Wayne: Why do you say you focus so much on food as a photographer? Where does that originate for you? How does that differ in terms of what you cover in your painting and writing?
Nana Chen: I came to photograph food only after starting this book project a year ago. It’s been great because the author and coordinator, Betty Chung and I, shared the same vision from the start, that the photography would largely be travel and documentary with minimal close-up shots on food. Not having shot for a book or worked on a long-term project before, it has forced me to plan in a very different way. I have had to imagine myself new to this country, mapping out the areas to cover, [in other words], what are the specialty dishes in the [Taiwanese] southern city of Tainan? What food is manufactured there? Can I visit the factory and shoot? and so on.
The love for food originates from my parents, of course, who owned and ran six restaurants in different cities throughout our childhood: Buenos Aires, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Before that, my father was in the food flavoring business. As children, our first books were cookbooks. That was a mistake on my mother’s part, for we’d rip out pages that did not look appetizing.
The photography stands alone. I see it as the older relative of my fiction and painting.
Wayne: How and when did your writing in notebooks evolve to become as aspiration for writing? How and why did you get into journalism?
After the notebooks, I started writing letters to my brother and friends when I moved to Taipei. It was like engaging in a long conversation. I was writing at least four letters a week, sometimes up to 20 pages each—this was before email—I also wrote in my journal every day until I was 28 or so.
The first writing job came quite by necessity. I had by that time worked as editor of ACNielsen Taiwan for seven years, editing sometimes several hundred pages of consumer reports by day and running a very successful children’s English school in the evenings for six years. I also taught English corporate classes during lunchtime. It was an intense period where I slept little. But with the art and photography gaining some recognition, I shed the corporate courses first then quit the corporate job, even though they let me work entirely from home. A while later, I announced that I was going to close my school and move into a much smaller apartment. I then spent my savings on more lenses to practice with, shooting a lot more, buying magazines and books to study writing and photography, promoting my work, travelling to my first gallery opening.
For months after I closed my school, I couldn’t find the morning teaching job I wanted. I applied to over 14 schools in Taipei. They either told me I didn’t have the looks for an English teacher or I was overqualified, which made them highly suspicious. Finally, I answered an ad reluctantly. It was for a monthly English educational magazine in Taipei. They were seeking an editor who would also be a writer. I called and knew even during the first interview that I’d get the job. They were more excited than I was, however. I wasn’t sure I could satisfy the writing part. I had never written an article. I asked to study their magazines and studied them thoroughly. I learned quickly that my corporate background made me work much faster than my new colleagues. I’d finish my work usually three weeks early and use that time to research new topics for the following month. It did not feel like work. I enjoyed every part of it and gladly took work home.
Not finishing university and also being so rebellious in secondary school, I always feel I’ve got to make up for the lost education. I’m also quite curious by nature, so non-fiction satisfies both cravings. The “free time” at the magazine allowed me to search for other opportunities. I can’t be confined and thought of ways to go freelance after I felt confident about writing articles. The search eventually led me to travel ezine e-Marginalia.com where my first travel piece was published. I was very impressed by the website and felt it had a lot of potential. It was simply elegant and I hadn’t seen a travel website quite like it. Out of appreciation for the website, I edited a few pages and sent it to the publisher during lunchtime one day. After a few exchanges, he asked if I’d like to be the travel editor on a voluntary basis. That was about two years ago.
I recently resigned to focus more on non-travel related writing and to concentrate on shooting, but will stay on as a contributor. I now work freelance for the magazine as well, which publishes textbooks for the local market and was assigned a ten-book biography series last year. I’ve got two more to finish plus another two for a grammar series. I would like to eventually move away from education-based writing, and it’s looking quite hopeful. I also just found out two days ago that I am now the Taipei contributor to the South China Morning Post column WorldBeat. I will be writing about weird or strange art in Taipei and photographing it, too. Features Editor, Winnie Chung was very encouraging from the start and may have sought ways to put most of my skills to use.