Photographer Interview: Diane Wah

Neruda by Diane Wah
Copyright Diane Wah

On April 24, 2009 I met Diane Wah at The Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s Space Program Open Studios reception where she was one of 17 artists who were granted free studio space in DUMBO – the artists were selected from a pool of 900 applicants. Diane’s work “explores various notions of gender, racial coding and cultural theory.”

View Diane Wah’s photography online and follow her on Twitter @dianewah.

D&B: Where are you from?
DW: I was born in Queens, NY. I lived in Port Au Prince Haiti for a while and I moved back to the United States when I was about 5 but I’ve spent most of my life living in and around NYC

D&B: What kind of photography do you shoot and how did you get started – any “formal” training?
DW: Ha ha! Whenever anyone of my students ask I always tell them to “when in doubt always go back to Photo 1”; in fact I took photo 1 three times as an undergraduate in order to continue to get access to the darkroom. I majored in Cultural Studies and Post Colonial literature at the New School. While I learned the fundamentals of black and white darkroom photography, it didn’t really sink in until after I had graduated and started taking pictures on my own.

I then got into the photography program at Columbia University where I got my MFA. The photo program there was pretty small (4 students a year) and the learning curve pretty sharp. Because we were all from very diverse backgrounds in practice and training I learned a lot from my colleagues. The program was very open but we spent a lot of time in the darkroom as monitors and as Teaching Assistants. We learned like the old photographers did: from each other. I also played dumb a lot at B&H (a photo/video mega store in NYC) and asked a lot of questions. I read books and got tips online.

However the best learning came from shooting with available light, be it lamps, candles, the moon etc. etc. I definitely learn best by doing and I shot A LOT of rolls of film. If you really want to learn, just keep shooting.

D&B: What cameras or techniques do you use?
DW: I mostly use a Pentax ZX-7 35mm camera that I’ve had since I first started shooting. I also shoot with a Mamiya 645, A Graflex 4 x 5 with Polaroid and my Nikon D200. I’ve always shot with wide zoom lenses but I’ve since switched to prime lenses. They are just better.

I’m in an interesting situation because I still have access to some darkrooms so its actually cheaper for me to shoot film. I get a lot more information out of my negatives then I do out of my d200 and film is more forgiving to low and natural light. Sometimes I do my own printing up to 11 x 14 or 16 x 20 because its cheaper or if its bigger I scan my negatives and print them digitally.

Using a combination of film and digital processes gets me the best of both worlds. There are simply a lot more options when it comes to digital printing however the cost of really good printing can be prohibitively expensive.

D&B: Who are your mentors (in photography)?

DW: My mentor was Brooklyn photographer Thomas Roma. He was my professor at Columbia and an accomplished street photographer. I had been his teaching assistant through out my time at Columbia. While I had taken classes before him I never really connected with anyone that I was able to talk to about photography. He helped me find myself not just as a photographer but helped me develop my voice as an artist.

Interestingly enough most of the people that I was influenced by were filmmakers. I learned the fundamentals of composition by watching Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Spike Lee and Stanley Kubrick, however when I started getting more into still photography I was really moved by the works of Roy Decarava, WeeGee, Diane Arbus, Josef Koudelka, Flip Schulke and Franciss Wolff and Jamel Shabazz.

D&B: Have you experienced any setbacks or different treatment along your photography career that you would attribute to being a woman and/or photographer of color? (this question is optional)
DW: Well the first is pretty obvious. There aren’t that many black photographers period, even fewer working in the realm of fine art, even fewer women working in black and white, even fewer working as photojournalists.

Someone (white) once told me that photography was “the hobby of rich white men” and at the time I didn’t really understand what he meant but what I found out later on is that photography is a business supported by amateurs. What I mean to say is that most sales of photography equipment are not to professionals but to the average consumer and even ‘professional’ equipment is not bought up my professional photographers but by those who have the money.

I never had the money so I never felt like I belonged. I never thought that my stuff was good enough but I bought my Pentax ZX-7 for 200 dollars new, you can now get it for under a hundred bucks on eBay and I’ve made beautiful art with it for the past 8 years. I’ve since added other pieces of equipment to my repertoire but its still my main camera.

During my time at Columbia while I wasn’t in the minority as far as the male to female ratio, I was definitely the only woman at the time shooting in B&W doing stuff that was less staged. I think working in the world requires a certain obnoxiousness and aggressiveness that women are taught not to do but look at Obama: Just because others haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t.

When did you realize you could have a career in photography? Describe your journey towards becoming a working photographer.
I took pictures for a long time, mostly in my work as an ethnographer or as an aspiring filmmaker. I didn’t really believe that I could have a career in photography until my second year of graduate school at Columbia and even then it was less a belief and more of a decision.

Being where I came from (immigrant parents from Queens) a career in the arts much less in photography was not practical and while I tried to find other ways to MAKE it so, it became clear that I had no choice but to do what I loved. When I wasn’t working I was shooting, eventually I just stopped focusing on everything else. Right now I do a combination of teaching, doing fine art and working freelance.

What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
I ask myself that question every day and every day the answer changes. Sometimes I want to reveal a greater truth or a hypocrisy. Sometimes I want to tell a story and sometimes I simply want to make something beautiful. Ultimately, I want to discover the world and discover myself through photography. Through my photography I try to compel the viewer to not just ask questions of my subjects but questions of themselves as well.

What’s your dream photography project?
My process is pretty intuitive and I’ve learned not to do “projects” anymore. For some people that works but for me it kind of cramps my style so I just shoot whats around me and if I get an idea for something I do it and think about how I’ll present it later. It might take up to a year or two for it to turn into something I like but yeah I generally don’t do “Projects” anymore. Shoot first, ask questions later.


Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.


Add yours

+ Leave a Comment