August 2019

Interview by Robert Sanford

Artist Justine Chang joined me in the Boston Athenæum’s Daniel J. Coolidge Seminar Room for a conversation about Philadelphia, photography and writing, and her position as Boston Literary District’s first-ever Writer-in-Residence. After beginning her academic career as a biology student, a serendipitous event led Justine to pursue photography. Justine uses her personal experiences and family history as well as the experiences of the communities she engages with to reflect personal narratives and stories. Although communities and people can share events together, Justine acknowledges and is inspired by each person’s ability to create their own fiction.

Between July 15 and August 15, Justine will live in an apartment provided by Emerson College, within the Boston Literary District, and will receive a one-year membership to the Boston Athenæum.

Q: When and where were you born and raised?

JUSTINE CHANG: In the suburbs of Philadelphia. Our house was very close to Valley Forge National Park, where George Washington and his troops spent one winter. We used to find salamanders and antique silverware in the riverbeds and tried very hard to get lost in the woods.

Q: Did growing up in Philadelphia lead you to studying biology?

JC: I would visit the Tredyffrin Public Library to look at encyclopedias and study animals and leaves I found at Valley Forge National Park. I think my childhood growing up next to a beautiful park made me more interested in biology. Even now—I was in the basement the other day and you have a whole shelf of tree books and things about the desert and astronomy. I can just get lost in things like that for hours and I am still very interested in that.

Q: From biology to photography is a big jump. How did that come about?

JC: I had been studying biology for two years and then I met my photography professor who introduced me to Barthes, Berger, and the darkroom.

Q: Had you worked in any other medium?

JC: Not really. I had done some sketches and other things but no formal education in the arts.

How fortuitous.

JC: The fact that I met that professor, he just recognized something. When I developed my first roll of film and made a contact sheet, he just straight out asked me, “What do you think about switching your major?”

Q: Really? Did you have to think about it for very long?

JC: He wasn’t expecting me to decide on the spot or anything, he just wanted to work on it together. He helped me put together a portfolio for art schools, and over time I saw more clearly that this was the direction I wanted to take.

Photography has always allowed me to unlearn what I think I know, or make the familiar strange. It keeps me from being too sure of myself, and I think writing allows me to do this in a different way. I can question the meaning of a word I think I know, and it opens up new topics to investigate, new avenues of possibility. My English professor at RISD would challenge us to do this to the most basic of words, and it really changed the way I thought about language and photography. Once I started applying this to Korean, I found the possibilities grew even more.

Q: It’s crazy how life works. I bet you never thought you’d be a Writer-in-Residence at Emerson.

JC: No! When I found out my jaw dropped and I couldn’t believe it. I am still very much in the beginning stages of writing. I am working on publishing my first piece and this month has been an amazing time to work on that. I did incorporate a lot of writing with my photographs but I think a lot of it was experimental and I’m still trying to figure that out. Writing does something for me that photography doesn’t, and I’m trying to incorporate that more, the images and the words.

Q: Is this a new challenge or next step for you, combining the two? Or are you just focusing on writing?

JC: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I have always been writing, but it has always been private and very personal. It wasn’t until I started sharing my writing with my photographs that I was seeing the impact it would have and it was very empowering.

I am basing my writing on what I know about my personal history, family history, as well as oral histories I’ll get from the community around me. What I have been finding out is that you hear many different versions of the same thing. The details will all be slightly different but the gist of the story is the same. In some people’s memories the person is a man or sometimes it’s a woman. That just fascinated me, how that could change like that, and there is no way to fact check these things. Even those events are based on a kind of reality. Each of us has a fiction we hold from our own experience.

It’s amazing how you never get the same story.

JC: I think that’s beautiful, how they’re all different.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum?

JC: Whenever I arrive in a new city, I pin all of the libraries closest to me on a map. It has been such a pleasure exploring the ones in Boston, and as the Writer-in-Residence for the Boston Literary District, I feel so lucky to have access to such a rich resource as the one here at the Athenæum.

There is something about walking through the doors and entering another world, tucked away from the city’s busy streets. It’s the perfect place to read and write without distraction. I absolutely love how there are reading chairs in nearly every corner.

My favorite is the red chair on the fourth floor gallery.

JC: I have a favorite nook too! I feel so lucky to be able to walk over here whenever I want, because all of the clutter in life falls away and I am able to focus. I don’t always come in with a direction for what I want to do, but I could spend hours discovering new things. The building is like a good book in that it rewards exploration.

Q: Do you really use pins to mark the libraries in a new city?

JC: Yes!

I love that.

JC: I’ve been traveling a lot, and access to libraries and archives is very difficult when you don’t know the language. You need to have a guide to help you navigate, especially because what I am looking for has not always been documented. Most recently I was in two different deserts, and I learned that you need to turn to people, such as shepherds and weavers, in places where few or no books are being written. 

Q: What are some of the great struggles of your current piece? And the great joys?

JC: The struggle occurs on days when my urgency to speak and write is diminished by other things. Language is assertive, and it is often difficult not to hide from it in uncertain silence. The joys, for me, are in the learning. Working on my current piece has taken my research to fascinating places, and I’ve discovered stories and archival materials I never would have had the opportunity to find otherwise. There is a poetry in these materials that is a delight to uncover.

Q: Can you share with us what you are working on now?

JC: I am currently working on shorter pieces as additions to a collective history both understood and misunderstood through the lens of language. There are elements brought in from Korean, Chinese, and English dictionaries, and in a way, I think we each retain our own personal dictionary that can be a mix of all of these, and more. I look at how this has been passed down, and how malleable it is. For instance, my own name was changed after my grandmother discovered an alternate meaning in the dictionary that she did not find to be good.