Conversations with Samuel He

Samuel He spent the early years of his career as a photojournalist with The Straits Times. While Samuel is no longer a practising journalist, his connection to journalism remains very strong. He continues to tell stories now through his work at WEAVE, a video and photo production house. His connection to journalism still exists through education, as he currently teaches courses in photojournalism and documentary production at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Wee Kim Wee School of Communication.

Could you share with us your experiences in this line of work? Did you always know you wanted to become a journalist?

Samuel: I didn’t exactly know what a journalist did when I was a kid. But in junior college, I found myself emotionally invested in only two subjects: Art and General Paper. So, I saw myself leaning towards a career where I could tell stories, discuss issues of the day and make art. Journalism gave me a chance to do all three.

Has it been what you expected?

Samuel: Yes, journalism was an exciting way to start my professional life. It didn’t feel like work at all. My advice would be that I think anyone who wants to consider journalism as a career should be ‘kaypoh’. You must be obsessively interested in finding out about people and things. Also, journalism is in a constant state of flux. Today, you don’t need “proper” press credentials and a staff position at a famous newspaper to be considered a journalist. You can be telling equally important stories to millions of people with an iPhone and a Facebook account. So, you must be able to embrace these changes.

 Did you enjoy working in this environment?

Samuel: Yes. I can’t stand being stuck at a desk for 10 hours a day.

 What would you consider the highlights of the job?

Samuel: Journalism allowed me to experience life in the shoes of others in a strange, transient way. I spent a month each living in a foreign workers’ dormitory and a nursing home to tell stories about the residents there.

Another oft-cited highlight of journalism is, of course, being allowed into places where people normally don’t get to go. For example, I’ll never forget wading knee-deep in floodwaters in Bangkok and living on a Navy ship for two weeks during a search and rescue operation for a crashed airliner in the Java Sea.

What gives you satisfaction in the work?

Samuel: Seeing a photograph that I took used beautifully in the newspaper; being able to work with talented journalists and editors; when a story that I worked on results in discussion about an issue, and possibly real change. 

Harvard University has compiled this list of 42 professional competencies. In your opinion, which of these would you consider most relevant to your work on a daily basis? 

Samuel: Adaptability, negotiation as access is not always granted to a journalist, so this is an important skill to have, and building trust with readers and interviewees or profiles: often, it is the long-term relationships built on trust that yield the best stories.