Stories of the Storytellers: Straits Times photojournalist Kevin Lim shares his illustrious career telling stories through a camera

According to his LinkedIn profile, photojournalist Kevin Lim grew up wanting to be a fire-fighter and a zookeeper. But instead, academics gave his childhood ambitions an alternative, allowing him to carve out quite a career in photojournalism. From covering local swimming hero Joseph Schooling’s triumphant Olympic campaign in 2016 to the historic 2018 Trump-Kim summit, Mr Lim has achieved numerous significant milestones during his time with national newspaper, The Straits Times.

But things could have turned out very differently, had he not decided to pick up a DSLR camera during his time in university. Initially, he had his eyes set on becoming a sports journalist, while reading Communications and Media Studies in Nanyang Technological University (NTU). That soon changed when he got involved with the school’s student-run newspaper, The Nanyang Chronicle.

“I was never a photographer in the first place and I actually wanted to be a sports journalist,” the 38-year-old recalled vividly.

“But when I got involved with the school newspaper, I decided to join the photo desk. I just thought that since I was already writing so much during my course of study, why not try something else and learn a new skill instead.

“I wanted to see what I can do using a camera to tell stories. And before I realised, I was sucked into it.”

Stories of the Storytellers: Kevin Lim and wife Neo Xiaobin
Mr Kevin Lim (right), with his fellow photojournalist wife, Ms Neo Xiaobin (left)

And Mr Lim is certainly not wrong when he talks about being drawn into the world of photojournalism. Since his graduation in 2009, he has spent more than a decade in the industry, often spending excruciatingly long and back-breaking hours on the job. But it’s not all thorns, as he found love and married fellow Straits Times photojournalist Neo Xiaobin – though he readily acknowledges that his line of work might not be ideal for those looking to start a family.

“It’s a real issue that photojournalists might find it hard to settle down early in their lives. There may be challenges when it comes to family planning because the hours are irregular,” he commented.

“The assignments can take you out of Singapore suddenly so if your spouse is not from the industry or understand how things work, it may prove a challenge. There are many sacrifices that we have to make when trying to capture a moment, and the number of hours we put in is quite underrated.”

He cited his experience covering Joseph Schooling’s swimming events during the 2016 Rio Olympics, as an example of the unspoken sacrifices that occur behind the scenes. Just to secure a spot in the designated photography media area for the swim finals, Mr Lim had to be there at least four hours early, just to queue up. Naturally, sleep became another aspect that had to be compromised.

“When you are out on an overseas assignment, it’s understandable that sleep is a luxury. Brazil is about 11 hours behind Singapore time, and it’s means that you are almost working two shifts. When I wake up, I’m rushing to meet the deadline for print and before I sleep, I also have to make sure that the content is ready for the online team to put up in the morning,” he explained.

“Physically, it’s a big investment as you are getting only about four hours of sleep and yet have to exert plenty of energy on the ground. There is also a lot of mental work involved when trying to get the best shot such as anticipation, observing the surroundings and planning the best place to stand.”  

I asked whether it bothered him that despite all these struggles, there were still some who viewed his profession as a mere clicking of the camera button. Additionally, given the prevalence of top-quality cameras and camera phones today, it would seem as though anyone on the streets could comfortably replicate his job.

He replied: “I can’t blame them because they are not in the industry, so they wouldn’t really understand. But it’s really more than just a click of a button. It’s information gathering, awareness and thinking on your feet. What makes a good picture will be determined by your ability to anticipate so that when the moment presents itself, you will be alert enough to capture it.

“There are so many people equipped with DSLRs and even more armed with mobile phone cameras today. While it has enabled everyone else to be a photographer, my belief is that it does not automatically make everyone photojournalists.

“It’s in our blood as photojournalists to immerse ourselves in people’s lives and provide an alternative angle through visuals. This is not something a man on the street armed with a DSLR is naturally attuned to doing.”

Stories of the Storytellers: Kevin Lim's photo in TIME
The iconic photo, which was named as one of TIME’s Top 100 Photos of 2018

And Mr Lim has proven over the years that he is certainly not just any common man on the street when it comes to the expertise of photojournalism. The historic Trump-Kim summit was one massive event that fully tested his abilities, and fair to say, he passed its stiff test with flying colours. His photos of North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un and U.S. President, Donald Trump, were featured on the top news publications, such as TIME magazine, Associated Press and Financial Times, among others. Ultimately, one of his shots showing the shoulder-to-shoulder backs of the two leaders, was inducted among TIME’s Top 100 Photos of 2018.

On that iconic shot, he felt that it exuded a much deeper meaning beyond just a mere behind of the leaders.   

He explained: “That particular picture sort of summed up the entire event for me. These two world leaders came to Singapore with the hope of working towards denuclearisation. They came, shook hands but when they left and we saw the back of them, I wonder what has really been achieved.

“Has there really been an agreement? Eventually, we found out that there was going to be no agreement at all. So, for me, that picture meant a lot more to me as a photojournalist.”

Given that Mr Lim was the only Singaporean photojournalist provided access to the highly charged and scrutinised summit, it added a bit more shine on his already impressive achievement. But he maintained that all these potential accolades were never on his mind when covering the event. 

“It was unprecedented to have my photos featured on the world stage as there were some very renowned photojournalists alongside me. I was definitely surprised, but for me, it was more of getting the job done,” he said.

“Covering the event was a whirlwind of an experience, and with the amount of stress and pressure that I placed on myself personally, I was just relieved to have delivered the results. I think at any big event, there is almost zero room for mistakes. So, to have come out of it with work that I was personally satisfied with, it was like a vindication of my efforts.”  

Stories of the Storytellers: Kevin Lim AT 2016 Rio Olympics
Mr Kevin Lim (centre), pictured here with the media at the 2016 Rio Olympics

It would seem that Mr Lim has already completed most of the “been there, done that” checklist of any photojournalist’s career, so one wonders what else is he still aiming to achieve.

To that, he replied with a steely resolve: “I think the basis of becoming a photojournalist will never change, that is to tell stories, capture moments and offer an alternative eye through visuals. Throughout my career for the past 11 years, I have never planned for the possibility of covering the Olympics or any big events. It is not something that I would set a target for but if the opportunity is given to me, I will grab it with both hands and deliver to the best of my abilities.   

“So, moving forward, I will apply the same mantra and just be ready for the unexpected. Just like any self-respecting photojournalist out there, I would want to constantly pit my skills against the others on the world stage and it is a challenge that drives me. We are all looking at the same scene but how can I do it better?

“Having been there and done that does not dull my motivation as a photojournalist. It’s always another opportunity to see what else you can deliver and who else you can meet on the assignment and learn from. But at the end of the day, no event is too big or too small, they give me the same satisfaction and it is why I do what I do.”

They have always been the ones telling the stories of others and now it’s time for us to share their stories instead. This article is part of a brand-new series, Stories of the Storytellers, where danamic. looks into the lives of media professionals and tell their often-unheard stories. Have someone you’d like us to feature? Write in: [email protected]   

You can also follow Kevin’s works through his Instagram.

Photos courtesy of The Straits Times, TIME and Kevin Lim.

Zaixiang Pan

A massive fan of the game played between one ball and 22 men. But otherwise just another ordinary chap trying to figure out life.

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