(2nd UPDATE: Kosuke Okahara has been awarded the 2014 Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Grant to continue “Any Given Day”, his 10-year-long project on the cycle of violence surrounding drugs in Columbia.)

(UPDATE: Just a few days after publishing this interview, we received news that Sohrab Hura has joined Magnum Photos as a nominee.)

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2014 © Francoise Callier

It has been almost seven years since photographers Kosuke Okahara and Sohrab Hura first met at the 3rd Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops in 2007, when Sohrab was a participant and Kosuke was involved as a teaching assistant. The two have remained close friends since, and have also returned regularly as mentors and teachers themselves.

Both photographers have been invited to returning as workshop tutors for the 10th Edition of the Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops, and kindly agreed to let me interview them together.

I first came across the works of both Kosuke and Sohrab in 2008, before I had the chance to meet either of them in person. There was a striking essence of honesty and tenderness in their photographs that moved me greatly, leaving me intrigued about the personality and character of the photographers who could create such work. I was, I admit, a little afraid of meeting them – what if they turned out to be awful people? Would I still be able to like their photographs?

I did meet them eventually, and my worries were laid to rest.

Speaking candidly over Skype last week, the duo shared their thoughts on ‘success’ in photography, the difficulties of remaining innocent, and the choices that all young photographers have to make.

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Tell me about the first time you met each other.

SH: We were at Blue Pumpkin.

KO: Yes! Was it Blue Pumpkin? Well, I came to Cambodia for the festival to assist in Antoine’s class.

SH: Kosuke was already a little ahead of all of us. He was in Agence VU, like a star amongst us.

KO: But I applied for the workshops and I wasn’t selected! [Laughs] They said I don’t need the workshop… Then Francoise called me on Skype, I didn’t know her then, and she asked if I could come to assist in the workshops. After I spoke to her, then she sent me an email saying she was in Nigeria and lost all her money and needed money to go back to France. Well, her email was hacked and somebody sent out the email…

[More laughter…]

KO: Yes, that’s how it started.

SH: I also received a strange email, telling me about the workshops and that I should apply, and then this strange lady Francoise said that she would send me her digital camera to use during the workshops since I had none, and the festival would even send me an air ticket. Those days, workshops were started up in the region, but they were very expensive. And for someone like me who did not study photography, it was quite a big deal to go.

It has been quite a few years since then – at this point in your lives, what are your own personal definitions of ‘success’ in photography?

KO: It is difficult, because people sometimes have to compromise to survive, to be politically correct, or just even to exist in this community, which is a little sad. Perhaps to some it is about being recognized, and then, oh, that means you’re now considered successful.

Maybe because I’m older now, success doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. If I can feed myself, pay my rent, and shoot stories I want to do, I feel quite happy.

Also, I think it is ‘successful’ if you can keep being an instinctive photographer. Sometimes when I shoot, I feel as if I already know the technique and what the picture will be like, and I become lazy in that sense. You end up with an ‘okay’ result, but not something that’s very moving. It is difficult not only to stay motivated, but also to remain raw in your work. If you can keep finding subjects, themes or any form of motivation that keeps you that way, I think that’s ‘success’. Many people keep shooting for years and years, and they tend to lose that instinct and become systematic in their work.

It is difficult not only to stay motivated, but also to remain raw in your work. If you can keep finding subjects, themes or any form of motivation that keeps you that way, I think that’s ‘success’. 

– Kosuke Okahara

Sohrab? You want to jump in here for your definition?

KO: He’s very successful! Look at him!

SH: I’m here with Kosuke, I’ve reached my pinnacle of success.

[Laughter.]

SH: I have no idea what success is. Or maybe it’s difficult to articulate it. I think you’re successful if when you die, someone comes to collect your work so that it won’t get lost or die.

When you talk about the idea of success today, it is already superficial for me, it’s all about how you play the game. The system is such that in the photo world, it makes you play games – whether you’re applying for grants or assignments or anything else.

There are different indicators for different people. I’m ok with someone whose measure of success is how much they earn, if that’s what they want out of success. But sometimes people may want to be successful in a pure and idealistic way, but they go about it in a very compromised way, and for me that’s not success.

I can only speak for myself. I’m not successful, maybe because I don’t feel from my gut that the work is going to live on beyond my life. I think in this system a photographer is under pressure to keep advertising himself or herself to make the work live, and there are also people who just need to do it on Facebook and stuff to make themselves feel better and validated, but what happens once the photographer stops to exist, does the work still exists? It’s about a long period for me.

And it’s more relevant today because works are dying a daily death. Every week you have a new star coming out, there are so many awards now. For me, most fizzle out a year or two after. I don’t know whether that is success, because they haven’t lasted, the works have died out, and some other new work has replaced it.

But then, when I look at some of the older photographers, who worked and struggled in isolation without any of the limelight… there’s something very special about the older works – and for me it’s more about their energy, not necessarily the aesthetics or genre, which I know these works have gone beyond, and as a young photographer, you can still connect to them.

I think in this system a photographer is under pressure to keep advertising himself or herself to make the work live… but what happens once the photographer stops to exist, does the work still exists? It’s about a long period for me.

– Sohrab Hura

Among young photographers, there can sometimes be an obsession to make a list of grants or awards they have ‘won’ because they believe this is the way to show that they have ‘succeeded’. If they do not provide this list, how else could they advertise themselves?

SH: I feel like good work will always shine. I mean like I said, there is a system, and yes, there is a lot of pressure, especially today with the explosion of photography online. I think I just about missed this explosion when I started out. Today, I feel there is this pressure on young photographers to apply for everything.

This system kind of ‘makes’ photographers, and photographers are going to be born into this messed up world of having to apply everywhere. But, it’s more about what they do within that screwed up scenario, that pressure system that they are existing in, how they are able to protect themselves and get out of it, because its more about what you learn within those struggles.

For young photographers, it is a choice they make. Whether to remain in the system and play those games that you’re ‘supposed’ to play, whether it is spending most of your time sending out applications or sucking up to people… it is a complicated world, and photographers have to make choices. Good work will always live. I don’t think it needs advertising of any kind.

KO: Yes, if it is very good work.

SH: Yeah.

KO: But it’s difficult.

SH: Yes…

KO: Well, I’ve met some young photographers who sound so competitive. There are more opportunities available now in Asia, and that’s great, but it is also becoming more and more like a competition…

That’s fine, and to me it’s about the individual person and how they see these opportunities. Like you said, either they try to be a part of the system…

SH: Consciously, maybe they know that’s what they want out of it, they want fame, or money…

KO: … or, you can use the system and the opportunities to try to get something good out of it, or try to produce new work. The kind of work I do is more photojournalistic – one of my goals is to be able to show my work to more people. So I apply to things.

I also send it to some people who can help you push your work if they like the works, which can give you more chances to show it to even more people – which is my goal in the first place.

To summarize, you’re saying young photographers need to be aware of the game, so that they can choose how they want to play it?

SH: They just need to be aware of the system, and what they want from photography. I think people can apply for grants and awards and all these things, because sometimes it does give you a boost momentarily financially or psychologically, but is that the end of all that you are looking for?

If you play within this system, but what you really want is something to do with your heart and soul, you then have to be aware about the path you’re going down, and that you may lose something inside you.

I see that there are many people who have forgotten where they started from. The reason why they fell in love with photography. There is a certain loss of innocence in the journey of a lot of people. I feel scared that it has happened to me as well, and it is a daily struggle to fight that.

Sometimes it is about finding something that you really want to shoot. Something I can really fall in love with. 

– Kosuke Okahara

So then, what is it that you want from photography, and why did you start?

SH: It’s a very difficult question.

KO: To me it sounded very interesting to travel and make reports. Photography wasn’t the first thing I wanted to do. Even video or writing was okay for me. After some years, somehow photography still remained. And the more I did it, the more I fell in love with photography.

SH: Sometimes it’s not really a definite, description thing in your mind that you can say that that’s what made you fall in love with it. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, like the feeling of excitement when you first started taking photos. Maybe it’s just that.

Do you feel excited anymore to take photos now that you’ve become a photographer? Is it important to you? For some people, I would say please don’t become a photographer, just do it for the love of it. I see a lot of photographers for whom by the end of it, it becomes about getting assignments… and there are these other places that one wants to fit into, fame and stuff, and then they are no longer that innocent. None of us are.

Picking up on that word, the words ‘instinctive’, ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’ have been used to describe your works. Is this something you work at or does it come naturally to you?

SH: You’ve chosen all the corny words for us.

KO: Sometimes it is about finding something that you really want to shoot. Something I can really fall in love with. There were a few stories I’ve done, I wasn’t so ‘excited’, but I was curious. The photos were OK, but not so touching. It’s not something I can try to do, but something that I can try to be.

SH: For me, photography started in a very raw place. I didn’t take to it because I was interested in it. It was just that I was in a certain place in life where I was really low, and a camera was given to me, and it made me feel good to look at the photos. It was to do more with the feeling, like I was worth something. That’s what made me take to photography.

I’m a very different photographer now, who ‘knows’ too much, and I’m not so lost anymore. Earlier on, I was lost but I was really happy. Right now, I don’t ‘love’ photography, it’s a love-hate thing going on. It’s frustration, and I can’t do anything else. It is the only thing I want to be with. I have been, in a very strange way, lucky, to have started from a place where it was more of a need than a want or interest. I needed to make me feel good, just by creating something.

I’ve been lucky to have met really good people who confronted me with difficult questions, which I think is a very important part of the process. Sometimes you’re able to pose these questions to yourself, but sometimes someone else may ask you uncomfortable questions that challenge your beliefs. It may make you realize how you are being a hypocrite, which then leads to another question – do I continue in that direction, or do I let go of those principles, and not try to put up a façade or do something about it?

For me, the more I get away from the system, the happier I am, and more free. These grants and awards which come our way, even though they can be helpful, sometimes you need to be categorized as a certain photographer to fit into the agenda of all these things.

I’d rather see something that’s really raw, that makes you feel something or even better, something that makes you react, rather than something that just fits into an idea of being ‘contemporary’ or anything else just for the sake of it. I feel like we are in a state of flux, where there is a lot of confusion amongst photographers, and more than photographers actually, the gatekeepers of the photo world.

I see that there are many people who have forgotten where they started from. The reason why they fell in love with photography. There is a certain loss of innocence in the journey of a lot of people. I feel scared that it has happened to me as well, and it is a daily struggle to fight that.

– Sohrab Hura

Speaking of gatekeepers, do you think the photo industry is paying more attention to Asian work compared to before?

SH: For example, there are some curators who ask me when they want to show Asian photographers, but even before I can reply, they say what type of work they are looking for, and they are usually looking for a pre-packaged Asian version of a European or American work.

People now want to see photocopies, and all of us are in some ways photocopies, but when the gatekeepers are looking for photographers, it’s sometimes strange that they look for photographers doing a particular kind of work.

There are some who say, ‘Do you do this?’ or, ‘you should do it this way’. But there are others who ask ‘What are you doing?’ and are they are interested in knowing what you have and what you want to do with it. So there’s a difference.

KO: If you categorize things, people feel more comfortable, maybe. They can have a package to sell, or be a package that can be sold. Of course it can be good for some photographers to get their work shown to different people.

SH: I think in the long run it’s good for people to get shown. Maybe a few years ago, Asian photographers were very left out, but now… There can be some moments when it becomes a bit gimmicky and becomes ‘in style’ to show Asian photographers. You need consistency.

But again, I don’t have a problem with the gatekeepers in the long run looking at Asian photography, because it is good for people who get selected. I have a problem with photographers who use it as a crutch.

What is one thing that you know now that you didn’t know back then, that you would like to share with young photographers reading this?

SH: For me, it was during the workshops, Antoine said to me, if he were not a photographer, he would be doing the same things. Then he asked me, if I would be living life the same way if I were not a photographer. After the question, I kind of realized how we as photographers we end up performing so much when we’re apparently photographing our own lives, how unconsciously or consciously we end up being different people to create different photos. It’s the whole idea of making sure the photographer and the person are as close to each other as possible – this is something I realized.

Before Angkor, I think there was a lot of distance between me and what I was photographing, and that question has always stayed with me because I feel like, in my case – I knew what would make a good photo, but was it really me? And that was something that was important to me, maybe not to somebody else, but it was something that was important to my process. And I feel like whatever I’m doing now always goes back to that one point.

The whole thing about honesty originated from that point, even being conscious of the idea of innocence in photography, goes back to that point for me. Just to that one question of whether you would be a different person if you were not a photographer.

KO: Just take pictures – if you want to take pictures. And if you’ve already done a few workshops, then use the experience for your projects and pictures.

Sometimes, I think there are people who use ‘being a student’ as an excuse for themselves. Because while you’re a student, you probably feel you don’t need to face the reality. You’re here to learn something. But then once you’re out somewhere, you’re not a student anymore, you’re just a ‘nobody’ taking pictures.

The whole thing about honesty … even being conscious of the idea of innocence in photography, goes back to that point for me. Just to that one question of whether you would be a different person if you were not a photographer.

– Sohrab Hura

The 2014 Workshop Applications are still on-going! The annual tuition-free professional workshop is aimed at nurturing emerging talent from Asia – find out if you are eligible and apply online today!

Application Deadline: June 30, 2014

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Jessica Lim is the Asia Coordinator of the Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops.