Interview with Carolyn Cheng | GBPW Episode 85

As a creative person, perhaps the most important thing I’ve come to realize in the pandemic is that the type of photography you do doesn’t fully define you. It’s actually the creative expression that does.

Carolyn Cheng

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Today’s episode is all about aerial and fine art photographer Carolyn Cheng. Carolyn works as a Chief Operating Officer in Canada, a job that is completely unrelated to photography. This helps her maintain balance in her life and take photos that beautifully reflect her creative spirit.

Carolyn and I talk about:

  • The concept of “the feminine sublime” and what it means to her
  • How the pandemic has affected her aerial work
  • Advice for aspiring and experienced aerial photographers

& much more!

If you need a boost of inspiration – no matter what kind of photography you specialise in – then you’re in the right place! I’m confident that this episode will refresh your creative mind.

Here is a preview of our conversation with Carolyn Cheng.

Q: Your job as a Chief Operating Officer isn’t related to photography at all. How different do you think your relationship with photography would be if you pursued it full time?

Carolyn Cheng: With my immersion in the photography world coming probably at a later stage in life – I began in 2015 – I’ve always had a separate career. I’ve liked having the separation because it means that my photography can stay focused on my personal areas of interest. I’m really lucky that I don’t need to rely on it as a business to generate my income, although I’m always ecstatic when I have friends, colleagues, or social media connections who want to buy my work. It’s always so much fun to print, frame, and see the joy on their faces when they experience it for the first time in person and when they have it up in their homes.

My practice has probably evolved during the pandemic. My thoughts could shift over time, but I think it will stay the same. Pre-pandemic, with my practice being much more focused on location-based travel, I could do trips over five weeks of vacation, which is what I had during the year. At home, I would finish with the post processing.

It probably wasn’t as big a part of my life just because there were also so many other things to do in a pre-pandemic life. Today, during the pandemic, I’ve really come to realize how important photography as a creative aspect of my life is to me. It’s something that I now do on a weekly basis, whether I’m outdoors at a botanical garden or in the studio, photographing natural things. It’s been a really balancing and centering practice that has kept me sane.

Importantly, it has helped me feel like I’m still growing and moving forward in a time when there’s been a lot of things that we can’t do. I’ve always been someone who has really valued continuous improvement. It’s a core part of who I am. I’m really thankful that I’ve had this opportunity to grow through photography at this time. Like I said before, I think I’d still like to keep it more as a passion project rather than a commercial project, at least for the moment.

Q: What do you look for when capturing the feminine sublime in landscape and aerial photography?

Carolyn Cheng: Maybe to set the stage, I’ll first start with defining the traditional sublime and then explain how the feminine sublime is different because in some ways it’s defined in opposition of it, and then how you see it in my work.

The traditional definition really starts in the 17th century and evolves through history in both the European and American schools. If you’re to condense everything, it’s this notion that nature inspires awe and terror. There’s also a sense of vastness and infiniteness in this dramatic scale. Together, they evoke divinity, the unrepresentable, and/or transcendence. In some representations, there’s also this notion of mankind’s need to dominate his terror.

Now for me, these are really grand concepts. There’s some that I identified with a little bit more and some a little bit less. I really identified with the concepts of awe and the unrepresentable, maybe less so to terror. I really hope that my work evokes an emotional response. For me, divinity and transcendence might feel a little too strong. When I began to learn a little bit more about the feminine sublime, I realized that it focuses a lot more on those dimensions that I identified with, so the unrepresentable or the otherworldly. It doesn’t necessarily seek to master or to dominate, but rather works in this position of respect to nature.

To amplify that, the notion of ecofeminism – which I combine with my feminine sublime – is really a departure from the traditional view of nature in a mechanized world, where its only use is for consumption. Instead, I try to amplify that notion of co-existence between humanity and nature, where we’ve got to develop a much more sustainable relationship. So when you look at my imagery, it really shows the symbiotic parts of nature, where we see the interplay of water, sand, salt, and sediment in a very dynamic form, where patterns are formed, dispersed, and then regenerated. It illustrates those basic cycles as a landscape and its natural state, much more emphasizing that ecofeminism aspect. Because it’s taken from an aerial perspective, people can’t immediately comprehend it so it feels really otherworldly. (Which is the feminine sublime notion.)

It’s always such a surprise and delight for me when people understand that this otherworldly thing that they see and identify with is really just water, sand, salts, or earth. When you focus in close, you can see those details. My work is really about transforming those ordinary natural elements into, hopefully, what people see as beautiful and moving images that give us a sense of the otherworldly. It shifts our perception of what’s possible. My aesthetic tends to be quite organic and lyrical in shape because of the dynamic and ephemeral nature of those landscapes.

Q: What’s something that everyone should know about aerial photography?

Carolyn Cheng: First, it’s an adrenaline rush and really exhilarating. To see from a different perspective is always so much fun.

Second, I would say it can also be stressful because you only have so much time up there. Often with aerial photography, there aren’t any “redos”, so to speak. The thing that I like to do is make sure that my equipment works beforehand. It helps me de-stress and focus on the creative aspect when I’m up there.

In the days or weeks before, I always make sure that the camera and lens combination that I’m going to take up in the air focus at infinity properly and are sharp. The one thing that I like to do is, as we’re going up in the aircraft and before we get to our destination, I just like to take a few test shots and make sure they’re sharp.

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