Transparencies: Artist Spotlight, Dana Chang

Editors Note: This Artist Spotlight features artist Dana Chang, a photographer at Vassar College. Dana uses photography to capture a specific moment in time, using friends and familiar places as subjects. Her work is filled with movement, gestures, and emotion.

When did you start taking photos?

I started in 9th grade freshman year of highschool. I live in the suburbs outside of the city, and back then my mom encouraged me to look at pre-college courses in the arts. I ended up taking a course at the School of Visual Arts on black and white film photography. That’s where I first learned about printing, developing, and film photography. However, my Sophomore year at Vassar I took a film photography course and really got back into it. I had this new found environment to exert creative energy, and had people around me producing a similar energy. It just made me feel really comfortable in the space to produce and experiment. Where I’m from I didn’t have a lot of access to creative spaces, at least none where I felt comfortable. Being at Vassar re-inspired me to start working on photography again.


Is there anything else that has influenced your practice?

Yeah, my first photography muse was my really close friend Mollie  .  For my first photography class at Vassar, we would have to have a certain amount of photos for critique.  She would just naturally make these gestures when we were walking, and it was great to have a person who was comfortable and down to do whatever weird thing I asked of her.

Is there a subject that most interests you? Do you see a theme throughout your work?

There are certain friends I photograph a lot, like Patrice and Molly, they both have really great natural gestures and a way of almost ignoring the camera while shooting. I love trees, and that is probably informed from where I grew up in Chestnut Ridge, New York.  My backyard is filled with trees. The biggest thing though is places and people I feel comfortable with, they tend to make the best work.  I like there to be a certain familiarity with the subject and for them to feel comfortable and natural while shooting.

What are one of your favorite stories behind one of the photos you’ve taken.  

I have this photograph I took of my mom when she was on a business trip in New Orleans.  It’s taken from the back in our hotel room and she’s all dressed up.  It just brings back a memory of a specific time, when I look at it I can place myself back into that moment.

How has Vassar’s environment impacted your work?

It has been good and bad. The people I surround myself with help a lot, sometimes the actual space becomes limiting like Vassar’s restrictive size and resources. I prefer to do shoots in more private spaces, which is hard to do on a small campus. Overall though, Vassar was what I needed because I didn’t feel the same creative energy, tools and freedom I have here in High School, so being here and meeting people with similar interests has helped my creative confidence.


You mentioned that Vassar’s art classes don’t incorporate many artists who look like you, namely black women photographers. Are all of the photography and video art professors at Vassar white?

Yeah.. yeah they’re all white. They always say this industry is heavily dominated by white males, which I get in a sense, but saying that erases the fact that there are black video artists and photographers making really great and important work. You just have to look for it, but it gets annoying because it’s extra labor that gets put on POC students and it becomes an excuse for professors to not look deeper into finding diverse works of art by POCs.


Are there specific works of art or artists that have inspired your work?

The cofounder of an online publication called, VISCERAL8 named Sabrina Santiago. I’ve been following her Instagram for a while so I’ve been able to see her growth as a photographer. She shoots really cool images that constantly inspire me and make me envision space and color in a new way. In Video Art my professor showed us Christopher Simmonds and I fell in love with his piece, A Willing Suspension of Disbelief. On my own I came across the work of the late Peter Dean Rickards as well as the digital artist Sondra Perry. My family is from Jamaica so coming across Peter Dean Rickards work was really important and impactful for me. I find a lot of artists from my own research or on social media. Like for Sondra Perry, I saw a few people who graduated RSVP on Facebook to an event with her so I looked her up and fell in love with her work immediately.


I’m also really into fashion photography. A few of my favorite fashion photographers are Cass Bird, Harley Weir, Lea Colombo and Tim Walker. I also love magazines like i-D, Dazed and Love. That portion of the industry though has been a real disappointment because despite my own research I haven’t really been able to find much work by black female fashion photographers, especially in highly regarded fashion publications.


How does the camera take up space to you?

Already with photography there can be a weird dynamic between photographer and subject, especially in regards to control and consent. But physically, the weight of the camera, it’s comfortability, can impact how my body moves through and takes up space.  


I’m a media studies major, so in a lot of my classes people talk about media being the extension of the self. In certain moments the camera definitely becomes an extension of myself, informing how I move, how I am perceived, and the spaces I feel comfortable occupying all of which ultimately affects the photos I take.


Does that concept bother you?

It doesn’t bother me, because of the implications and power that come with having a camera I make the effort to be careful and aware of lot of different factors.


The type of camera I use also affects how I interact with space and my body. I don’t like using digital cameras as much, I don’t even like the feeling of pressing the digital shutter especially compared to the one on my film camera.


I often use digital camera for events, but I don’t like it at all.  However, film gets really expensive and time consuming, so I often sacrifice other things in life because of my preference to use it.  I try not to shoot too many events because I still have this complex relationship with photography and who I am allowed to photograph. I feel extremely uncomfortable if there is no relationship or verbal consent between the people I am taking photos of such as strangers or acquaintances.


What do you prefer to shoot on?

I really enjoy point and shoots.  They’re easier to bring around, and a lot less scary when someone takes it out and wants to take a picture.  I found my parents old point and shoot a few years back and got one off of Depop later on.  


Would you say that taking film photos is a more intimate process for you?

I think so, especially since you don’t have that instant gratification. I get to imagine the photo more.  Sometimes it is exactly how I imagined it and sometimes it’s not. I like the anticipation and both the surprises and letdowns when photos end up different than expected .  


What does your physical process look like?  

Developing the film takes an hour, if nothing goes wrong, the temperature of the water and chemicals you use can be a tedious detail but ultimately important. But it often becomes my self care time, you really can’t stop once you begin the process so it becomes a time dedicated to one task and often a time where I can think and reflect since the process is so monotonous. I definitely have to intentionally carve out a specific time for it though.  


What do you listen to when you develop film?

I listen to Frank Ocean, King Krule, Blood Orange, I have a soothing tunes playlists which is all piano, classical music, and movie scores if I really want to zone out.


What, to you, is the primary responsibility of the artist?

One thing I would hope from the artists, and what I struggle and strive for, is truth and transparency, especially when trying to portray another person’s truth that’s different from one’s own.  I am always questioning the intent of artists especially in relation to appropriation, who can tell what stories and what is influencing the work. I think about what makes them equipped to tell a particular story, whether it’s their own or someone else’s.  


What has most affected your ability to visualize yourself in different spaces?

The faces of the people who help create the images I’m drawn to. It’s hard though, especially since the fashion industry, the industry I plan to work in post-grad, can be pretty shallow and racist. I’m trying to figure out how to balance my own values and political sense of awareness with what I’m passionate about and truly interested in. I don’t want to allow other people’s sexism or racism to inhibit me from getting to where I want to be. Although I have been finding more black women who are making moves in creative spaces, which is really exciting to find, I am still looking for a black femme photographer or creative director to really shake up the scene and garner visibility and recognition in the fashion industry.

Photographed by Dakota Peterson

Interviewed by Kat Rooney

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