Visura member Sandra Chen Weinstein is a self-taught photographer, residing in California since the mid-1990s after working internationally with American Agency and lived in Beijing, Fukuoka, Taipei. and Washington D.C.
In 2006 she started using photography as her medium of art. Sandra’s work focuses on human condition in social, identity, culture, and minorities. She has received numerous national and international awards including Winner for Robert Cornelius Portrait Award; two-time winner of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award; American Photography AI-AP30; The Photo Review, Santa Fe Workshop; 1st Place for Sport PX3; IPA (International Photography Awards); Reader's Collection & international contest winner for National Geographic Magazine. Her work is exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally, including Griffin Museum; Pacific Art Museum; The Center for Fine Art; MOPLA; Photo L.A; Art Basel Miami; Auckland Festival of Photography; HeadOn Photo Festival; Pingyao Photo Festival; FotoFest, etc.
Sandra’s’ work has been recently featured in Magnum Photo Competition Gallery at LensCulture; Art Photo Index (Photo-Eye), 21st Century Street Photography 250 New Examples-LensCulture; Loeildel
Hi Sandra, thanks for answers some questions. Firstly, why photography?
I am a self-taught photographer and only became serious about photography when some of my work was awarded in the International Photography Award (IPA Lucie Award) in late 2006. The selected work was of the people of the grassland in Inner Mongolia. I took these images while I was working for the American Embassy in Beijing. I have always been interested in people and diversity, and I was inspired by Magnum photographers Eli Reed, Ian Berry and Leonard Freed for their documentary and editorial photography in social, racial and political subjects. I am also deeply touched by the humanity and sorrow of the destructive forces on remote societies in the work of Sebastião Salgado and the fleeting 'decisive moment' from Henri Cartier-Bresson. I also love images of identity of women by Susan Meiselas. I find people are the most complex and intriguing subject and I think it’s important to document a record that reminds of our past and where our future may lead. Photography is the most effective tool in self-discovery, vision and communication. It also has huge potential to expand the one's own circle of knowledge and perception that connect us globally. The challenge is how to craft our photography in a way that makes real changes and provides the possibility for hope.
Tell us about your time as assistant to Magnum Photographer Eli Reed
Mr. Eli Reed has been my mentor since I met him through a workshop in 2007. Working on assignment with him I was mostly a personal assistant, ensuring his wellbeing and that the gear was packed and secured while in the field, etc. etc. I assisted him with documenting theatre actors in New York City, at a youth camp sponsored by National Geographic, and shooting K-Pop idols in Seoul. During these times I was able to closely observe his technique and learn from his generous sharing of his philosophy of photography and life. He always patiently takes time and allows his subject to feel comfortable, inviting a spontaneous and natural interaction. I have learned from this method and applied it to my own photography. The result is usually an unexpected and surprising outcome. Eli graciously wrote of my work when I travelled alone to India, West Bank, Israel, and Turkey.
"I have seen some wonderful things in my life and I am sure that it will continue until I leave this life. I have places that call to me in my sleep and waking hours that I have not visited yet and these places have value for the human heart. Sandra Chen opened the door prematurely for my viewing and I find myself closer to the road that will finally take me there. She quietly has come on the scene as a curious wind with her eyes wide open and managed to gather unseen moments of beautiful light and dark stunning color that shouts in a whisper. Sandra looks into the light and uses her camera to taste the mystery and the experience in a way that refreshes the soul.She is welcoming us with her magic—to drink the water that she sipped so gracefully with her camera." - Eli Reed, Magnum Photo Agency
What do you attempt to focus on most in your work? Are there recurring themes or directions?
My work is drawn toward the human condition both physically and psychologically. I especially focus on how women relate towards each other and the environment, and try to capture emotional impact. “Refuge in America” documents newly arrived refugees from war-torn areas such as Iraq, Congo and Somalia as they transition to their adopted home - America. I hope to elucidate their hopes and also the despair that many face living in the new world of American suburbia. In “Facets of India”, I document religion, spirituality, tradition and dogma and explore how people retain hope in their daily lives while struggling with poverty and the caste system. “American Pride” presents Californian’s fearless strength and individual identity of love and freedom from the LGBTQ community, made all the more poignant by the struggle against the controversial “Prop 8” that sought to ban same-sex marriage.
Do you have a photographic philosophy?
My work is dedicated long-term projects on the lives of women, refugees, minorities and the American pop culture. It focuses on documentary photography emphasizing social identity and culture. Photography gives us a second chance to discover things, both internal and external. I value having met and built unique close relationships with my subjects, and sometimes long lasting support and collaboration. My ultimate goal is to provide a mirror that reflects the true nature of the subject.
Talk to us about your series ‘California’. I was surprised by how much greenery there is, knowing that California is often in a state of drought
Southern California is a bit of an artificial oasis. The dream of endless summers, nice cars, fancy homes with manicured lawns clashes with the stubborn fact that this is actually arid land which is irrigated with mostly imported water. Even with water restrictions, many still insist on watering their lawns and washing their expensive cars to keep up the appearance of some unsustainable dream. The juxtaposition of this desire for a lush, water-bathed landscape and the natural chaparral and scrub land is abrupt and shocking – just look past the range of the sprinkler systems and there lies the natural flora – much less vibrant in color but certainly more hardy. The contrast of these worlds intrigues me and creates a surreal environment in which to live and explore through the lens.
What are you currently working on and what's next for you?
I have started working on project “SHE / They” during the time when I documented “American Pride”. In “SHE/They”, I am able to share these women's dreams and demons. Their stories of survival and triumph are deeply connected and often criticize conventional morality. It is a very personal project to me and it’s work in progress since 2015. I am continuing building several parts of the project. Ultimately it will be published as a book. Some of the images have been selected and exhibited in several galleries this year. I am very excited that “SHE/They” has chosen by Mr. Andreas Muller-Pohle, Director of European Photography Magazine, as his favourite portfolio at the 'Meeting Place' Portfolio Review at Fotofest Houston in March. An article and interview will be published in fotoMAGAZIN Germany in July 2016. This project also has been selected by the Magnum Awards Team and featured in the Magnum Photography Awards 2016 Competition Gallery on LensCulture.