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COVER STORY
July 15, 2006

Helluva
Eye with the camera

Her gift with the camera is inexplicable and she has an eye for everything exceptional, rare for someone her age. At 23, it shall be interesting to see how far this budding artist will go. Shan Szetho is determined to break into photography back home on nothing except the back of sheer guts and raw talent.  “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about – it’s not my age that matters. It is what I see behind the camera and bring to life that really counts”.

By Shawn J.  Williams

It takes a while for me to accept that the photos I was viewing were shot by someone who was just a sophomore in College until recently.  Even more stunning was the fact that these photos were shot when she was nineteen.  Before then, this Chinese girl from Malaysia had never held a camera, let alone own one.

    Shan Szetho was just your everyday teenager at Southwestern College in Kansas until she fell in love with the camera. Or rather, the camera fell in love with her.  “I wanted to do graphic designing but one brief encounter during my first photography class with the camera, I was hooked. It was as if the camera got addicted to me. Behind the lens, my world unfolded. I threw away whatever aspirations I had for anything else for a career behind the camera.  The camera and I - we became soul mates.”

    When we set up this interview (in a restaurant in downtown Winfield), Shan Lin made one request – that we only talk of photography and nothing else. I got her to agree that if we cannot talk a little bit about herself and her background, we will not be able to find the belly behind her passion.  Photography in itself would be too dry a subject for my readers.  What she intends to do with the camera would be more interesting: for that, we need to know a little more about the person behind the camera. The mask must come down. I need a face behind some of the spectacular work she has done with her second-hand Canon. I began my interview by asking how she got hooked on lens.

     “I signed up for photography class and found out that the work coming out from me was different from everybody else.  It surprised my course-mates and my professor.  Most of all, it surprised me the most since I never held a camera until I attended that first class. Encouraged, I thought I should buy myself a camera, so I wrote my parents for some money.  I laughed when my parents sent me some money. They sent me US$1000 as a present for Christmas, but that was barely enough to buy a professional flash, let alone the camera body and lens. So I worked at two jobs while studying to buy my first Canon.  Had I told my father how much basic equipment would cost for an aspiring career in photography, he would have insisted I was mad. But I fell in love with the camera, so that was that.”

    And where did all that passion came from, I enquired.
   
   “‘Reach for the stars’, my mother wrote me in my first year. Southwestern’s calling was even more compelling…’come to Southwestern and see how far you can go.‘ My professor was ever condescending: ‘you have a gift for considering compositions and telling a story with your pictures.’  When you have such unwavering inspiration thrown in your face left, right and centre, it becomes a whole lot easier to believe in yourself. I think this sense of self-belief is important when you seek a life behind the camera. But this distance between reality and make-believe really hits you when you have to take thousands of pictures to find just one that matters. No, it is not the perfect shot I seek; there is no beauty in perfection, I tell you.  What I seek instead is just that one shot that drives an instantaneous wedge between beauty and emptiness. Either it is beautiful or nothing.”

     Shan Lin’s pictures have often portrayed her as someone demanding with a camera, someone with a precocious stupor that belied someone so young.  At nineteen and barely into her second year in college, she was already running around doing work that other professional photographers were commissioned to do. Then, she was not astute about photography but sheer talent caught the attention of some newspapers and magazines. She appeared to possess a rare gift for seeing things in perspective others do not easily see. Most importantly, she was always able to capture many magical moments behind her trusty old camera. The fact that many of her winning contributions were made without artificial lighting, retouching or in-studio facilities were even more mystifying. This girl has a helluva eye I tell you.

    What’s interesting is that I have heard she was also an accomplished artist of some sort in some circles. I assumed her forays into the world of commercial art has definitely something to do with her eye for the camera, so I asked, “what has your art got to do with your photography?”


A montage of Shan Lin’s photographic prints with a bit of art fused in

    “Art?” she lifted her eyebrows in disbelieve that I knew she painted. “Well, I spent almost two years painting after college.  As a child, I was always running around with a brush or a pencil drawing something. I was always creating art-pieces.  Art is still very much a part of me and I still draw and paint. You can see some of my art pieces hanging around here in this restaurant.  Art and photography is very much a part of what I am. In art, I see a picture in my head and then I take to canvas.  The planning and executing process is longer.  With photography, I also see a picture in my head but I have but a split second to record it. Both painting and photography require an authenticity for interpreting beauty. I see no difference in my art and photography.  This is because both requires you to have a knack for seeing something ordinary and making that something ordinary, beautiful.”

    I tried to make a sense of what her background would be so that I can figure out what it was that made her tick.  It is unusual to hear of someone discovering their forte at nineteen. Most ballerinas are made from as young as four. Music prodigies have nimble fingers and sharp ears before five.  This girl is a late-starter by any standards. With that, I dug a little into her home story to see if there was a tale that might interest.
 
    Shan Lin, now barely 23, comes from an unlikely background in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (If you do not know where that is, it is between Bangkok and Singapore). Her maternal great grandfather was a missionary in Thailand before they made Penang in Malaysia their home. Her paternal great grandfather escaped famine in their small village in Southern China by boarding a ship for San Francisco, purportedly to try his fortune in the gold rush. The tiresome journey in a wooden Chinese junk proved hazardous; when he got sea-sick at Singapore, he jumped ship. Indeed her genealogy is somewhat colorful, even for a Chinese who had Mongolian blood. At one and a half year’s old, Shan Lin’s parents started a kindergarten for her and her brother where gymnastics, ballet, karate, taekwando, art, and classical music were taught as part of the curriculum. Her mother came from a family of musicians. Her father, a general manager and motivational consultant, managed assets for Bankers Trust and defined himself a man for all-seasons. She describes her family as hard working middle class people. Even as a child, Shan Lin herself has a lifelong association with forms of expressions which required talent, lots of hardwork and absolute discipline. At nine years old, she earned her first black belt. At ten, she climbed Mount Kinabalu and won a medal for taekwando in Australia. She learnt the cello and danced ballet, but it was individual tutoring in art after kindergarten that she clearly found pleasure in. After Outward Bound School, she immediately came to Southwestern to study mass communication, expecting to return home and live a levelheaded life as a graphic designer. But destiny had different plans for her. By the age of twenty, she was already getting commissioned photography work from a variety of sources and living the life behind the camera. Shan Lin is a classical example of the newly liberated photographer of today – uninhibited, independent-minded and fiercely fine-art defined. She didn’t join photography clubs, does not define herself as an artist, even though looking back at her work she knows she was and is one.  The most important thing her journey to America has taught her was not to rely merely upon only a good education to take her far when she returns home.  “You know, the greatest gift every girl can have is passion for something you love.  I am glad I found that at Southwestern.”

    I threw a glance at my watch and knew I had to wrap up.  As I was getting up, I pressed for an understanding for her resolve to succeed in the tough world of photography, where few women succeed and strong men go hungry.

     She said: “I look at life’s challenges like I am looking through the camera. You focus and zoom in with steady hands.  If you have the resolve, the camera will always be there for you.”     

    Well spoken. In a few weeks, Shan Lin will be packing her bags and heading for home.  She seemed pretty assured and at ease with herself. She should be.  Her photos are vibrant, optimistic and alive.  Her prowess with the camera is but barely stretching an innate creativity that is fundamentally art driven. She is young and has much to give.

    She has come to Southwestern to see how far she will go.  She returns to Malaysia to see how far that can take her.

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