An eye for the big story, in photos“Photography is my life. My photographs pile up to become myself,” said Chang W. Lee, a photojournalist at the New York Times.
Mr. Lee, 37, whose full name in Korean is Lee Chang-woo, had both the luck and talent to win two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a devastating photograph of the World Trade Center collapse and the other of Afghan refugees suffering from the scars of war.
For the Sept. 11, 2001 photograph, Mr. Lee was able to capture the critical moment because he happened to be carrying a 400-millimeter telescopic lens, which he had used the day before in covering a tennis match.
Luck, however, is only a small part of what has made Mr. Lee successful. For the World Trade Center photographs, he ran against the flow of the fleeing crowd, toward the collapsing buildings and danger.
One thing that his photographs have in common is that they were all born of daring determination. Mr. Lee’s recent coverage includes the war in Iraq and the tsunami in South Asia, where he witnessed human suffering firsthand.
Invited by the Korea Press Foundation, Mr. Lee recently visited Seoul to give a lecture on his life as a photojournalist to an audience in his homeland. In an interview before the lecture, he said, “I want to speak about the destiny of a photojournalist who has to run anywhere there’s news, carrying a camera on one shoulder and a laptop on the other. You may die or be lucky to survive. But you just have to run.”
Mr. Lee has had a thorny career path, since he emigrated to the United States in 1986, after quitting ChungAng University. His major at the university was architecture, which failed to capture his interest, and he left after only one semester. Once settled in New York, Mr. Lee went through hard times, working low-level jobs at construction sites and as a waiter. Then he went to night school, first majoring in computer engineering, and then changing to photography, simply because that was what he wanted to pursue.
He attended New York University and after graduating he joined the Times as an intern in 1994. Three months, however, was all it took for him to become a full-time staff member.
“In my early years, I was called ‘tornado,’ some youngster with a big physique from nowhere who dared to work with experienced photojournalists mostly in their 40s,” Mr. Lee said. With the arrival of digital technology, Mr. Lee seized an opportunity. Being computer-savvy, he was quicker and better than others, which led to more assignments, including coverage of the war in Iraq, ahead of more than 30 senior photographers at the Times.
His successful career, however, has bothered, rather than pleased, his wife, he said jokingly.
“My wife says it would be much better if I were just having an affair, because in that case she’d just flare up and get mad at me. But now that I’m in love with photography and working in dangerous situations, it gives her a hard time emotionally. I’m so sorry and grateful,” he said.
What’s the secret of his photography? “Before pointing your camera at the object, take as many photographs as you can in your head first,” Mr. Lee said. “With an open-minded attitude, take the magical moments of daily lives.”
Mr. Lee’s future agenda includes covering China as a correspondent based there, from where he would also like to cover North Korea and Southeast Asia, as well as the rest of the continent.
“I feel rewarded to think that I’m making a bridge between the readers and a bigger world,” he said.
by Shin Ye-ri