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Northwestern University

Where in the World is Photographer Thomas Lee?

Who among us hasn’t pulled out a camera, hoping to freeze a moment in time and then share it with those who weren’t there? Who hasn’t wanted to travel to places we’ve never been and capture images of people who look different from us, thereby telling their stories or at least a part of their stories that makes us want to learn more?

Thomas Lee is living the dream of being a photojournalist. He graduated two years ago from Northwestern, with majors in Radio-TV-Film and Art Theory and Practice. From his current home in New York, he travels to distant locales, photographing women carpet weavers in Afghanistan, child soldiers in Uganda, and Beijing’s changing landscape for the 2008 Olympics. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, PDN (Photo District News), American Photo, and NEED magazine, among other U.S. and international publications.

Lee calls himself a “journalist-artist” rather than a photojournalist. That is, he wants to do more than faithfully capture what he sees through the lens. “I want an image that’s interesting enough to make people think. I want to combine an art sensibility into my work in photojournalism.”

One look at his photos and you’ll know what he means: they often defy expectation. On assignment for Arzu, a not-for-profit organization which markets and sells rugs Afghani women weave, Lee documented the women at their craft. While in Afghanistan, he also created a series of compelling portraits which crossed lines of age, gender, and occupation. He says he chose close-ups “to really show the details of their faces—the scars, the blemishes, the beards, the wrinkles, the texture of the veils, of the turbans. To me, these contain traces of the quarter-century of conflicts—yet the humanity revealed from within defies all.” This celebration of their optimism he titled “Through Wars.”

Every image was shot in natural light and none was cropped. He has used a digital camera (a Canon Digital Single-Lens Reflex) for these portraits and for most of his work. Still, he is intrigued by the challenges traditional photographic film presents and recently purchased an all-manual medium-format film camera (a Mamiya 7II rangefinder) and used it during a recent trip to China.

“Digital and film engage me in different modes and keep my eye fresh and inspiration coming,” Lee says. “When I use digital, I adopt the mindset of a journalist-artist, encouraged to make some mistakes as a photojournalist first, so as to approach the art sensibility.” He explains that digital allows a photographer to experiment—a lot—efficiently and cost-effectively. Photojournalism’s highest goal is capturing what is beyond facts and narrative: “a perspective, an emotion, an inner truth,” he says. “It’s when a photojournalist constantly achieves those qualities that he or she is considered an artist, like Alfredo Yaar, Luc Delahaye, Antonin Kratochvil, and James Nachtwey.”

Using photographic film reminds him of the canon, the history, the basics of the medium, and its technical constraints. “This puts me in a very different mindset, art first, the journalistic content second. I’d consider it an artist-journalist mindset.” Shooting with film is more complex and more flexible, he explains.

“Film gives you a framework of how you need to work the light or work the person. You have fewer shots, so you are more careful of your shots.”

Lee says he is part of the “crossover generation,” who experienced the last days of film photography’s dominance, ventured into digital, and, in his case at least, came partially back to film.

Before photographing in a new country, he does significant research—reading and watching documentaries at home, then speaking with local people and freelance photographers more knowledgeable about the culture. But he realizes that letting go of expectations is the most important factor in capturing something entirely new. “Every single person, every single situation will give you something very different from what you thought,” he says. “Being a good artist is being true to that.”

He connects with his subjects by first learning a few phrases of their language: “How are you? I’m fine. May I take your picture please? Smile.”

“If you tell them to smile, they’ll probably laugh because you speak with a weird accent,” he says. “It’s what comes after the forced smiles that I hope to capture, that candidness.” As an ice-breaker, he brought a portable printer to Afghanistan and provided his subjects with their portraits, on the spot.

His passion for faraway places began early in life. He was born in Taiwan, and moved with his family to Hong Kong at the age of five. After high school, he attended the Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong, which he credits with giving him an expansive world view.

“You live and study with people from all over the world, even Iceland,” he says. “The school promotes international understanding, the idea that the most important thing for us is to realize how different and how similar we are. Then there was no turning back. I really had to see the world.”

That entailed enrolling at Northwestern at 20, his English accent less than perfect (Mandarin is his first language), and his movie-fed expectations about America completely unrealistic, he says. There were a lot of disappointments at first—about food, cold weather, and lack of instant friends.

But he found meaningful friendships and remarkable mentors along the way. He was initially a film major in the School of Communication, carrying heavy equipment and waiting for his big break as a cinematographer. When that pivotal moment came in his sophomore year (in a romantic comedy entitled “Fly”) he found the experience lacked immediacy. He asked himself: “Why spend all the process perfecting a story, while the most moving stories are right there in the imperfections?”

Thus he found photography and a new home, as well as another major, in Weinberg’s art theory and practice department. He also found teachers whose advice has affected him deeply.

“Pam Bannos [senior lecturer in the department], my technical mentor, showed me what a good photograph is,” he says. “She showed me Sally Mann’s "Immediate Family", beautiful black and white photography, and I thought, ‘If I could do this, I would be happy.’” He calls Jeanne Dunning, art theory and practice professor, his philosophical mentor. “She redefined for me what a good photographer is. Her work still changes and evolves,” he says with admiration.

His philosophy has been brought to life most vividly in his award-winning work depicting the reintegrated child soldiers of Uganda. For this, his senior honors thesis, he traveled to northern Uganda in December 2005. “I did a series called ‘Twins.’ I photographed former child soldiers in pairs. One represented their haunted past, the soldiers who are forced to kill. The other represented their current status, their rehabbed self. This is the kind of series I want to do.” He says it presents an extra layer for viewers to discover, which makes the work interesting.

Jeanne Dunning has written of Lee, “His photographs eloquently emphasize the people, drawing our attention to the human impact of situations that otherwise can appear abstract and distant. In this way, his photographs give us a sense of empathy, connection, and shared humanity towards people who are caught in politicized conflicts in far flung parts of the world.”

Traveling and finding stories “that talk to me” is what drives him, he says. But he cautions that the life of a freelance journalist-artist is far from easy and the competition is intense. He supplements his income by editing and retouching photos for a portrait studio and shooting weddings and other events. He advises aspiring photojournalists: “Just do what you have to do to keep shooting the photos you want to shoot, even if it means [working for] Starbucks. And be patient. It really takes time to make a photography career sustainable.”

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