A Palestinian Fatah member celebrates land day. Taken on 26 March 2010.

Insider Secrets of Being a Photojournalist

Welcome to Bolt’s insider secrets series! The Insider Series will take you behind the scenes into the worlds of writers from different industries. Here, you’ll find out everything from what their jobs are like to how to get started in their field.


Zann Huizhen Huang, Photojournalist

Zann is a freelance photojournalist with an impressive portfolio, with her works published in Time Magazine and The Straits Times. She has also spoken on “Contemporary Iranian Society” at the National University of Singapore, as well as various topics at TEDx Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Check out her portfolio here.

How did you develop a passion for photojournalism?

A Palestinian Fatah member celebrates land day. Taken on 26 March 2010.

My major in university (UK) was in Film Studies/Comparative Literature and I was never interested in photography. When I saw the World Press Photo Exhibition in Paris in 2002, I was struck, as French philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes puts it, by the ‘punctum’ of the winning image.

Taken in 2001 by a Danish photographer, Erik Refner, in the Jalozai Refugee camp in Pakistan, the look of tranquility on the face of a young Afghan refugee boy who died of dehydration as he was being wrapped in a white shroud in preparation for burial belied the years of suffering that these refugees had gone through.

Credits: Erik Refner

This World Press Photo of the year 2002 piqued my interest in photojournalism and I started exploring more on this profession. I learnt a lot on my own about visual storytelling from other photographers’ works as well as plunging myself in the field. Examples of such include my stints in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005, as well as my trips to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

What was your most memorable assignment like? What made it memorable?

bad example

I had an assignment from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) to cover the haze crisis in Sumatra in 2006. It was a great experience but I would not rank it as my most memorable yet. Published works in Time magazine, Le Monde and Geo Italia, for example, are all works which I had done through self-financing first and then pitched to the magazines and newspapers later.

How long did it take for you to get your “big break” and what was it like?

I started photojournalism after the Indonesian tsunami in Jan 2005 as part of my self-funded assignments to cover the aftermath and recovery of this disaster. As I fund my trips by teaching English in schools and freelancing as a photographer/writer, my motivation is not monetary but fueled purely by passion.

Depending on how one defines success, be it fame or fortune, I define my success as being an excellent photojournalist in terms of my craft and also by how much positive changes I can bring about for the community of people whom I photograph.

I do not think that I have had my ‘big break’ yet and I believe I need to constantly push myself to be a better photographer. However, I was both honoured and humbled to be a recipient of the Magnum Emergency Foundation Grant 2014. I was the first Asian female photojournalist to be awarded this prestigious grant for my work on ‘Remember Shatila‘, based in Beirut, Lebanon.

Any advice for photographers looking to get into the scene?

As I do long term documentary projects on issues which are close to my heart, I fund my trips through teaching English and writing/photographing on a freelance basis. All I can say is: Follow your heart and let your passion take you far.

What makes a good photo for a news piece?

A group of Iranian and Iraqi Kurds gather for a mass Naqshbandi ritual in Marivan, Iran on 13 Aug 2009. Only males are allowed to witness this event but a foreign woman like me, was an exception.

1. Aesthetically striking

2. Capture the essence of the event eg. earthquake aftermath or bombing in Aleppo, Syria

3. Emotionally charged

4. Adhere to the ethics of photojournalism

What’s the most meaningful thing about being a photojournalist?

Since 2010, I have been documenting life and living conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. I have stayed with a few Palestinian and Syrian refugees in the camp. The friendships forged there are the best things in my life. The people I met may not have much but they touched my heart with their kindness and generosity.

How important is the equipment you use?

A group of Iranian women have fun on a ‘swan’ boat, despite having to wear the all encompassing black chadors in the heat of summer. Taken on 11 Aug 2009, Lake Marivan which is situated in the Kurdish stronghold of Iran, shares porous borders with Iraq. Just barely 2 weeks before my visit there, 3 American hikers, Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were taken into custody by the Iranian border guards for allegedly crossing illegally into Iran as ‘spies’ while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan on 31 July 2009. As a lone foreign woman traveling to this rarely visited region, I too was viewed with suspicion.

My camera and equipment aren’t the latest, nor are they the most high-end models. I depend on just one camera body and lens. I believe in having an eye and the ability to build rapport with your subjects, as well as one’s ability to be highly adaptable and versatile in handling varying situations and people are key to telling visually compelling stories. As long as the equipment is of decent quality, the rest is up to the photographer.

What is your biggest challenge as a photojournalist? And how did you overcome that?

Many photographers have to do commercial work in order to pay their bills and in their spare time, pursue projects which are of interest to them. Such is the trend now as the photojournalism industry is still going through a painful revolution, with supply far outstripping demand. I rely on teaching English and doing freelance photography/writing in order to fuel my passion in long-term documentary work, which I hope will finally culminate in the form of books, exhibitions and short films.

What would your ultimate goal be as a photojournalist?

It’s simple. Be the best that I can possibly be. I also hope to create positive changes for the people/communities in my photo projects.

How did you go from photojournalist to speaking at TEDx?

I was nominated by an anonymous person. Next, I was asked to go for an interview with a few TEDx Curators and, finally, I was selected out of a few nominees.

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