ChiqClicks catches up with Canon Malaysia’s brand Ambassador, Suzanne Lee, in an exclusive interview to find what brings light and life into each image she captures.
If you don’t already admire or have a crush on Suzanne, be ready to fall in love as Suzanne shares her personal growth from her vast travels through places that look truly magical through her lens.
1.How would you describe yourself in one sentence?
I am a photographer and a storyteller, someone curious about people and their experiences and using the camera to say something about them.
2.How and when did you start picking up photography?
I started photography in my teens when I was using a simple plastic film pocket camera. It had no zoom lens. The lens was fixed. It had no manual or semi-automatic settings to mess around with. All it had was a shutter button. And with that, I photographed to my hearts’ content in Bako National park, Sarawak. I must’ve been about 14 then. I shot 16 36 frame rolls in one weekend and I think my parents hid the camera from me. I bought my own camera when I was 20.
3.Can you describe the moment when you decided you wanted to be a professional social documentary photographer?
There wasn’t quite a singular moment of decision, rather, a gradual realization during a workshop scholarship in Cambodia some years ago about what it meant to use photography to understand a situation or issue. As I photographed a community of poor, blind Khmers, I spent much time with them. As we faced language barriers and communication issues, I spent the week with them through touch and laughter, investing copious amounts of time to build that relationship and trust that would then allow me to penetrate deeper into their comfort zones and thus, natural daily lives. It was that building of relationships that I think really got me. The camera gave me an excuse, sort of, to be there. The resulting documentary is a satisfaction and a fond memory of the people and the moments we shared.
4.Why choose to reside in New Delhi?
New Delhi is a dynamic city to live in and it’s exciting to be in India at a time of constant and drastic change.
5.It looks like your life is anything but routine. What is your average day like?
There isn’t really such a thing as average in this life of a freelance lifestyle, actually. All plans change according to the job assigned, or when there isn’t work to shoot, I work on my archives, personal projects, or just take it easy while i can.
6.From your photographs, it looks like you’ve been in pretty dangerous situations. What is the most sticky situation you’ve been in and how did you get yourself out of it?
Living in Delhi, I meet many journalists who pass through on their way to full-out war zones. Situations I’ve been in are nothing compared to my fellow colleagues who are dodging bullets and cheating death in our neighbouring countries! That being said, the best cure for a sticky situation is to not have gotten stuck in the first place!
7.You’ve had some experience modelling before you went from the front of the lens to behind the lens. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an attractive female photographer in your field of work?
Hahaha… honestly, modelling is a long-gone history I hardly remember, and much less talk about! Being a photographer whether female or male, attractive or not, in this field of work demands that one fits in to the surroundings as much as possible. I dress as a local here and am often mistaken as a north-eastern Indian. Although a foreigner can never truly blend with the locals, this cultural respect does help me a lot in working comfortably. Being familiar with local norms of social conduct and being culturally sensitive is key to the way I work. Oh, and not to forget that a smile is the universal welcome!
8.Does it get emotionally draining from all the travelling to developing countries with visible poverty on the streets? And if yes, how do you deal with it?
Living and working in a developing country such as India can sometimes be challenging and exhausting. But what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. The mental and emotional challenges that I face actually help me while working on a project. To feel the full emotional brunt on an issue is akin to being in the subjects’ shoes… and to be in their shoes puts me in a mental space that brings out the essence in my photography of that said subject. It also sparks new queries and new ideas and the passionate desire to want to understand the wider issues. I deal with it by working more and digging more into the stories to understand it. And I occasionally take breaks to the mountains or back to Malaysia to take a breather from the weight.
9.Most travelers would like to travel light especially when going about backpacker style. What do you pack in your camera bag when you are backpacking?
When I’m out for a couple of days, I bring my 5DmarkII with a 50mm f1.2L, and a backup camera 5D with a 35mm f1.4L. I charge all my extra batteries and leave the charger behind and I bring large capacity memory cards.
10.Besides your photography equipment, what other items would you pack in your camera bag to be prepared for all types of situations?
I pack a bottle of water, emergency use medicine, rehydration salts, a cleaning cloth, rain covers and my press credentials.
11. As Canon’s ambassador for Malaysia, and probably the envy of most photographers (including myself!) – how has it changed your life?
Being an ambassador for Canon Malaysia has given me confidence that a large and well-run company is supporting me in my projects that span Asia. It has also come as a big relief to me that it is the brand of my choice. Canon and I are working together in bringing an influence of international documentary photographers and videographers to Malaysia to conduct workshops, talks and discussions.
While countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Phillipines, Thailand and India are constantly producing new documentary photographers, we hope to bring about a monumental change in the way the Malaysian photography scene is seen.
This collaboration with other photographers in my field also presents a great opportunity for me to work together with these masters of the industry on giving these workshops, and to be able to play an active role in the development of the Malaysian photography scene. And it goes without saying that Canon provides me with high quality equipment that I need to be able to work in trying situations.
12.Can you name me 3 things you wish you knew when you started photography?
- Invest in prime quality glass
- Shoot raw
- There’s no right or wrong in even this art.
14.Who are the other women photographers that inspire you as a photographer?
Maggie Steber for her long-term work on Haiti, Martine Franck on her insights and candid takes on photography and the late Alexandra Boulat on her moving images… so gentle and intimate.
If you’ve still not gotten enough of Suzanne, check out more of her work here: