At just 24 years old, Ed Ou is repped by Reportage by Getty Images, gotten front page stories in the New York Times, and now has won the Young Reporter Award at Perpignan, the international photojournalism festival, for his photos of young Somali soldiers.
While most of his contemporaries are taking on their first assignments, Ou, who was born in Taiwan, grew up in Canada and the US, is already a seasoned journalist. He started working for AP and Reuters as a teenager while studying International Politics and Hebrew in Jerusalem, juggling his classes and shooting the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah whenever he could.He continued to multi-task while studying Arabic in the Middle East, where he shot the fall of Islamic courts. “It was a lot of daily news coverage, and ‘feeding the beast,'”says Ou. “Good training when you’re starting out.”
Ou spoke with TIME about some of his work from the past year, what photographers he admires and where he’d like to go next.
How does it feel to win the City of Perpignan Young Reporter
I am quite honored and it’s something I never expected. I am very excited for another opportunity to get the story out.
You won this award for your photos of child soldiers in Somalia. Any thoughts on the situation there?
Its very difficult to sum up Somalia into a few words. I am still constantly changing my views on the place. Sometimes I am hopeful that one day there will be peace, other days I find myself depressingly pessimistic.
Who was the work here shot for?
I started on the project myself when I was working in Somalia on another story. While following refugees from Somalia to Yemen by boat, I discovered these kids manning a checkpoint by the side of the road in Mogadishu. I spent a few hours with them. When I left, I told Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times East Africa bureau chief about it, we decided that it’s a high-impact story worth going back for.
Who nominated you?
I think it’s the New York Times. David Furst and Michele McNally. I am humbled by the amount of trust they put in me. The quality, breadth, and depth of the papers reporting pushes me to dig deeper and try to be a better journalist.
How is living in the Middle East?
It’s a very dynamic region, and a culture that took a while to learn to navigate. At times, it’s very difficult to work there. I don’t exclusively work there, but its obviously been quite a busy region, and it’s where I started as a journalist.
How does your family feel about what you do and where you live?
My parents are coming around. It’s funny– there were times when I was in Libya and Egypt, and they would look at the New York Times and call to warn me about areas to stay away from, based on facts we filed. Thanks, Dad. I know.
Any close calls?
Scary things have happened in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, but I try to be as cautious as I can. Knock on wood.
Can you tell us who your influences are?
Since I never really studied photography, it’s a bit embarrassing to say that I didn’t really know about that many photographers starting out. The people who influenced me the most were the wire photographers I saw shooting every day and who mentored me when I was working. People like Emilio Morenatti, David Guttenfelder, Finbarr O’Reilly and Kevin Frayer.
Being so young in a competitive field, do you ever get any grief from older photographers?
I owe a lot to older photographers who took me under their wing in the field and taught me everything I know about journalism. There’s a lot to learn from people older than you. That said, journalism is in such a state of flux, I think the new generation has to carve their own path in this field, and not rely on the precedents of what journalism used to be. Also– Ron Haviv won’t stop making fun of me for wearing sandals. He calls me ‘flip flop.’ That’s not very nice.
What setup (camera, lens, etc.) are you working with?
I have a canon 5D mark2, and a prime (fixed) lens. I travel pretty light.
Do you have a dream assignment?
Yeah! I’d like to spend time exploring places in Central Asia, like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, following the Old Silk Road to China. I think a lot of what got me into journalism was the ability to explore places that you read about in books—but never had an excuse to travel to.
Who are the other young photographers you like out there?
To name a few I’ve been really inspired by the work of good friends, Dominic Nahr, Kitra Cahana, and Maisie Crow. I really like the fact that they are so grounded in the stories they work on.
What would you tell to other young aspiring photojournalists
who want to follow in your footsteps?
Photography is the easy part. I think it’s important to spend your time learning as much as you can about places, politics, stories, religion, languages, and different cultures. You have to pick stories that you are personally interested in, as opposed to what you think you should be covering. When you start out, you will unlikely to have support from publications, so it’s important that you are satisfying your own curiosity and thirst for knowledge. That gives you the conviction, and maintains the drive, to keep working on a story.
What’s next for your career?
I want to be able to find a balance between shooting assignments and working on stories that I’m interested in. Fortunately, I’ve been able to balance both so far, but it’s tough. I’ve been working a lot in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, but I want to explore more, go to new regions and see more parts of the world. I’ve also considered going back to school and getting a masters—I think it would be helpful in grounding myself and add a layer of understanding and adding context to the things I’ve seen.
More of Ou’s work can be seen here.