In Conversation with… Paul Choy: Incredible Photo-Journalist
Paul Choy is a man of many talents but is most well known for his photojournalism – and someone that I am incredibly inspired by in my own work. Anyone will tell you that his work is enriching, moving and beautiful but more impactful for me is the effortless way in which he marries the art of writing with the art of photography, creating heart-touching stories to span lifetimes and generations to come.
I first laid my eyes upon Paul’s art in 2014 and instantly I was captivated; instantaneously becoming a fan. As a conscious journalist and writer myself, what resonates the most with me about his work is the messages he puts out into the world encouraging us to take better care of one another and to take better care of our planet. As you can imagine, I was overjoyed when the opportunity finally arose to meet the talented photographer, writer and jack-of-many-trades for a face-to-face interview, and I was not disappointed at all with the outcome.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much Paul was willing to share and how much he let me in to his little world. I found him to be a fascinating man full of passion and wisdom, and a born storyteller who wants to leave his mark on our world. This is what happened when I went along to meet him at his gorgeous office/studio/gallery in the north of Mauritius… Grab a cuppa and settle in, as it’s a pretty long yet fascinating one!
It was a good event! I think sometimes in Mauritius, what frustrates me is that we underplay ourselves a little bit. We’re a tiny, little island in the middle of the ocean, but we get stuff done here! I’ve been to TED talks all over the world, and what the guys put on here was just as good as anywhere. We’re quietly putting ourselves on the map.
How did you feel during your talk?
I enjoyed it. I don’t get fazed by stuff like that. The thing is, it’s all about knowing your stuff. The only time you get nervous is when you don’t know your stuff. Something like this is pretty straightforward for me because all I have to do is talk about my experiences – and I know about those because I experienced them!
Confidence comes with knowing what it is that you’re doing. I can stand on a stage with 10,000 people and that’s fine, never an issue – but to be honest, I’m not great with people. If one of those people come up to me afterwards and want to speak to me one-on-one, that’s what I find difficult. I’m usually more comfortable with complete strangers that I’m stopping in the middle of some random town. Everything else that goes with these events, the schmoozing etc. – it’s just not me at all.
I love the way you spoke about the ‘us vs. them’ mentality in your talk, explaining how you use photography as a way to fill those empty spaces between people and bring them together. How do you think we can implement the things you spoke about in our own everyday lives, to lessen the space between us and other people?
We can’t fix the ‘them and us’ mentality. It’s innate human behaviour. It’s a huge issue at the moment! The language I hear people using about other human beings is astonishing and it makes me want to jump up and down! I did a project a couple of years ago where I spent a few months in refugee camps in Europe and I was speaking to one of the volunteers there and I said “how do you deal with something this huge?” and she said to me, “you just start somewhere”. I learnt a lot from that. We can’t fix the world but we can decide to do something. We can pick one thing and we can do that. So how do we break down the barriers between them and us? If we’re to break down barriers between social groups then we have to tackle down the perceptions in our own minds. It sounds cliché, but honestly just say hello to somebody. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just said hello to somebody and it’s led to something.
I know that you’ve been fascinated by photography and human stories since you were a child. Are you just as fascinated today?
For me, photography is just a means to an end. I’ve always enjoyed how a photograph can tell a story but I love the fact that it’s open, too. My passion is capturing a moment and preserving it – and yes, for sure, I’m just as fascinated today as I was back then. I’m fascinated by life.
Do you ever go through a creative block?
Yes and no. I started out as a writer; I actually think of myself as more of a writer than a photographer – I’m a storyteller. Of course, sometimes you struggle to find the words; sometimes they flow and sometimes they just don’t. But my work now tends to revolve around stories of places and people, and a simple way to break that ‘creative block’ is just to go somewhere different and there’s a whole world of possibilities out there. I’ve got the whole world to inspire me.
Can I ask, are there any standout books that have positively impacted your life?
Books to me are important. People are surprised that I put so much effort into books, especially in the digital world. Everything’s online yet I’m still definitely a ‘book person’ – like physical books, that you actually hold in your hands. For me it’s not so much that there are certain standout books; it’s just books in general, the whole concept of ‘books’. I’ve still got shelves full of books, I still write with a pen and paper. Their day is nowhere near over. There’s a demand for books and I think there always will be. You can’t replicate holding a book.
What I will say is this… there was a period in time called the Dark Ages because it was a time where we didn’t have the written word and we didn’t have photographs, so there are no historical records and we don’t know what happened. This now is going to be the most recorded age in history because everyone’s got a camera phone – we’re producing an extraordinary number of photographs! Admittedly the vast majority seem to be of kittens or what we had for dinner – I don’t really understand all that. But they’re all digital photographs. I’m not sure JPEGS will still be around in 10 years, let alone 100 years! So 300 years from now, if they dig up a time capsule and find a USB they might not know what to do with it. But if they find a book in there – that’s a physical thing that they can see and hold. That’s why I say to people “print your photographs!”.
Two of Paul’s recent works, available in stores and online now.
I totally agree! Keeping in line with the theme of books, your Little Mouse children’s book series is brilliant! Can you tell me why you created this series and what the inspiration was behind it?
Most of the lessons that we learn come from childhood through storytelling and play. I’ve always been interested in children’s stories because what I like about them is that you can do anything. If you’re writing for adults it has to make some sense… but with kids it’s different. You can say “the boy jumped high and landed on the moon” and that’s okay! I love the creative freedom that you get from that.
Traditional stories that have been handed down for generations all have had some sort of meaning to them – like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Emperor’s New Clothes – and they have a clear meaning to adults too. So with the Little Mouse series I wanted to create stories that were relatable but also had some sort of meaning to them. All of my kid’s stories have a meaning or a message to them. For example, the first Little Mouse story is basically saying ‘be who you are’. In today’s world there are so many people trying to be who they’re not. Be happy with who you are, spend time discovering who you actually are. My inspiration for those stories came from the lessons I wanted to teach my own children.
I’ve released the first three, but I’ve got at least another fifteen waiting in the back. I struggle with what I call ‘ideas overload’; like I get ideas all the time, plot ideas and storylines but the tricky thing is finding the time to write them. Kids stories I enjoy because you have so much freedom to do anything. There’s no problem with a squirrel and a mouse having a conversation!
Will there be new characters coming soon then?
Yeah of course! The next series features a little dog called Pocket who’s so small you can put him in your pocket and it’s about his adventures. But they all follow the same theme, they all have a message.
Another amazing thing about some of your books is that they are available completely free of charge, online. Why do you choose to give them away for free?
Well you can buy them as well, the physical books you can buy in shops. All the e-books I give away for free. The main reason is because I disagree with the music and film industries that spend all of their efforts trying to block piracy – their argument is that if somebody downloads an MP3 version of a music file then they’re losing money. But if you’re a 15-year old kid that’s broke, you can’t afford it. By giving my books away for free, my work has reached places it never could have if it was paid for. I’m big in Korea; I get emails from kids in schools over there, and that never would have happened had I been charging for the books. I think sometimes knowledge needs to be shared.
People tell me I’m giving money away! But I’m like, no I’m not. We get so wrapped up in money. Money is a new concept. Until recent times it just didn’t exist, but human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years. We managed perfectly fine without money! What we used to do was exchange services and our time. You’re good at cooking, I’m good at building a house; you cook and I’ll build your house – that’s how it used to work! Maybe I’m too philosophical but we should do that more often. If I can write a story for kids to enjoy then I just want them to enjoy it. If I give a story away, kids in 300 years could still be telling those stories and that’s so much more valuable to me.
A question that I know a lot of our younger readers would love to hear the answer to… When you first began travelling the world, how did you fund yourself in the beginning? What advice would you give to someone that wants to do exactly that, but doesn’t have the finances?
Hard work. You ‘fund yourself’. Anyone starting out has to show what he or she can do. How I’ve funded everything is by working 20 hours a day! I had 2 jobs, 3 jobs, because I had to pay for it all. No one is going to buy a book off me if I say “pay me now and it’ll be ready in three years”. No, I need to prove myself first. When I first got going with all of this I had to buy all my own cameras, pay for my own travel. Now fortunately, other people give me cameras and pay for me to travel but that wasn’t easy, so how I funded it was by working my butt off!
I’m a raging socialist. I feel society has a responsibility to help society. I believe that every body should have exactly the same opportunities to work their guts out! What I won’t accept is you sitting down and not bothering while I’m working my guts out. I think we’re going in the wrong direction though. I feel like we’re giving away A’s to too many kids that don’t work for it and I think we’re losing this message of how you fund things is by working really, really, really hard. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you’ve got to be really good at what you do. You have to find something that says “I am better than the others”. But in regards to your question, there is no easy way. I see people looking for funding or for handouts; they start GoFundMe pages and no, that’s not the way. The way is to be really good at what you do and work really hard. There is no magic solution. Work hard.
People also always ask me how to get good at photography. I say practice – a LOT. A real lot.
And that is great advice! I was surprised to learn you only started out in photography around the time I came across your work online, around the year 2014. What made you turn to photography at that time in your life?
Photographs have always interested me, but really it was going out and exploring. I guess life happens. A big part of it was that I moved to Mauritius in 2010. Before that, I ran an investment firm for 20 years in Europe. I got here and then thought “well what am I gonna do now?”. I was taking photographs and it kind of just happened by accident. People start liking your photos and then more people start liking your photos, then people start asking if you’d like to travel around the world… the best things happen by accident. So I don’t think I was motivated to pick up a camera particularly, I was always interested and then one day I found the time.
As well as being a photographer, you’re a man of many other talents too. A writer, a fitness coach, scuba diver and kite surfer to name a few. When you’re not doing any of those things, what do you like to do when you get some time to yourself?
You see, I don’t have any spare time to myself! As cliché as it sounds, if your work is something you enjoy then you’re always doing it. The things I do for work are the things I do for fun. I always like doing different things too, like, I’ve invented some board games because I thought nobody invents new board games. There’s also a sport I want to launch – people don’t invent new sports; they invent new phones and hoovers! I’ve got a game too. I just like creating things, whether it’s a photograph or a board game or a children’s story and that’s what I like to do in my spare time as well. Other than that, I exercise a lot. I like running because you get the best ideas when you run. I like exploring. And I like the ocean as it’s the most unexplored space there is.
And what brings you the most joy?
Oh gosh! I like laughing. We’re really simple creatures. I like being with my family. I like being with my kids. I like exploring. Dubai… have you ever been to Dubai?
Yes, once for about 4 days and I hated it.
You see, Dubai is a made up place. It’s an amazing place; it’s opulent, it’s astonishing and it’s incredible, but it doesn’t have any soul. But then you get these other times. I was in Dubai and I was exploring. And I heard about this village… So what happened about 40/50 years, the Emirati’s discovered oil and suddenly overnight everyone became a millionaire, so what they did was move to flash cities and flash apartments and left their old ways behind. There’s this small fishing village that’s abandoned where Dubai Creek starts. People don’t even know it’s there! And I found this village, a small village, 3 or 4 streets lined with houses – but it’s completely abandoned! Sandstorms mean that all of the streets are covered in sand now. The houses and building are all still there. I was walking down the street at sunset in Dubai in a deserted village – and it’s moments like that where you think “how did I end up here?”. I like those moments. I like the peace. Some of my favourite times have been where I’ve been at the top of a mountain by myself, or in the ocean and there’s no one else around.
I would say my favourite thing is just living life. Just remembering that we should LIVE LIFE and not get wrapped up in the nonsense of it all. Live your life and enjoy it.
While you’ve been around the world, photographing some of the most wonderful places and meeting the most incredible people, can you tell me about an experience that has really stood out to you? Someone or something that you will never forget?
There are things and people that stand out for me all around the world. There’s a kid I posted about recently on my Facebook, a young Syrian refugee boy called Abdulazez. He’s incredible. He’s 19 years of age. He’s an inspirational person without even realising he’s inspirational… the challenges that someone like that faces. I met him in a refugee camp and I’ve since seen him a few times. I went back to see him and I saw him in Athens and he was teaching an English class! He only learnt English himself the year before! People like that just get on with stuff. He’s incredible.
Do you keep in touch with people that you meet on your travels?
There are a number of people I keep in touch with. Taking someone’s portrait is a personal experience. For a moment in time, there’s a direct connection between you, when they’re looking straight at you. Just for a brief moment in time, there’s that personal connection and some peoples’ stories just stick with you.
As you’ve travelled the world, can you tell me about some of the worst situations you’ve come across?
There are things happening at the moment that just shouldn’t be happening and I think our approach to these things is just wrong. Drug abuse and substance abuse for example. It’s not a criminal issue; it’s a health issue. Locking them up isn’t the answer; it’s treatment. Homelessness is a mental health issue. People are living on the streets because of mental health issues and we’re turning our backs on these people. I think the biggest issue I’ve come across is a lack of empathy in the world today. Regardless of whether it is homeless people, drug addicts, refugees… if it doesn’t affect us directly, we ignore it. That’s the biggest challenge that we face.
We’ve become too caught up in the acquisition of money and not remembering that we’re all a single species. I honestly think the easiest way for us to fix the troubles between the people is for us to discover aliens. As soon as we discover aliens, then we’ll be able to unite. It seems that all we ever want to do is dislike somebody else and shamefully human beings are never as united as when they dislike something or somebody else. I feel like we need to find our humanity again; we’ve lost it somewhere along the lines or maybe we never had it. We need to find it.
Can you tell me about a challenging time in your life and how you overcame it?
I was heavily involved in the corporate world and it becomes a bubble, and one day you have to pop that bubble when you’ve found yourself caught up in things that have no meaning whatsoever. I know this sounds silly but a big part of my photography work is having something to leave behind. Like, I’m good on Excel. I’m really good at creating spreadsheets – but I don’t want that to be my superpower. That’s not what I want. In 400 years, I don’t want someone to read about me and be like “oh, he was great at conditional formatting”. The challenging thing for me was breaking out of the corporate world. And you can do it at any time. One day you just have to say I’m not doing this anymore.
Is that what you did?
Yeah. Unfortunately we had some bereavements in the family and suddenly you think what’s it all about, and sometimes you need to just break free. That’s why for me, I’m very clear that I will never allow this stuff to become business. When it becomes business it becomes different, so you lose and forget why you’re doing it. Of course you have to pay the bills, but there can be value and rewards in all sorts of ways.
How has breaking free from the corporate world impacted your life?
Well, I’m a lot poorer! You make a lot less money when you give away stuff for free! But it also means that you have the time. In London, in the corporate world, you’re in the office before 7am and you’re still there at night, doing meaningless stuff that nobody’s going to remember 3 months from now, even 3 minutes from now. In our society now, the best gift you can give is time and breaking free from that gives you time to do stuff. That’s the biggest impact for me. Things like having time to read my kids a story or just have a meal with family and friends.
So does moving to Mauritius tie in with you breaking free from that corporate world/lifestyle?
Yeah, I was like I’m getting out of here! I didn’t wake up one moment and think I’m going to go next week however; it was coming for years and years and years. I don’t like the direction that Europe has taken. I don’t like putting up walls, I think walls need to be broken down. So it was a lifestyle decision to move to Mauritius – best thing I ever did, I’ll never move back.
You are an inspiration to many, including myself. So now I ask, who inspires you?
All sorts of people inspire me – it’s not one person, it’s not one action. Abdulazez who I spoke of earlier inspires me. Then there was a fisherman I met in Grand Gaube. He was fishing out at sea, he was up to his waist in water and he looked uncomfortable. All the other fishermen were up on the rocks. And I didn’t know why he was there, so I waded out to sea to ask him and I said “why are you here?” And he said, “because the fish are here” – and that had such a big impact on me. Like, the reward is there. You have to go to where the reward is; it’s not just going to come to you. You have to step out of your comfort zone. People like that inspire me so much. And kids! Kids will say things that others just wont.
Speaking of kids, one thing I find extremely challenging about being a parent is pursuing my goals and dreams while at the same time trying to be the best parent I can. How do you find that balance between being a father to your boys and following your dreams?
As much as a challenge as everybody else. You’ve got responsibilities. There are certain red lines you can’t cross. There are things I have to think about like the danger levels of where I want to be and where I can be, for the sake of my kids. I have kids, so I have to tailor things. Say I’m in Toronto and I need to be in New York – the logical thing would be to fly straight to New York, but I come back to Mauritius in between so I can see the kids. You have to make the time.
I don’t go out in the evenings. We put the kids to bed and I’m so shattered, I go to bed myself! You have to work at life, every aspect of life. My wife and I don’t go on dates anymore, we don’t have time. So we do things like date breakfasts every Wednesday morning. Other people go for dinner in the evenings, but we go for breakfast. You have to make an effort – it’s as much as a challenge for me as it is for anyone else. Family life is a challenge for everybody and you have to make the effort to balance it.
If you could share one message with the entire world, what would it be and why?
Oh my goodness! I don’t know. Smile more and live your life? Sometimes things sound really cliché, but they sound cliché because they’re true. The world is amazing, just enjoy it.
This has been such an incredible and insightful exchange, thank you so much. Finally, before I go I have to ask, what are you looking forward to in the future? In your own life and career, as well as the future of our planet?
Future of our planet… well I hope we still have one! I think we need to stop damaging it and stop being so stupid and awful. We need to look beyond the immediate.
And for myself, well I’ve got lots going on. I’ve got some huge projects I’m working on that will really surprise people so I’m excited for stuff like that. I’m always looking for different challenges. I’m working with some architects at the moment to build some buildings with an artistic flow. I’ve got some things I cant talk about but they’re big and a lot of work is going into them. What people have seen is just 1% of what is going on and there is so much more to come!
What a fascinating insight into the man behind the lens! Paul Choy’s ‘Somewhere, Anywhere’ and ‘Just Mauritius’ are now available to purchase online and in a book store near you. If you enjoyed this interview as much as I did, don’t forget to leave a comment below and share!
Until the next one, you guys…