Interview with Photographer Donna Wan

CDS undergraduate student Courtney McDaniel conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2012.


Your project In the Landscape does not include an artist statement. Can you elaborate on your choice of location and composition?

There is an artist statement for this project.  However, at the time that you looked on my website, it was not available online, which was an oversight.  Thank you for alerting me to this mistake.

As stated in my artist statement, this project is about how people experience, interact with, and react to the landscape.  I am interested in this topic because my work explores how people’s perspectives and identities are shaped by the landscape.  I have purposely photographed people from behind, at a distance, or in profile in this project as a way to hide the individual identities of the people in my images.  I do not consider these photographs to be portraits in any sense; in fact, I try to de-emphasize their faces and individual identities.

Given this, the composition of my photographs is dictated by the landscape itself, where the people are within it, and what they are doing.  People have often asked me how I shoot these photographs. Sometimes I am inspired by a particular landscape; other times, my inspiration comes from what the people are doing.  I have gone back to places that fascinate me again and again but have never taken a successful picture there because the people aren’t doing interesting things in my photographs.  Other times, I have photographed in places that I had very little interest in to begin with but do so because the people are doing something fascinating to me.  In order for one of my photographs to work, however, both factors must be at work – it’s a confluence of both the landscape and the people.

The particulars of a location do not interest me.  For example, it really doesn’t matter to me that one of my photographs was taken in Death Valley National Park or in Maui.  In fact, I never list the park, city, or surrounding area in my titles.  I do not want people to concentrate on location in my photograph.  If I could, I would keep all my locations anonymous, just like the people in my photographs.  (However, this is not always possible because some of the places are too well known.)  My ultimate aim is for the viewer to identify with the people in the photographs and try to imagine themselves in the place before them.  I was inspired by the paintings of Casper David Friederich, a 19th century German romantic landscape painter who used the pictorial technique of painting people from behind as a way of allowing his viewers to vicariously experience his landscape paintings.

How and why are distances flattened as in your photograph In the Ocean? Was this a conscious choice or a matter of the camera that you used?

No, flattening the space was not a conscious decision.  I think that, in “In the Ocean”, it is the distance at which I am shooting the photograph and the hues in the image that my give this image a “flattened” appearance – although I have never heard this comment before.  In  other photographs, such as “At the Gorge” or “On the Rock,” I am purposely shooting from a different perspective, such photographing from above and where the horizon line isn’t visible.  I do like to vary the composition of my photographs.  It is boring to me (and I think for the viewer) for the people in all of my photographs to be in the same position in the landscape and in the same distance from me or my camera.

I shoot with a Mamiya 7 and a slightly wide angle lens, so, yes, I do believe there is a certain “look” to my photographs.  Although I vary my viewpoint, I do think that using the same camera helps pull all the photographs together into a cohesive body of work.  However, editing is the most important for developing a consistent and cohesive body of work.  Most of the work comes from shooting A LOT and then cutting out photographs that I may love but don’t fit in.

You say that you took about half of the photos from Promised Lands in Asia. Was this a conscious choice or a matter of aesthetics and the practicality of ‘being there’ witnessing this vast beautiful landscape?

Back when I took those photographs, I traveled a lot to Asia.  Half of my family lived there – in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Taiwan.  In addition, my husband was doing a lot of traveling to Asia for work at the time.  So, I was provided with many opportunities to go there but I was also interested in getting to know the landscapes of Asia, which was so different from those of the United States and the West.  For example, the coast of Taiwan is fascinating.  Some of it reminded me of the California Coast; other parts looked completely alien to me.  Although I was born in Taiwan, my family left when I was an infant so I was not familiar with the place until I took my photographs.

In every picture, there has to be a matter of aesthetics.  If I don’t find a place beautiful, interesting or sometimes even repulsive, then there is no impetus for me to take a picture.  Yes, I was afforded with many opportunities to go to Asia but I also had to find the region fascinating to me to get my camera out.  There are many other places I’ve been in the world where I don’t bother

The term Promised Land comes from a specifically religious connotation and one that was used in conjunction with the Western Expansion. What are the reasons behind using the term for your project title?  Also, in your other project Dream Homes, are you consciously alluding to ‘The American Dream’?

I gave this project the title of Promised Lands because I wanted to revisit and even question the idea of how we perceive landscapes in modern times where much of the natural world has been altered in some way or another by mankind.  I believe that a lot of the current imagery we see of the landscape is either jaded or nostalgic.  Contemporary photographs of the landscape often show the viewer near or complete devastation due to industrialization, development or urbanization.  Or, we are shown photographs of the natural world that has not yet been tainted by humankind. As noted in my statement for this project, I don’t believe that either viewpoints are practical or, in a sense, honest.  I have benefited from the byproducts of industrialization, development, or urbanization, and I am not going to give those up to live in a hut on some isolated island.  I believe we have to come up with another way of perceiving the current landscape that is neither environmentally didactic nor nostalgic.

I am glad that you picked up on the ideas of Manifest Destiny and Western Expansionism of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.  These ideas helped inspire the Hudson River School Painters to paint their majestic and sublime paintings of the American landscape in the 19th century, and these paintings were crucial in the formation of an American identity and a Western perception of the landscape.  In this project, I intentionally used many of the pictorial techniques that the Hudson River School Painters used (i.e. high vantage point and an emphasis on clouds and the sky) to allude to their paintings and their effect on perceptions of the landscape.  The title was intended to bring up questions about how we currently see the landscape.

Yes, Dream Homes does apply to the American Dream but I think it is also applicable to situations in other countries, such as the building boom in China and in parts of the Middle East.  That project was more about how, for many people, identity is formed by objects, especially luxury ones such as expensive homes, clothes, cars, and etc.  To me, it was more a social commentary about our obsession with luxury goods and how we hide behind them.


Check out more of Donna’s work on her website.

In the Landscape is featured in ARCHIVOzine’s Autumn issue on landscape photography.

Donna J. Wan was born in Taiwan and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2008, she graduated from the MFA program at the San Francisco Art Institute. Donna’s landscape photographs reflect a continual search for her to understand how perceptions and identities are shaped by the landscape.  She takes photographs in both the United States and Asia and in both the natural and built environments.

Her work has been shown at the Klompching Gallery in New York, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SFMOMA Artists Gallery in San Francisco; the PhotoCenter Northwest in Seattle; and the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. She was selected by the Magenta Foundation as a Flash Forward 2007 Emerging Photographer and ArtSeen as a 2008 Emerging Artist. Her work has been selected for awards by Lesley Martin, publisher of Aperture, Karen Irvine, Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, W. M. Hunt, and Virginia Heckert, Curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Most recently Donna was awarded an Honorable Mention award for Review Santa Fe’s Project Launch category and the APA/Lucie Foundation’s Scholarship grant.

Her work has also been published in Fraction Magazine; LENSCRATCH; Forward Thinking Museum; Time Out ChicagoProfifoto and the Conscientious website by Joerg Colberg and written about by W.M. Hunt and Virginia Heckert.  In 2009, she was awarded an artist residency at The Center for Photography at Woodstock and was invited by Catherine Opie to lecture at UCLA. Collectors of her work include the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Ford and Thomas Kellner. 

Donna has been nominated for 2013 PDN’s 30: New and Emerging Photographers to Watch.

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