became the first Asian to join the prestigious New York-based photo agency VII, whose 20 members include famed photographers Gary Knight and Christopher Morris.

She has also received invitations in recent months to speak at photography festivals overseas.

Of her growing accolades, she says: "It is nice, it is humbling, it is heartening and, of course, prize money always helps. But as a photographer, you are judged on every new piece of work you produce."

The test for her, though, goes beyond "capturing that decisive moment when time, light and human life intersect", as she says of documenting life through photographs. She has to face her fears and frailty every day.

Her pursuit of images that tell stories otherwise unheard can lead her to dice with danger. One time, a group of Chinese thugs who did not like her taking pictures on their turf tried to snatch her camera. In workshops with budding photographers, she suggests flashing the "widest possible smile" to diffuse a tense situation. Her smile, a Cheshire cat-like grin, however, did not disarm the thugs. They grabbed her wrists and she resisted; the camera remained unharmed but her wrists swelled up.

She is not foolhardy and does not seek confrontation, but in a job that is all about unscripted moments, she is not immune to nasty surprises and she takes them in her stride.

Other times, she is her own obstacle.

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