by Marc Kermisch and Chien-min Chung
Born in Taiwan and raised in the United States, Chien-min Chung discovered photography in college at the University of Florida. To pursue his new passion, Chung transferred to NYU and received his degree in photography. “New York was great for studying the technical side of photography, and museums like the International Center for Photography and all the different photo bookstores had a big impact on me,” says Chung of his time in New York. “I remember camping out in stores and looking at books by photographers I admired such as Salgado and Eugene Smith, and I still do the same thing when I’m back in New York.”
Chung says he really started to learn photography when he worked as a fixed stringer for various news wires in Beijing shooting daily features; “Going out everyday and trying to shoot interesting photos from mundane situations is a great way to exercise your eye, and AP was a great company to start with,” says Chung.
Chung had moved on from the AP to another newswire, but feeling a bit burnt out; Chung took a few months off for a break in 2001 and arrived home in the U.S. in early September. By December he learned that his Beijing position had been terminated, and started thinking about what photography really meant to him. At a crossing point in his career, Chung’s reflections photography led him to start thinking about freelancing; “I always admired freelancers ability to choose their projects compared to the notorious daily grind of wire agencies, but was too scared to consider leaving a steady paycheck. Photographers talk about making ‘the jump’ to freelancing, but since I got ‘thrown-in’ I had nothing to lose.”
“That's when I decided to go to Afghanistan,” says Chung.
Chung arrived in Kabul with no agency, little work, but lots of free time and wandered around town looking for a photo essay topic. “It Seemed everyone else was covering the war, and I wanted to do something different,” says Chung. While driving around with a translator and a driver, Chung and his companions stopped at a mechanic shop for a minor repair.
“The place was full of kids changing oil with their dirty hands, crawling under trucks changing tires, grabbing tools for older mechanics. I never saw kids so young working, so I started shooting, and that was the start of my photo essay.” Chung spent most of his time wandering around Kabul looking for kids working; it was set in his mind that this was the start of his photo essay. With only enough money to stay in Afghanistan for a month, Chung had to focus his time and utilized his translator and driver to get around Kabul to seek out photo opportunities.
“I only had a fleeting moment with most of these kids, but from what I observed in that brief time they seemed pretty responsible and disciplined for their age. Getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning and working a 10-hour day for a twelve year old Afghan kid… I was amazed. I think back when I was twelve, I sat around watching cartoons on TV. But these Afghan kids are working, helping support their families; it’s quite a difference. It’s a hard life they lead, and I hope as their country rebuilds labor pictures like this exist only in the past.”
“The kids working the carpet factory struck me, especially if you look at their wrinkled hands from weaving the looms. It seemed their skin had aged about 40 years. Unfortunately I started shooting them close to the end of my month there, so my time was limited with them, but if I can return to Afghanistan, I would love to spend more time with them.”
“The majority of Afghans and their children are not well off, with many of them begging in the streets. But everywhere you went, kids were flying kites again, an activity previously banned under the Taliban.”
“The thing that strikes me the most about these kids was the pride they took in their jobs. Despite dire economic conditions forcing them to work from such an early age, their positive attitude and monetary self-reliance attitude was a stark contrast to seeing kids in the western world talking on cell phones with friends and begging their parents for the latest Playstation game. I think the reason I shot this photo essay was the obvious; to show they do lead a difficult life working as children. But I also wanted to show their pride and resilience, that despite such a harsh life, they were strong enough to accept the challenges given them.”
Chung is currently back in Beijing, freelancing for various magazines and trying to work on photo essays in Asia.