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The New York Times Lens Blog Turning Point Series: Ed Ou on Finbarr O’Reilly

Waiting and Waiting for the Perfect Moment
September 22, 2010, 5:24 pm

Ed Ou, 23, was born in Taiwan and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. He spent the last four years in the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union. On June 13, his photographs of very young fighters accompanied “Children Carry Guns for a U.S. Ally, Somalia,” by Jeffrey Gettleman. Mr. Ou has been based in Nairobi as a photographer for Reportage by Getty Images and is soon to begin working as a photo intern at The Times. His remarks have been edited and condensed.

Q. How was this picture taken?

A. I was doing a story on victims of Soviet nuclear testing in Kazakhstan [“Under a Nuclear Cloud”] and I found this kid. His name is Nikita. He was 18 at the time. He can’t move. He was born with infant cerebral palsy due to radiation but he was one of the most animated people I’ve met. He could only move his head. He couldn’t control any of his muscles; nor could he talk. His family had found a way to communicate with him. They rigged up a helmet and a stick so he could very painstakingly type with his head.

He could do everything on the Internet. He plays games, he writes poetry, he writes songs, he writes stories, he’s in school. He learns Russian. On the Internet, he’s just like any other 17-year-old in Kazakhstan. Seeing how much he persists in using that computer, and how his parents persist in making his life as normal as possible, was really amazing. I needed to capture the love and determination of that family.

I sat in a corner watching him play on a computer for a while. I spent a few hours there. I wanted something more. His brother was playing with a balloon and I waited to get him in the frame. I didn’t get it the first day. Every time we would go back, I would just stay in that corner and wait for something to happen. Then for a moment, the balloon wandered up to where we were. And then I got it.

Q. How has this image changed the way you work?

A. Going through that process taught me how to be a lot more patient in anticipating or being ready for a moment. It’s O.K. to work a scene and let an image take its time. If you are patient enough, it’ll eventually come to you — in one way, shape or form.

Right before I started that project, I had been working as a wire photographer. This was my first long-term project. It reinforced in me that it’s O.K. to spend a long time on an image. If you want to take an image, you should work for it. It won’t come to you unless you’re patient and ready to see it.

Inspiration: Finbarr O’Reilly
Image: “Alassa Galisou”

Q. When did you first come upon this image? How?

A. I saw it at the World Press Photo exhibition. That was around the same time that I was getting into photography. I was really drawn to the way hard, breaking news was portrayed as art but never claimed to be art. Everyone was just so humble. They didn’t see themselves as artists but as messengers.

Q. What do you like about this image?

A. It’s a very singular photo about that particular moment and that particular famine, but it represents a larger issue. It gets people to contemplate. And then, through that photo, you start to ask more questions. And it tells a story.

Q. How has it influenced your work?

A. I talked to Finbarr and he was such an intelligent, humble and very caring person. As a photographer, you have to be a good person. Meeting Finbarr made me realize that in order to make images that make a difference or say something, you also have to be open to be able to react or see compassion. It reminds me to keep my eyes open — to always be ready to take photos.

He didn’t profess to be an artist. It’s actually almost because of that that I worked for wires like A.P. and Reuters. I have a lot of respect for wire people because they have to shoot every single day and constantly produce stuff. They’re always shooting. People don’t give wires enough credit for what they do, but what they do is on the same level as other photographers.

“Turning Point” is an occasional series featuring images by young photographers. The column was conceived by the 26-year-old photographer Amanda Rivkin.

Previous Turning Point Columns:

Wednesday, Aug. 4
Amanda Rivkin, 26.
Inspired by Dorothea Lange.

Wednesday, Aug. 11
Aga Luczakowska, 29.
Inspired by Stanley Greene.

Wednesday, Aug. 18
Robert Caplin, 27.
Inspired by David Alan Harvey.

Wednesday, Aug. 25
Yana Paskova, 28.
Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Wednesday, Sept. 1
Ayman Oghanna, 25.
Inspired by Alex Webb.

Wednesday, Sept. 8
Newsha Tavakolian, 29.
Inspired by Naser al-Din, the shah of Iran (1848-96).

Wednesday, Sept. 15
Maja Hitij, 26.
Inspired by Kevin Carter.