In 2010, Sim Chi Yin threw away the “cushy, secure life” that comes with the job of staff foreign correspondent for the Straits Times, Singapore’s popular English-language daily, to become a freelance photographer. “I wanted to learn to swim or sink on my own,” she tells TIME.
Four years later, Sim has established herself as a photojournalist, working regularly on assignment for the New York Times. “In 2010, I got a Magnum Foundation fellowship, which allowed me to study with photographer Susan Meiselas and [academic] Fred Ritchin,” she says. “This prepared me for my major transition from text journalism to freelance photography.”
Now, after spending three years in VII Photo’s Mentor Program, with Marcus Bleasdale overseeing her work, Sim has been offered a position of interim member at the agency. “It’s a great honor to be offered a spot in a collective with some of the leading documentary photographers in the field,” she says. “Since I quit my writing job, I’ve been thrown into assignment photographic work rather quickly. I now would very much like to do more thoughtful, meaningful projects and group projects on global issues.”
For the next couple of years, Sim will pay VII Photo’s monthly membership fees and participate in the agency’s internal meetings, but she won’t hold voting rights. In 2016, she will be able to apply for full membership.
“Agencies aren’t really about getting assignments and resales these days,” she notes. “There’s of course some brand recognition that comes with being associated with VII, especially in the West, but for me it really comes down to what I can do within this group—banding together under the broad common interests of doing socially meaningful storytelling.”
Sim also hopes she’ll be able to build VII Photo’s profile in China and across Asia. “China is an important country, and I hope to be able to find partnerships in this part of the world [to create links] with the Western-centered photography industry,” she tells TIME. “I believe we can use visual storytelling and photography, both universal languages, to enhance our bonds and build understanding.”
In the meantime, Sim is finishing her long-term project, “Dying to Breathe,” a print and multimedia body of work on Chinese gold miners who suffer from silicosis. “I’m currently drafting a community engagement campaign for that project, using photographs as a base to craft a public health education plan.”
Her nine years as a print journalist has deeply influenced that work, she says. “In a place like China, sometimes reporting calls for quick judgment and a whole lot of strategizing—how to get what you need without getting caught, without getting the subject into trouble, for instance.” As a writer, she’s learned to find stories, research them and hone the news angle—precious skills for a photographer on assignment.
“When I first started filing pictures to VII, the staff remarked that all my captions were long and felt like mini stories. I think there are a lot of great images and very well informed projects. But I think there are also images that can [benefit from] more research and rigor. I’d like to see more photographers writing about their work, the craft and their subjects. It’s always interesting to read, especially since photographers [usually] spend more time with their subjects than writers do. We should be hearing their voices.”
Sim Chi Yin is a photographer based in Beijing, China. She is represented by VII Photo.