'Newfoundland is my muse': This award-winning photographer has found her new home

Ting-ting Chen's photography showcasing the landscapes of the island has netted her more than a dozen prestigious photography awards across the globe.

Ting-ting Chen sees her photography work as 'living folklore'

Ting-ting Chen came to Newfoundland and Labrador from Beijing in 2018, and has since won several photography awards showcasing Newfoundland landscapes. (Submitted by Ting-ting Chen)

Ting-ting Chen had been taking photos for a few years in her home near Beijing before she moved to Newfoundland in the summer of 2018, when she thought it might be time to upgrade her camera.

"When I came [to Newfoundland], I just realized, 'Oh, I just made a good choice to buy a better camera,'" she said, laughing, to CBC Radio's Weekend AM. "The landscapes here in Newfoundland are just so great. I have never seen such great landscapes in all my life before I came here."

Less than three years later, Chen's photography showcasing the island's landscapes has netted her more than a dozen prestigious photography awards across the globe, including the grand prize of the 2020 Reflections of Nature contest hosted by Canadian Wildlife Magazine. She also received 12 honourable mentions at the International Photography Awards in 2020.

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

"That award is one of the most prestigious photo contests worldwide. And my photo got honourable mentions, and got published on their official website," she said. "That's a huge recognition to my work, because the jury can choose my photos out of 13,000 entries this year."

Chen came to Newfoundland and Labrador to work toward her PhD in folklore at Memorial University, with photography being a self-taught side career. Her pictures in Beijing featured just about anything she could find, describing the big cities of Asia as "a world of cement and concrete," she said.

"When I moved to Newfoundland, I decided to focus on the landscape because I think if I didn't, I would definitely feel regret," she said. "Newfoundland has so [much] beautiful scenery here.… Who wouldn't want to come here to study and enjoy the views here?"

LISTEN | Photographer Ting-ting Chen speaks with the CBC's Paula Gale:

When she began her studies in the province, she said, she saw folklore and photography as different entities. It's when she started touring the province where she found a connection.

"I realized actually they are related to each other. In order to do landscape photography, I have to go on photo trips in Newfoundland and travel around," she said. "When I do my photo trips, I see people in Newfoundland, how they live a Newfoundlander's life, and see their customs. My photo trips have many stories to tell.

"How they go fishing … how they renovate their old houses. Just all these customs in other people's lives I see are actually folklore."

This is a stunning winter landscape in Brigus South, captured by Chen. (Ting-ting Chen)

The old man with the white beard

Chen has met many interesting characters in her travels across the province, and while the landscapes serve as the star of her photos, many include a figure with a special connection.

"His name is Robert Tilley. He's an old man with a white beard, to put it simply," she said, laughing.

Tilley, 72, who Chen met through MUN's folklore department and shares a love of photography, helped showcase the province to Chen when she moved, even offering a room in his home when she arrived in Newfoundland.

Robert Tilley serves as a model in a number of Chen's photos. The two have travelled across the province taking pictures of landscapes. (Ting-ting Chen)

"He's a 72-year-old true and born Newfoundlander," she said.

"He and his family gave me a huge amount of help ever since I came here. Two or three months prior to when my PhD program started, he and his family invited me here to Newfoundland to live in their house for two months, for free, just because they wanted to show me around the beautiful scenery here."

While Tilley might be one of the few people who poses in Chen's photos, she holds a strong belief that every photo she takes — including those of landscapes — has a soul.

"The feeling is very important to me when I'm taking," she said. "Landscape to me is not only landscape; sometimes the landscapes or sceneries I've encountered is just like the people I meet.

"I just posted a photo of a tree in Gros Morne.… I said 'I met this tree in Gros Morne.' And some people made comments that they're really glad to see I used the word 'met,'" Chen added. "The met means the tree's not only a tree, this tree has a soul.… The landscapes are all living things."

Chen says the photographs of landscapes are similar to the people she meets — full of soul. (Ting-ting Chen)

'Newfoundland is my muse'

While many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have come to love seeing her photos online, she said she understands not everyone feels the same about her presence.

Chen spoke with CBC News in September, highlighting several incidents when racist language was used toward her.

While she has had no other incidents since, she says the behaviour of some hasn't changed her view of her new home.

"Compared to these bad people … I'd say 99 per cent of people in Newfoundland are really nice," she said. "That's why I'm so proud to be here, I'm so lucky to be here. I not only have the opportunities to travel around, but establish valuable friendships with nice Newfoundlanders here."

Chen says she hopes to permanently settle in Newfoundland, exploring more landscapes through her lens. (Submitted by Ting-ting Chen)

Once she completes her PhD, she hopes to settle in the province and continue exploring the landscapes through her lens.

"Newfoundland is my muse. It's my inspiration," she said. "There are so many places that are waiting for me to explore, and I would love to stay here and settle here permanently.

"Keep exploring the beauty of Newfoundland through my lens, that's my dream."

This is Devon House in St. John's, captured by Chen. (Ting-ting Chen)

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Alex Kennedy


Alex Kennedy is a digital reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador based in Corner Brook. He previously worked with CBC N.L. in St. John's, and has a particular interest in stories about sports and interesting people.

With files from Weekend AM