Laura Chen: the best time to discover new things about yourself and who you want to be

Laura Chen is a current (2020) third-year photography student studying at Birmingham City University. We asked her some questions about her photographic practice and her work.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where did your interest in photography start and where did you study photography?

My upbringing has no doubt played a huge role in how I came to find belonging within forms of visual communication. My family has always been very supportive of my creative endeavours, which I’m indescribably grateful for. From an early age, we spent many weekends visiting art galleries and museums, reading about, studying and observing the work of practitioners I admire, and which continue to inspire me to this day. These encounters with endless forms of expression ultimately allowed me to shape and narrow down my interests from the get-go.

I first discovered a love for drawing, painting and music. Like most children, I was also very much into keeping diaries, religiously writing down my thoughts, feelings and experiences on a daily basis, sometimes even multiple times a day (looking back at these entries, they make life as a child seem very eventful). As a result of the many pastime activities, it’s needless to say I’m a big collector (perhaps borderline hoarder). The evidence is all around my busy but tidy and organised bedroom. I have several storage boxes filled with all kinds of memorabilia, pictures and old collaged journals.

Compared to other hobbies, my relationship with photography actually started quite late. It wasn’t until I was around 16 when my dad gave me his old but nifty digital pocket camera, which shortly afterwards, I took with me everywhere I went. At my high school in The Netherlands, the curriculum had a very strong focus on theory, which didn’t really allow me to explore, experiment and ultimately feed my creative needs. There was only one hour of timetabled art and music class per week. Once I graduated in 2015, I decided to study abroad and enrolled at an art college in the UK. My exchange programme was initially meant to take just one year, however as I felt so at home here being able to finally do and study what I always wanted, I prolonged my stay. I realised I wanted to pursue a career as an image-maker. With a diploma in Creative Digital Media Production (Television and Film), I applied for two courses at Birmingham City University: Media and Photography. I received offers for both, but after giving it some more thought I decided on Photography. I still thank myself for this choice.

How did your studies help you?

The most valuable thing I’ve gained from my studies, is that it’s given me the time, freedom and opportunity to constantly engage and immerse myself in my passion. The tutors have been extremely supportive and encouraging, aiding us in achieving our full
potential while growing both on a personal and professional level. They’ve not only acted as experienced mentors, treating us like like-minded individuals, but also made sure to meet everyone’s needs and interests through tailored teaching and one-to-one tutorials.

The course structure has been very beneficial. It’s provided me with a perfect balance between practical workshops and informative and inspiring theory-based lectures. During the first year, we went back to the fundamental principals of the medium. This really comforted me as I felt like I didn’t know as much about the technicalities as my peers who had studied photography at A-level, at colleges with darkrooms. As I mentioned, I had art class only once a week at my school back home across the pond, which was very traditional, with a focus on drawing and painting. There wasn’t really an opportunity to get involved with photography, let alone any facilities for it to
become a separate standalone subject.

During the first week on the course, I was still using my camera on automatic, experimenting with presets and learning through trial and error. The next week I made an appointment with Barnaby Kent, one of the technicians (as well as a great photographer), who gave me a crash course. He showed me all the ins and outs how to manually operate my camera, and sent me off to practice along with a small pile of exposure value infographics and f-stop cheatsheets. I’m proud to say I’ve never touched a preset mode since then.

Over the course of my time at BCU, I’ve been introduced to a wide range of new and established practitioners, projects and concepts, which has ultimately defined my own current style, methodology and overall aesthetic.

What are you doing now?

I’m currently working my final major project. It’s quite a strange and surreal feeling that the end of my three-year journey is so near. To me, being knowledgeable both through learning and experiencing, is one of the most rewarding things in life. After summer, I would like to continue my studies and gain a postgraduate degree. I’ve applied for MA Photography Arts at Westminster University in London and am awaiting a response.

What or who influences your work?

Anything can inspire my work. Major and obvious influences are music, films, fashion and all sorts of cultural contexts. Sometimes it’s encounters with people and places or personal and contemporary issues. Usually, it’s the beauty of the mundane things in my
immediate surroundings. Something as simple as a word can spark my imagination. With music, I’m fascinated by how something inherently invisible can be translated into something visual, perhaps even tangible. I like the challenge of it, having to accompany the melodic and lyrical with imagery, depicting the evoked emotions I feel when listening. When watching films, I tend to analyse the key features similarly used when creating a still image. I’m drawn to the cinematography, the colours and compositions which parallel the works of photographers from distinct eras in history. I particularly like the retro colour palettes of the 60s and 70s. Some influences include Vivian Maier, Harry Gruyaert, William Eggleston, Fred Herzog, Joel Meyerowitz, Sophie Calle, Alex Prager, Stephen Shore, Saul Leiter, Rob Bremner, Bob Mazzer, Ernst Haas, Duane Michals, Ed van der Elsken, Anton Corbijn, Nan Goldin, Gerard Petrus Fieret, Petra Collins, Jim Goldberg, Joel Sternfeld, Laura Pannack, Jeff Wall and Richard Billingham to name a few.

What is your approach to making work?

My process is very intuitive. Taking pictures helps me make sense of my feelings and surroundings. My camera gives me access too — it can take me places I normally wouldn’t go and gives me an excuse and reason to approach people. Sometimes this organically leads to ideas for projects. My research and practice are always interlinked. I usually start with a vague notion of a topic. This could be something I’ve been reading about, listening to or seen elsewhere and have taken inspiration from. In this case, the practical aspect comes in later. At other times I start with the process, first deciding on a particular methodology and technique, then the subject matter afterwards. I occasionally work with found or archival images, exploring mixed-media art and photomontage techniques to discover new meanings, create alternative narratives and articulate my ideas.

What do you think is the future of image-making and photography?

In recent years, the analogue revival has been very noticeable, ironically and especially all over social media. Traditional photographic processes have made a huge comeback. Film stocks are being reissued and there’s an increased interest in the tangibility of the medium. Going back to the basics has also brought about rising demand for self-published work. There’s a big photobook culture and community of collectors. The online world has made self-promotion and self-publishing quick, low-cost and more accessible.

Though sharing and disseminating work is easier, it has also led to a sea of images to get lost in, actually making it harder to get noticed. Our daily consumption of images has also increased enormously. I think this is one of the reasons why the enduring, timeless and authentic appeal of film is being rediscovered by today’s generations. Though analogue processes can induce limitations and constraints, I believe these qualities form the fundamentals of image-making. It makes people more appreciative of the art form and aware of the work that goes into creating an image. In the grand scheme of things, photography is still a very new medium, constantly evolving and in the process of being perfected.

How do you think photography fits into the art world?

Just like any other art form, photography can be utilised to communicate a feeling, message or aesthetic experience. Photography used to be considered solely a mechanical process, the camera being a device to record and document factual information and observations. There’s an element of technical dependence, however, the image-maker is in charge of the operation. Once all artistic choices and preparations have been made, from lighting to composition, the last thing left to do is click the shutter and let the camera complete the shot. Essentially, photographs are created the same way as a painting or drawing. The artist requires art supplies and equipment. Whether this is a wooden pencil, paintbrush, or a more advanced device like a camera, at the end of the day it’s a tool that enables you to bring your vision to life.

How do you promote your work?

I’ve made a very long list with links to websites and organisations which provide creative opportunities such as open calls, awards and various freelance work to get involved with. I regularly update this document and revisit all the sites to submit projects and enter renown photo competitions like BJP and Lensculture. I’m always
looking to build upon my creative network, attending portfolio reviews and photo talks to meet new people. Last summer, I put on a self-organised solo exhibition at a gallery in my home town and volunteered at two photography festivals.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

It’s very hard to say at this point. Photography is my passion and I love everything that comes with it, so I keep my options wide open. It would be great to work for a photography magazine like BJP or a photo book publishing company. I really enjoy looking at and hearing about other people’s work, so I’d also be interested in working as a curator or editor for exhibitions or be part of a judging panel for photo competitions and portfolio reviews. Eventually, I would also love to go on and teach at university and be invited to seminars and photo talks as a guest speaker. Obtaining a MA diploma would really help with that. Essentially, in an ideal world, I would like to have a stable income from being a visual communicator, whether this is as a working practitioner and artist in its own right, or as a mentor, educator, writer, editor or curator. I hope to have found a good balance between making a living and having time to keep shooting and creating personal work that is fulfilling and enables me to express myself in some way or another.

How do you see your work developing?

Art is a never-ending journey of exploration and inspiration to me. I’d like to think I’ll always be experimenting, growing and pushing myself and my practice. I hope to be in a position where I can make interesting and relatable work. I’d also like to make time for exploring other mediums. I think my approach to photography will still be obsessive and I’ll be constantly occupied with creating images and note-taking. Perhaps I will take slightly fewer pictures, but observe more attentively, put more time in the process, concepts and research rather than the final outcome.

Has social media, such as Instagram, influenced your work in any way?

It hasn’t necessarily influenced my work in terms of the subject matter or techniques I use. I don’t deliberately follow photographic trends, perhaps subconsciously. I think it has more so influenced my approach to sharing and disseminating images. I use social media as a tool and search engine to find out about creative opportunities I can get involved with. I’ve made a mood-board highlight story on my Instagram where I can add other people’s pictures. It’s just like a quick and easy digital version of my journal or collaged scrapbooks, which I use as a creative outlet that I can regularly revisit as a source of inspiration.

Do you have a website?

Yes I do! It’s

Do you have any advice for current students?

There are many perks to being a student, it really puts you in such a special position. Make the most of your time and the facilities available to you while you’re still at university. Don’t forget to take advantage of being able to pull the “I’m a student” card too. It can give you access to places you normally wouldn’t easily get, which can lead to surprisingly interesting projects. Now is the time to explore and experiment. Being at uni enables and allows you to make mistakes. So while these mistakes don’t have a major impact yet in the grand scheme of things, don’t be afraid to make them and learn from them. You need to in order to progress and develop. Now is also really the best time to discover new things about yourself and who you want to be. Meet people, create a network, and most importantly make lots of memories.