Rona Chang’s work covers a range of locations and subjects while maintaining a consistent style. She chooses to document her homes in both Taiwan and Queens, but is also drawn to different parts of the world where she feels at home and comfortable; Peru, Norway and Iceland are countries that she has visited multiple times and feels a strong pull towards. The photos, despite being from extremely different locations (some where she has lived and some where she is a visitor) display an in-depth study of a landscape and show the patience that is required when waiting for a composition to form in front of you.
Abigail Smithson: Do you associate your work with any certain type of photography?
Rona Chang: Though I’ve gotten closer to people in my work in the past three years, I think of myself as a landscape photographer. I have a hard time describing my work because I say I am a landscape photographer but the images I make are not pure landscapes nor do I see myself as a documentary street photographer. I tend to stand back a little bit and watch things happen in front of me. I am not confrontational. I wait for there to be a good confluence of elements within the frame that I find interesting. In general, this is how I think about composition. I will take a couple of shots as I am waiting for the right thing to happen in front of the lens. I try to make an interesting composition and at the same time, document the interaction between the figures and the elements within the landscape.
Fixing the Colosseum, Macau, China
In new locations I scout out interesting sites, wait for good light and for people to engage in something intriguing. There is definitely a lot of waiting to make these images happen. I don’t like having a lot of equipment. I don’t like making myself physically present or dominant. I don’t set up my subjects but I am careful about composing.
AS: The project “Recreation” shows an interesting side of man-made spaces often occupied by people. But in this case, they are empty. The negative space in these photos longs to be filled and holds a hesitancy. How did you choose to document both the space and the potential action the space holds?
RC: I photograph everything that is interesting to me. Certain spaces and architectural details speak to me. I consider the quality of light. I think about elements within the landscape. I didn’t preconceive “Recreation” as a series. I culled together images from different trips and I realized that I had a lot of running tracks. I am really interested in the curves of the tracks, the red clay, and the light in the sky. I have always been interested in shapes within a landscape and the architecture of the spaces.
While I have never been an athlete, sports recreation is something that is interesting to me in the way in which something fascinates you but it’s because you don’t really understand it. I never played any games or sports growing up and I am not a spectator of sports. I have never approached photographing recreational areas as a true fan. I have been to a baseball game and I was totally not interested in photographing it because there were too many people (perhaps too many figures to arrange within my frame). I am interested in the space that people can occupy and that potential. The silence of the space while not being utilized or being occupied is something I ponder through photography.
AS: How is shooting when you are traveling different from shooting in your home countries?
RC: For the most part, I feel some kind of connection to most of the places I have been. But not necessarily historically or by culture. For example, I have been to Peru twice. I went in 2002, really liked it and soon realized that I didn’t do enough research and needed to go back. I wanted to travel through more of Peru and learn more. I liked the people and I felt connected to some of the things that were going on there and I am fascinated by cultural layers of past histories specifically within archeological sites. When I went back to Peru in 2009, I spent close to a month there.
I try to only go to Spanish speaking countries because that is what I learned as a second language in school. I can understand a little and even if it’s not the whole conversation, I at least try to communicate in Spanish. The same is true with Mexico. I’ve now been four times. The feeling of getting to know a place more thoroughly by staying in touch is one way of continuing that cultural friendship. There are definitely choices I make in where I choose to go because I feel more comfortable in a particular country. I like to return to a place. In my twenties, at least in the beginning, it was a lot about hitting different places that I wanted to go to. But it has become more about spending extended time in one place. I felt like that was my mistake with my first trip to Peru. I didn’t do enough research and I didn’t spend the enough time there while I was there. So I had to make a second trip. Spending more time in a particular place and figuring out what I want to see while I am there and taking my time is the direction I would like to go in.
I first became interested in northern landscapes in my early twenties. I met the photographer Geoff Hutchinson who had been to Iceland a number of times. We got along great (eventually married, divorced, and are still best friends) and he introduced me to Iceland. We went together twice. He had been to Iceland so many times he had his favorite things to eat and do there. He knew the ins and outs of the fjords along the ring road, the way micro-climates surprise you while driving, and the best picnicking food. As a result of going with him, Iceland felt very familiar. We explored the Lofoten Islands in Norway together because of our shared love for northern light and landscapes. I eventually went back to Trondheim, Norway to do a residency because I was looking for that unique quality of light you find in the North in May or June.
My pattern now is to try and return to places that I connect with, that I find fascinating in one way or another. One has to do the research in order to figure out what one’s connection to the place is and what is in that place that might capture one’s mind, heart or thoughts. I am still really interested in going back to Peru to learn more Spanish and to spend time getting to know the country more intimately.
AS: Do the people who are in your compositions ever approach you or notice your presence?
RC: In the States, very few people interact with me while I am photographing. I am usually far enough away that people seem to think I am harmless. I am photographing an overall scene. I don’t have a zoom lens or bulky equipment. My camera is fairly small and unobtrusive. I have to say when I am in China, people tend to chat more. Because I was traveling with my Mom last summer, people were talking to her and asking her what I was doing. That actually alleviated a lot of attention from me so I could photograph as she was talking to them. It was nice to have her there to take the attention away from me so that I could actually photograph something that I found interesting without having to respond to someone as things were happening. I felt that people were open to having us there.
My mom and I would look at the Lonely Planet guide and figure out which town we wanted to visit for the day. We would make the trip and often there would be a funeral or a baby’s one month old party happening. We would try to get closer to see what was going on and I would start photographing and walking through the party. The locals would ask us where we were from and invite us to join them. They would say “Come sit down with us” or “Come eat with us”. We didn’t encounter anyone that was aggressive. They were really very welcoming. I have never been in that situation here (in the U.S.). I don’t walk into people’s backyards here. I wouldn’t walk into a block party. If someone was celebrating a birthday party I wouldn’t necessarily walk through without asking. But in China, it seemed really easy to do that and not to have to explain myself. When people started asking, my Mom was there to answer questions. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. Compared to the U.S., there is less privacy and personal space in China.
AS: Tell me how you decided to do a project about Queens, when so much of your work is based on going abroad?
RC: When I started collecting all the images for Moving Forward, Standing Still taken in different parts of the world, I began to think about concentrating on different and more specific regions. I aim to highlight the interaction of the landscape, architecture, culture, and population within the areas I choose. That’s how I began conceiving Moving Forward, Standing Still – Queens edition. It took me a long time to think about how I wanted to approach making it because this was something that was so close to me. These were landscapes that I walked through everyday, but I was starting to look at them from a different perspective. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to photograph. I would make lists of locations that I was interested in and then I would go and find situations within those settings. I knew there were certain places that I wanted to photograph. I knew I wanted to show the diversity and landscape of Queens.
A couple of months before beginning the project, I had photographed Eid Candy, the little girl underneath the sprinkler system in a park. At the park diagonally across the street from my apartment, prayers are held in the open area and handball courts, marking the end of Ramadan. I had heard the call to prayers and was very confused. I thought my upstairs neighbor was blasting his Buddhist meditational chant music. I got there late, after prayers were let out, only managing to make a couple of photos. The following year I researched when that date would be and and made sure I was there to photograph Eid prayers at the park. I was there the whole time to walk around and prepared myself for it. The year before I hadn’t been ready to absorb it, to take in what happened during Eid at the park, and the order of events.
AS: How much time do you spend mentally editing a possible photograph before you even take it?
RC: In Queens I definitely think a lot about it before I even bring the camera out. I filter a lot through my head before I think about what I am going to shoot. I talk myself out of it and I think about whether or not I should shoot something, especially if it’s a situation that I can go back to over and over again. I think about it and say to myself, “Is it interesting, is it not interesting?” I also consider the light in a situation. Sometimes I miss the light and it’s no longer an interesting picture. Or the people who are at that crosswalk in the frame that I want at that second, aren’t going to be there the next time. I actually think that way often on my way home from the subway because I walk through fairly interesting streets, but I don’t always have my camera with me.
Shoveling Snow, Elmhurst, NY
AS: How did growing up in New York affect your photography? Do you love the city?
RC: I do. I think I always wanted to leave when I was younger. I didn’t want to be in New York. I would spend my summers in Taiwan, where I am from, with my Dad and see my family. When I was in college I thought I wanted to live in Taiwan after I graduated. I made really good friends there so I finally started feeling that I had a sense of connection to peers, ie. people who were younger and not my Dad’s associates. The whole situation finally started to make sense to me. I had become so connected to my new friends that I didn’t want to leave them every time I came home after the summer. Though I was always drawn to living there, I didn’t know how to make a living there and I didn’t want to teach English.
While making the general project, Moving Forward, Standing Still, I realized I had gone to all these different countries and that was directly influenced by my childhood of growing up with people from all over the world. I had not realized it before and that’s how I began the Queens Edition. My best friend in elementary school was from El Salvador but I never asked her about her heritage. I just grew up with kids who were mixed or from exotic places but I didn’t realize it. I was just comfortable with it. I never questioned it. I never thought it was weird. Growing up in a multi-cultural place is a unique situation to have as part of your background. I don’t think everybody has a chance to live in an environment such as the one I had. Traveling made me really curious about all these things that I had a taste of in Queens. And coming back to do the Queens Edition felt like going full circle in my thinking and exploring the world. So much of the world is represented within the borough of Queens. It’s so diverse. And really, New York in general. It’s amazing. I don’t think I really appreciated it until I was making that project. You step away from it and you realize you are really lucky to be in the situation you are in.
Click here to see more of Rona’s work.