Malaysian female Olympics photographer on why she loves her job

  • People
  • Monday, 26 Feb 2024

Tan was one of two Malaysian accredited female photographers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Photos: Eliza Tan

She has had the privilege of capturing Olympic gold medallists, China President Xi Jinping, United States First Lady Jill Biden and Prince Albert of Monaco on camera.

And as a sports photographer, Eliza Tan was one of two Malaysian accredited female photographers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

A sports enthusiast herself, Tan, 24, is mostly self-taught.

Born in Singapore, Tan grew up in Kuala Lumpur and went to the US to pursue her studies when she was 17.

Her love for photography began at a young age, and since then, coupled with wanderlust, it has been a never-ending journey of discovery.

Tan first began to display an interest in taking pictures at the age of six, sharing that her father was the driving force behind that love.

“He always had a camera with him, whether it was a family vacation, a birthday celebration or even a trip to the pasar malam,” she recalled.

Meanwhile, Tan got to play around with a compact camera. And while kids her age played with toys and dolls, she took a liking to photography.

Tan said shooting the Olympics was a beautiful challenge.Tan said shooting the Olympics was a beautiful challenge.

A few years later, she produced a film with her nine-year-old sister, who offered to write the script for the play. Their little creation garnered so much attention from relatives and neighbours that it convinced her father to get her a camera of her own.

“I started by making videos and then picked up photography,” she said.

Having had a taste of visual storytelling, she decided to take a leap and venture deeper into her passion. Thus, she started to document countless memories of her travels.

From the age of 15, her yearning to travel took her to every corner of the globe, covering places like Egypt, Morocco and even Jordan.

Travelling taught her to view life through a different lens.

“My purpose behind the visual stories I tell is about finding stories that challenge our prejudice and break stereotypes. Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to people of diverse cultures and backgrounds – that’s something I feel blessed to experience.

One of Tan’s photos when she visited Mokattam Village, also called the ‘Garbage City’ in Cairo, Egypt, a few years ago.One of Tan’s photos when she visited Mokattam Village, also called the ‘Garbage City’ in Cairo, Egypt, a few years ago.

“The goal of my work is to provide insights into the lives and personalities of people from multicultural communities in an effort to uncover shared experiences and humanity despite our differences,” she said.

Within a span of four years, her portfolio was filled with beautiful photos of her visits to different destinations and interesting landmarks.

When she was studying in the US, she was invited and commissioned by major universities to host exhibitions, although most of the exhibitions were unrelated to the actual programme she was undergoing.

“Over the course of three years, I held several exhibitions, namely ‘A Glimpse into China: The Beauty and Diversity of Modern China,’ ‘Shattering Bias: A Transformed Perspective on the Middle East’, and ‘Now You See Me 1 & 2: A photo series documenting the stories of international and US ethnic minorities.’ A couple years later, I showcased ‘The Quiet Zone’, my most recent photo exhibition at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,” Tan shared.

Subsequently, she was referred to a photography position at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed a year to 2021 due to the pandemic. After that, Tan was re-invited to the Beijing 2022 Olympics.

A shot of the opening ceremony dance at Tokyo 2020.A shot of the opening ceremony dance at Tokyo 2020.

Excelling in her field

During an exclusive interview with The Star, Tan shared that what fuelled her passion for photography was meeting influential people along the way who believed in her.

“Unbeknownst to me, the dean of my media department recommended me as a photographer for the Tokyo Olympics,” she said, adding that she photographed the Beijing Olympics during her graduate studies in New Media Photojournalism.

“My postgraduate degree allowed me to finally formally learn about photography as I had been mostly self-taught.”

A photo of a gold medal at Beijing 2022.A photo of a gold medal at Beijing 2022.

One memorable experience she had at the Beijing Olympics was when her food and drinks were served by AI!

“The ‘talking’ robots prepared my meals and even cleaned the rooms in the hotel. The amazing display of modern Chinese technology blew me away,” Tan said.

When the event drew to a close, Tan went on to work with a media company – where she collaboratively curated a project – which featured former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

“I worked hand-in-hand with the creative team to produce a documentary series on climate change,” Tan explained, saying that the experience provided her an avenue to sharpen her post-production skills.

Currently, Tan is juggling two jobs as a part-time lecturer teaching multimedia photojournalism in the US and a product manager with an established computer software company.

Though being a female photographer certainly has its ups and downs, Tan said the experiences give her memories to last a lifetime. And although primarily a male-dominated industry, Tan said women can excel in the field too.

“I don’t view being a woman as a disadvantage. You have to be independent, strong and self-driven in order to survive in this industry, which can be challenging, but the true reward of the trade comes in the stories that people openly tell you, as it takes vulnerability to stand in front of someone’s camera. When you show true empathy and genuine interest, it pays dividends,” Tan explained.

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