On The Record

Interview with Cindy Liu

The Accidental Photojournalist

With a computer science degree, things could have been simpler if she had gone to work in Silicon Valley like many of her classmates. Instead, Cindy Liu, who feels like she’s still learning how to navigate the world of photojournalism, finds herself collecting stories in Phnom Penh.

Airport staff look on as a local reporter announces the arrival of a donation of Chinese supplies to Cambodia during the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 2020.

First things first, you are a Princeton graduate with a computer science degree and now a photojournalist in Phnom Penh. What was that transition like, especially the initial conversations with your parents?

I’ve spent a lot of the past two years reframing expectations for myself that I had previously associated with my identity. Things like what kind of job I needed to do, where I needed to work, and how much money I needed to make to be “successful.”

This challenging shift extended similarly to my parents, who were understandably worried about my future when I decided to start working as a photojournalist in Cambodia.

At the end of the day, I know my parents just want me to be safe, healthy and happy. They were familiar with how I might achieve those things working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, but not as a photojournalist in Cambodia.

The initial transition was difficult, but I think now that they see I enjoy what I do and have had some success with it, they have a better understanding of why I’m pursuing this path.

I have to give them credit for being so generous and forgiving of my “unusual” life choices, but I’ve inevitably also felt guilty for making them go on this unpredictable journey with me. I know where those feelings come from, and I have to remind myself that I can still be a good daughter while choosing a path that is honest to myself.

Lion dancers rehearse before performing during 2021 Lunar New Year celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Performance groups like this one saw drastic reductions in their number of bookings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

You were born in Canada, grew up in the China and educated in the USA, how did you end up in Cambodia?

I initially came to Cambodia for a teaching fellowship because I wanted to do something different for a year before following the expected path of a computer science graduate, which was to work at a tech company.

After a year, I decided I wanted to stay for longer and pursue a different path than that of being a software engineer. I found myself constantly thinking about stories, and I knew I would regret not giving photography and storytelling a try now.

I understand that it takes an incredible amount of privilege to be able to move to another side of the world and take up an entirely new career, and it’s something I’m constantly grappling with as I work on stories and projects here.

Lee Zing, 24, and members of his dance team “The Bling” practice in a studio in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Three years ago, Zing started practicing with a group of K-pop dance enthusiasts who gathered every evening in the city’s Wat Botum Park. Eventually, Zing and some friends formed the dance team “The Bling,” and today, Zing lives out their slogan “Make Your World Shine”.

Why photojournalism?

I’m still not sure that photojournalism will be my lifelong career pursuit, but I find that the work of a photojournalist matches a lot of my sensibilities and who I want to be as a person.

I’m fascinated by small stories that reflect larger patterns and changes, and I am fuelled by the kind of close relationships you end up forming when you spend a lot of time with people.

I love that being a photojournalist gives me an excuse to meet and listen to people I would’ve otherwise never encountered.

I also really like building images. I love being in a situation and shuffling around to find the best angle, the best light, and the moment when everything just comes together. It almost feels meditative, like time slows down for me to compose an image that can encapsulate a story or a feeling.

Zing dances with his friends for two hours every evening in Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park. Their nightly impromptu performances often draw large crowds.

When you see a social issue that concerns you, do you always think of photography as a possible way to address it?

On the one hand I believe photography, or more broadly storytelling, is very important to creating understanding and empathy. Images reveal to us what we cannot see or choose not to see. Visual evidence of injustices have sparked so many movements around the world.

This is something I’m still trying to figure out as I progress in my career — what do I want my role to be as a photographer and storyteller? I want my work to invite others to pay attention to something, but so often that feels like only a start.

During practice, Zing comforts a member of his dance team experiencing heartbreak. As the leader and oldest member of the group, Zing often provides support for the younger members. “They are like my siblings,” he said.

Do you feel like a stranger in this part of the world? What is the most difficult thing settling into a new environment?

I think because of my upbringing, I feel a bit like a stranger in any part of the world.

Being in Asia definitely feels more familiar, but I’m also living and working in a country where I’m not a native speaker of the local language and many things are still foreign to me.

I think there is value to having an outsider’s perspective and curiosity, but I also constantly question whether the stories I work on here are mine to tell. Why am I the best person to tell this story when a local photojournalist could do the same, or better? What are their barriers of access to resources and opportunities?

I’m glad that pandemic restrictions shifted a lot more work to local creatives, and I hope that continues even after the world opens up for travel again.

For me personally, the most difficult thing about settling into a new environment is finding and building a community. Because of my personality, it takes a lot of conscious effort on my part to go out and meet new people.

Ly, a 23-year old spirit medium, takes part in the annual Hei Neak Ta (Spirit Parade) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The mediums are seen as special members of the community who can relay the intentions of gods and spirits and bring blessings to people during the Lunar New Year.

You recently participated in Missouri Photo Workshop and was also named a mentee in Women Photograph, how are these important in your growth?

These experiences are absolutely crucial to my professional growth, especially since I didn’t come from a photography or journalism background. These opportunities have helped me find a sense of community with photographers around the world, and especially with everything moving online due to the pandemic, it’s amazing to see the wide range of resources that’s now available to everyone.

These programs have also connected me with a lot of generous mentors, for whom I’m very grateful. I definitely feel a lot of imposter syndrome as a newcomer to the industry, and in a way these opportunities give me a sense of confidence and validation that yes I can do this and that there are people out there rooting for me. It reminds me that I can’t give up on myself if others haven’t given up on me yet.

Ly dresses for the annual Hei Neak Ta (Spirit Parade) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Is it safe to assume that China is always on your mind professionally?

Yes, I would say so. I believe the stories people tell you and the relationships you build with others are fundamentally different when you can speak directly to each other in a native language.

I’ve also been away from China for quite a few years now, and growing up somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean you understand that place well. I hope to see the same places, as an adult, now through stories and images.

I’d also like to work on more personal projects related to my family’s history, which is hard to do when I’m constantly somewhere else.

Ly drinks water moments after waking from his possession during the annual Hei Neak Ta (Spirit Parade) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? And in 10 years?

My hope is that I will be spending more time working on long-term projects and stories that are close to my heart. I hope to see myself more rooted in one place, not in the sense that I will stop seeking stories and being curious, but that I will have decided to dedicate myself to understanding a place and its people for a long time.

Any advice to young people trying to follow your path in photography?

I don’t know that I’m “old” or experienced enough to give advice to “young” photographers yet, but here are some pieces of advice I’ve heard from others that have really helped me so far:

  • You don’t need permission from others to do the work that you want. Don’t wait until someone asks to publish your work to make that work. You have to make the work first to have something to show editors, for example.
  • Everyone has to start somewhere. Don’t be afraid to be a beginner and ask the basic questions. You’ll be surprised by how willing others are to answer your questions, because they’ve also been where you are now.
  • Follow your curiosities. Don’t assess the value or worth of what you’re doing based on whether or not it can be published or receive external approval. A story can be valuable simply because you’re interested in it.
  • You can still be a photographer without earning your full income from photography.
  • Apply for workshops, grants, opportunities, etc. You never know what you might get or who you might meet, and it’s always good to practice articulating what motivates you or what your work is about.
Jane is a former student in a government program aimed to train teachers for under-staffed schools in rural China. In her accompanying letter, she reflects on her choice to attend the five-year program, which is followed by a mandatory five-year work contract at a rural school.

How has your photography changed in the past three years?

Three years ago I would’ve never thought I’d be working as a photographer in a professional capacity. It’s crazy how life changes and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve been entrusted with so far.

Compared to when I first started, I think my photography now is more focused on stories and relationships. My approach to stories is also slowly changing, thanks to the guidance of mentors and different workshop experiences.

I used to worry about getting the “nice” pictures right away, but now I try to focus on building relationships first. I put my camera down more often so I can share in the experience of the people I’m photographing. I find that slowing down and understanding what it feels like to be in a particular moment or setting can often help me make better pictures.

I try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and understand what it must feel like to have someone they barely know suddenly making pictures of everything they do. I take time to explain how their pictures might be used and why I’m interested in documenting their story.

I want to create an experience that feels more like a mutual exchange, though that’s not always possible due to time and budget constraints. But when I can, especially with personal projects, I want my photography to come across not as an act of “taking” but an act of exploration and creating understanding about a topic or story together. At least that’s my hope — it’s definitely something I’m still working on.

Cindy Liu is a photojournalist currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She graduated from Princeton University with a degree in computer science but left behind a career as a software engineer to pursue one in visual storytelling. She started contributing to Reuters in 2020 and was recently a participant in the 72nd Missouri Photo Workshop. She was also selected as one of 24 mentees globally for the 2021 Women Photograph Mentorship Program. Her work seeks to explore themes of diaspora, identity, and community-building.