Being comfortable in discomfort

Alicia Wong

Stefen Chow went into photography after his climb of Mount Everest. (Stefen Chow photo)

Under our monthly "Inspiring People" column, we highlight the incredible journey of one person who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit, and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams, too. This month we feature a photographer whose endurance and courage propelled him into the career of his dreams in just five years.

When he decided to take on the challenge of conquering Mount Everest, Stefen Chow knew his life would change.

He wasn't sure how exactly, but still he went ahead and quit his engineering job to embark on the life-changing climb organised by the National University of Singapore in 2005.

After three years of preparation, the five-man team embarked on the three-month-long trek.

At that time, photography was just a way for him to capture his mountain climbing experiences.

Now, just five years later, Chow, 30, is an accomplished jet-setting photographer for clients such as the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Keppel Shipyard and Shell International.

His works have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore and Beijing, where he has also opened a photography school, the Beijing Centre of Photography.

How did he attain in just five years what some could spend a lifetime pursuing?

"I had no experience in the photography world at all, had not earned a single cent from photography," he acknowledged.

But following the advice of successful people such as 77th Street founder ELim Chew and Singapore wheelchair marathon champion William Tan whom he spoke to after the expedition, he took the leap into a whole new career

Their message to him was: "If you are young, do something you love, don't wait until you have enough time, enough money, enough opportunity before you do it. It's impossible."

The path was far from easy.

Chow's shot of climbers near an altitude of 7800m on Mount Everest. The summit can be seen on the left. (Stefen Chow photo)

After conquering Everest, Chow became a freelance photographer with The New Paper for a year before heading to New York City to hone his craft.

He was there for eight months, assisting other photographers for free and surviving only on his savings.

"Times were tough. I was literally eating bagels for two of my three meals a day. They were cheap and nice, just $1.20 for a bagel toasted with butter," he recalled.

"I was there alone. It was hard to convince anyone in the creative world to afford you any attention, and it can get rather lonesome and simply daunting. You just grit your teeth and go on each day trying to improve yourself."

He returned to Singapore and worked more intensively, signing contracts with foreign wire agencies to get a foot in the international photography scene.

But soon, the Malaysian-born permanent resident who has lived in Singapore for 28 years uprooted himself again and moved to Beijing in 2008.

"I felt that my abilities in being bilingual would give me a slight edge over other photographers who might be there," he said.

Starting out again in Beijing where he had no contacts felt "like a race you have done again and again", he said. It took two months of getting to know the right people and establishing ties before work started coming in.

In the face of hardship and rejection, what kept him going?

Lessons from the mountain

One key lesson from climbing mountains, said Chow, is learning to be comfortable with discomfort.

He was bitten by the mountain-climbing bug at 15, when he first climbed Mount Ophir in Johor. He has since climbed as many as 50 mountains, with Everest being his most well-publicised climb.

Last year, he scaled Mount Denali, North America's highest mountain in Alaska, with three others. On his decision to keep challenging himself, he explained, "When you're comfortable, it means you're contented. But when you're contented, does it mean you won't get better?"

Chow's shot of the summit of Denali, North America's highest mountain in Alaska. (Stefen Chow photo)

"The mountains really taught me to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In the mountains you're comfortable to be alive, you're comfortable to be not freezing. And I think once you get use to discomforts like this, you realise there are a lot more things you can push," he said.

He has faced danger and, thankfully, walked away almost unscathed.  Chow remembers falling into a 5-m deep crevice once and, another time, being caught in an avalanche, which he described as like a "tsunami".

"My teammates who were down at camp, they saw the avalanche. They thought we were confirmed gone," he recalled.

He talks about the arduous training, which strengthened his physical and mental stamina.

To prepare for Everest, the team carried 20-kg backpacks and walked up 25 stories of a HDB block 10 times six days a week, or spent the day walking back and forth from Bukit Timah to MacRitchie while carrying a heavy pack.

And when he was preparing for Denali, Chow carried a 40-kg backpack and 'climbed stairs' on a machine in a Beijing gym for two hours, five days a week.

Being a photographer on the mountains further tested and strengthened his tolerance for hardship.

Chow was carrying 70-kg while climbing Denali. His camera equipment (pictured above) weighed 20-kg. (Stefen Chow photo)

"You have to work extra hard (as a photographer). People don't expect you to say because I'm the photographer I don't pitch the tent, or I'm not cooking," he said. "You better do your team duties well, so you still have time to be a photographer."

"You need to keep a mental high," he added. When the team members are at their "most tired, most vulnerable", that's when you get compelling images, he said. "But that's when you'll be tired as well".

"When people are at their most tired, you are working. When drama is there, you need to be there," he said. "You rest only when there's nothing else to photograph."

Sim Yi Hui, co-leader of the Singapore Women's Everest Team and who climbed Denali with Chow, described him as "driven".

It was "amazing" that he could carry a pack that weighed almost as much as him on Denali, she said. "Once he set his mind to do something, the motivation drove him to be fit, strong and to keep going despite harsh conditions."

Chow thanks his wife, Hui-Yi, for her unwavering support. (Stefen Chow photo)

Chow's wife, Hui-Yi, believes his success comes from his "daring to do" and not just to dream. He ploughs through difficult paths, and keeps setting the next milestone. "I think that he is excited not by competition, but by posing challenges to himself, and he thoroughly enjoys the journey."

Looking back, Chow knows he was "late in the game" when he started his career in photography.

But while others may have continued talking about their dreams, he acted on his.

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