Hannah Yoon stands small in stature but tall in passion. The large black camera in her hand almost looks too heavy until she brings it up to her eye and peers into the viewfinder. Her slender pointer finger gently taps the shutter button, calmly, methodically, yet quickly, resurrecting the camera to life with whirs and hums and sporadic movement. She presses lightly as the lens buzzes into focus. Then, like a lioness waiting for her moment to pounce, Hannah’s finger presses down sharply instigating a loud, harmonious click.
Hannah’s photos exude life in its purest form, with all the raw emotions and details that come with it. Perusing through her online portfolio, the talent seeps out of the computer screen. And the list of awards from the past two years corroborates that notion. Hannah with a camera seems second nature.
But just four years ago, photography almost shared the same fate as swimming, dancing, skating, piano, and violin. Just as she had done with almost every other activity in her life, Hannah quit…or so she tried.
“My whole life was about quitting,” Hannah explains. “Growing up, I quit everything. Whenever things got hard, I quit. Piano lessons, swimming lessons…and it was always right before I could achieve something. But I had no confidence in myself, and I didn’t see any value in me achieving something. What was the point? [I thought] it’s too hard, so there’s no point. So that was my entire life.”
That insecurity took on a life of its own when Hannah had to change schools in the middle of her fifth grade school year. Almost simultaneously, as if fate played a cruel joke, she had to get glasses because she struggled to see the front of the classroom. Classmates began grouping her with two Japanese exchange students in her class despite being ethnically Korean and born and raised in Canada. It all culminated during recess one day, when the “popular” kids asked Hannah to race with them.
kids asked Hannah to race with them. When she started running, she realized they weren’t racing. They were running away from her. And with them, her confidence fled only to be left in the dust of her humiliation.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. Now, I don’t have any more friends.’ I remember walking up to the very front of the school and just standing there. And I didn’t know anybody to stand with, so I stood there by myself. I knew in my head at that time, something’s different about me. These people didn’t want me to be friends with them.”
Hannah, once the confident child who made up creative games and played with everyone in her class, transformed into a hypersensitive girl with extremely low self-esteem. She drew into herself more and more to the point of crying in front of the class when she had to do a presentation. When she received her first “C” in seventh grade, she lost any ambition to do well in school. This set her on a trajectory to quit whenever things proved challenging or when she convinced herself she wasn’t good enough.
Photography began its slow march to the graveyard of activities that Hannah quit in her lifetime. In 2011, Hannah moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach English. She owned a basic digital SLR camera and thought herself a decent photographer. But after being in Korea for a few months, where fancy cameras hanging from necks were commonplace, she started doubting herself.
“I thought I was a good photographer and then, I came to Korea,” Hannah explains. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Everyone is better than me. Everyone knows their gear better than me. I don’t even know what I’m doing.’ I felt really inadequate in it.”
So, like she had done with so many other hobbies before, Hannah turned her back on photography entirely, going as far as sending her camera to her brother.
brother. Believing she had no gifts or talents to claim as her own, Hannah rationalized with herself, “You’re going to be the person who helps others discover their gifts.”
But in the summer of 2011, as Hannah geared up to go to Bangladesh for a church mission trip, she suddenly found herself picking up the camera again. Originally assigned to keep record of the team’s daily happenings, the mission team leader switched her role to photographer at the last minute. She called her sister Clara, who also lived in Seoul at the time, to borrow her camera.
Arriving at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 14 individuals crammed into a minivan to drive to a village in the southern region of the country. After a 15-hour journey from South Korea with a layover in Thailand, another eight hours awaited them in the hot vehicle. Each member of the team had a role and over the course of the weeklong trip, they would find their groove. Some right away; others in a day or two. But an hour into the drive, a flapping noise rushed through the open windows, signaling what everyone was hoping it was not. A flat tire.
The van pulled over to the side, and everyone stepped out for some air. Hannah grabbed her camera. She snapped photos of the tire. Of their environment. Of the team. The tire had to be replaced, someone said, and it will take an hour or so for it to get there. But rather than disappointment, the team rode on the excitement and anticipation of the coming week. Someone pulled out a guitar and they all began singing praise songs, kumbaya style. Click. The sun set, producing a golden hue over the rice paddies to their left and reflecting off the lake to their right. Click. Locals sheepishly stepped closer to the foreign-looking group as they continued singing. Click. Before they knew it, about 30 children, women, and men encircled them. The team preacher took the opportunity to share the message of the Gospel, and the locals began raising their hands to pray. Click.
Hannah moved swiftly, capturing the scene as it unfolded. She didn’t have time to be apprehensive or find her groove. She simply picked up the camera and did what seemed natural.
Hannah’s gift in photography was apparent to everyone. Everyone except Hannah, that is. Even the team leader remembers Hannah’s almost-confused reaction when her photos received a lot of compliments. Being thrust into the role of team photographer forced her to come face-to-face with an uncomfortable truth that she simply didn’t believe growing up: Jesus gave her a gift, and He was calling her to use it.
“After I went on a New Philly mission trip to Bangladesh, I came back and uploaded pictures,” Hannah remembers. “And the feedback, the response, was amazing. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t realize how—not only good does it feel to get affirmation when you present your work—but when I reflected on doing it, I actually felt so good doing it…so alive.”
Alive. As Hannah reflected on her role in Bangladesh, life buzzed through her veins, pulsating a creative heart that she willingly forfeited out of fear. Something in her awoke, and she decided to explore what it was, albeit apprehensively. She decided to explore photography again, but only as a hobby. Hannah spent weekends excursioning with friends around the city to experiment with lighting, shutter speed, aperture, and depth of field. She even navigated through the surly camera district of Seoul to find a camera to call her own again. Rather than letting the experts intimidate her like before, she used their knowledge to help her find the best camera. Whether she knew it at the time or not, Hannah gave life to her gift.
After her teaching contract came to a close in South Korea, she contemplated what to do next. She researched programs like design, fine arts photography, and even education, but nothing really excited her.
“I still didn’t know, so I came home [to Canada] in March 2012,” Hannah says. “I started talking to people and they would ask me, ‘So why do you like photography? What about it did you like when you were in Bangladesh?’ And I would say, ‘I loved taking pictures of people. People in their natural setting. People.’”
“People” being the operative word, a friend suggested photojournalism school. Hannah didn’t know what photojournalism was. When she looked up the definition—a form of journalism that employs images in order to tell a story—her interest piqued. She researched programs just for the heck of it, and without really telling anyone, applied to Loyalist College in Belleville, a small town about two and a half hours away from home. A month later, she received an acceptance letter.
That fall, 25-year-old Hannah entered photojournalism school. She didn’t know what to expect, but it became clear in the first week or so that this was not what she had in mind.
“I was really overwhelmed,” Hannah admits. “I didn’t realize photojournalism [included] newspaper photography…we had a newspaper photographer come in and do a seminar. Since it was 2012, he showed us all these photos from the Olympics in London. And I was sitting there like, ‘Oh, my God. This is not what I want to do. No way am I ever going to shoot the Olympics or use a big lens.’”
In her class “Intro to Photojournalism,” Hannah and her classmates had to find an interesting person to take a photo of. Each photo would be shown in front of the class and critiqued by the teacher.
front of the class and critiqued by the teacher.
The day the assignment was due, Hannah shifted in her seat nervously as her photo flashed through the projector in front of her class. The single dad she photographed held a couple of toys in his arms that he was buying from Salvation Army for his kids. A potentially great story but just a boring photo.
The teacher wanted to see a connection between the subject and the photographer. But his stoic, uncomfortable pose revealed that she just snapped a photo and the story got lost. Hannah could have taken a photo of him digging through a pile of toys or thinking deeply about his situation and his kids.
“Looking back, that’s a great story,” Hannah remembers. “But I just told him to stand there...no expression, nothing.”
Hannah’s cheeks heated up from embarrassment. I don’t know anything about photography, she thought to herself. Upon entering her first semester, she thought at the very least she was okay at photography. But this experience seemed to communicate otherwise.
While this would have been enough for Hannah to run the opposite way and never look back, she instead charged forward. That assignment humbled her, giving her a clean slate to discover what it meant to be a photographer and a photojournalist. A passion sprung up from an undiscovered place within her, giving Hannah the drive to learn as much as she could.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Hannah says. “I always look back to Bangladesh and think, ‘It wasn’t an accident that I got asked to be the photographer. It wasn’t by chance.’ I felt like it was part of a calling to pursue it. So I started becoming really hungry to learn. Some things you learn and it’s really boring and you don’t care and you have no desire. But I [actually cared] about everything I was learning.
everything I was learning. I loved looking at pictures. I loved reading. I loved talking to people, asking anyone and everyone questions.”
And for the first time in her life, Hannah refused to give up. Even when challenges tempted her to, something—someone—encouraged her just enough to keep going.
Two months into her program, someone stole Hannah’s hard drive, an experience equivalent to losing a portfolio in art school or a thesis in grad school. Her hard drive stored all of her photos from the last two years, including her school assignments. She feverishly flipped through her memory like a rolodex, wondering if this was some sort of punishment for a past wrong. Maybe in some twisted way, she deserved it.
“And [my friend] said something really simple: trust in God,” Hannah remembers. “I was like, that is not what I want to hear right now. I need some other advice. And he [said], ‘When you stand before God at the end of your life and He asks why you didn’t trust [Him] in that moment, what do you have to say?’ And I had nothing. I couldn’t say anything. Why didn’t I want to trust [God]? ‘Oh, my hard drive is gone, my pictures are gone, blah, blah, blah.’ The reasons didn’t seem good enough...when you hold on to a promise that God says you’re supposed to be doing this, that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to trust God and see it through.’”
From that day forward, Hannah stopped listening to the voice that told her she was inadequate. Instead, she focused on the only voice that mattered: God’s.
By doing so, she discovered that the hardest times—when the temptation to quit was the strongest—almost always preceded an achievement, a period of immense growth, or a breakthrough.
As Hannah saw it through, just as she had promised, she experienced opportunity after opportunity lining up before her.
“I would contact people [for stories] and right away, people would get back to me and say, ‘Yes, of course,’” Hannah says. “Plan A usually worked. I would see my classmates and I always felt bad because they would have to go to plan...G. And I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ I knew it was God’s favor in the situation and throughout the whole two years at school.”
In 2013, Hannah got her first job at a newspaper, beating out two other photographers who were more experienced than her. A year later, News Photographers Association of Canada (NPAC) awarded her “Student Photographer of the Year.” At the beginning of 2014, Hannah applied for the Tom Hanson Photojournalism Award, which gives winners a six-week paid internship at The Canadian Press.
“I’ve learned with these kinds of things, you can’t force things to happen,” Hannah explains. “I keep learning that. You can’t be entitled to a job or to a situation or even experiences. They come to you. So I always let God be God in all those things.”
Hannah wasn’t going to apply. As a second year at Loyalist College, she didn’t think she had enough experience to even qualify. And when she looked at past winners’ portfolios? Forget about it. They traveled around the world. They worked for newspapers. They had experience. Hannah was just a second-year student.
But with the persistent pressuring of a couple of friends, Hannah decided to apply. Even if you don’t win, people will still see your photos and that’s what’s most important, they said. She needed to submit at least 14 photos. She only had 14. I don’t even have enough pictures...I’m not supposed to do this, she rationalized.
rationalized. But just as she promised, she would see it through.
A month later, Hannah received a phone call from the director of photography at The Canadian Press. “I have some good news for you,” he told her. “You’ve been chosen as a Tom Hanson award winner.” Shocked, Hannah asked if he could give the award to someone else.
“I have to really accept this as God saying, ‘This was for you,’” Hannah says. “But I was not secure in myself at that time and in my ability to be a photographer...People would say, ‘You deserved it.’ But I didn’t like hearing those words. I always knew it was a God thing. And I see it even clearer now. It was a God thing that I [won] this award because if I’m trying to see it from an unbiased point of view and I’m looking at my portfolio and comparing it to others, realistically, it’s just not as strong as some people’s pictures. Yet, these photographers are saying, ‘You are the best candidate.’”
Hannah’s younger sister, Clara, supports that very idea. “I see that [Hannah] has a gift of connecting with people and talking with people,” Clara says. “It’s something I really admire. That she can just bravely go up to people and ask to take their pictures or ask to do a photo story. I think she really broke out of her shell by going through that program and now pursuing what she’s pursuing.”
Since graduating from Loyalist College in 2014, various projects have taken Hannah all over the globe, giving her a glimpse into the adventure God has in store for her. She even returned to South Korea—where it all started—to join another mission team to Nepal as the photographer. Considering the dismal and declining job market for photojournalists paired with the saturated and ever-growing industry of photographers, there are many reasons to worry and be anxious. And while the temptation to worry is always there, Hannah regularly returns to her promise of trusting God and seeing it through.
regularly returns to her promise of trusting God and seeing it through. She may not know her future, but she knows that the Jesus she follows won’t leave her stranded. And as long as she trusts in what He can do rather than what she can do, she’ll see it through.
“Why would I make decisions based on what I think I can't do or what I can do?” Hannah says. “If I lived life like that, I would be sitting in a room and doing only what I think I can, which is looking at the computer. It blows my mind that I used to want to make decisions based on what I thought was going to happen. Who am I to decide my future? It’s really allowing God to be Lord.”
Copyright © 2017 re.write magazine. All Rights Reserved.
*Photo 4 was taken by Justin Tang. Photos 5 and 7 were taken by Hannah Yoon.
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