Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. photographer wins international award but can't accept it due to visa red tape

A photography exhibit showcasing Newfoundland landscapes and portraits to the art world in Europe was postponed this week, as artist Ting Ting Chen continues her three-month fight for a Canadian temporary resident visa.

An exhibit of photos showcasing the Newfoundland landscape in Europe may not happen

A young Chinese woman with glasses and long dark hair smiles as she walks through the woods on an Autumn day.
Ting Ting Chen says she was moved to become a photographer to capture the beauty of Newfoundland and Labrador after she came to the province for school in 2018. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

The winner of a prestigious international photography award who lives in St. John's was unable to accept the prize in person on Friday in Spain due to visa red tape. 

Ting Ting Chen is a student at Memorial University. In her spare time, she has discovered a passion for fine art photography, inspired primarily by her adopted home.

"I would say I've not only found my home in Newfoundland, but also my muse," Chen said.

This year, Chen's photo — titled The Duke — was selected as the overall winner in the non-professional category (single image) of the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards. The international competition entitles the winner to potential gallery representation, a magazine feature and a fully funded gala exhibition in Barcelona's FotoNostrum gallery.

She is the only person in Canada to win this year.

Chen said her solo exhibition would be made up entirely of photos of Newfoundland and Labrador and the people she has met there, a showcase for her to celebrate her new home. 

But instead of showing Newfoundland off in Spain, she has spent three months fighting to be allowed to come back to Canada after the show.

A photo of an old man, bald, with a long beard, and wearing a fur coat.
The winning photograph by Chen, called The Duke, is of her friend Robert Tilley. It was the overall winner in the non-professional category (single image) at the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

Chen, originally from China, came to St. John's in 2018 to work toward a PhD in folklore and quickly fell in love with Newfoundland and Labrador.

"When I first came to Newfoundland I was greatly impressed by its beautiful landscape," said Chen.

"So I quickly devoted myself to photographing its landscape as soon as I came here, and I bought a better camera. I updated my gear and I have ambitions to be a better photographer."

Along with her friend, Robert Tilley, who is featured in many of her photos — including this year's winner — Chen has travelled around Newfoundland. taking photos of the places and people she's seen, already earning several awards for her work.

"If I didn't come to Newfoundland, I wouldn't become a photographer," she said.

Chen's photograph of the Elliston landscape won the grand prize as part of the 2020 Reflections of Nature contest hosted by Canadian Wildlife Magazine. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

Chen is not a Canadian citizen and is only able to live in Newfoundland and Labrador thanks to a study permit.

As soon as she found out she had won the award, she submitted her application for a temporary resident visa to re-enter Canada after the exhibition.

"According to the latest information on their website, the normal processing time is from 15 to 39 days," said Chen. "Now more than three months have passed."

It isn't the first time she has travelled since coming to Canada, but it's the first time she's had this kind of delay.

Chen has appealed to the Department of Immigration and to Minister Seamus O'Regan's office and both have been helpful and communicative, she said. But she has still heard nothing final about her visa.

CBC News has asked both for comment but had not heard back at the time of publishing.

The lighthouse at Cape Spear at sunrise, a small pond in the foreground with splashes of water in the air.
Chen's photo of the Cape Spear lighthouse. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

It's not just a potential loss for Chen, but for Newfoundland itself, which she said would have been seen by the European art world in an entirely new light.

"Each and every photo of my solo exhibit in Barcelona is about Newfoundland," said Chen. "It's about Newfoundland portraits, it's about Newfoundland landscapes.

"I believe this is the first time that a Newfoundland-themed fine art photo exhibit has ever happened in Barcelona.… I was so excited about this."

This week, she has kept up with the events on social media. Julio Hirsch-Hardy, the gallery's CEO, has offered to delay her solo exhibition until November to see if the visa comes through.

The Colonial Building at night in St. John's as photographed by Chen. (Submitted by Ting Ting Chen)

Even if it does, Chen must then start a second process to obtain an entry visa for Spain. She will have to fly to Montreal and apply in person at the Spanish Consulate General to do that.

"I'm very grateful to come here," said Chen, "and that's why I feel heartbroken that I would not be able to go to Barcelona. I would not be able to showcase the beauty of Newfoundland on a world stage because I truly love this place.

"I truly value this great opportunity … and now I've almost lost it, and perhaps I will lose it again in November. So that's what greatly shatters my heart."

Chen's work, meant to headline the FotoNostrum art show, is still being displayed around Barcelona. (Submitted by Terry Vitacco)

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador



Andrew Hawthorn


Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.


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