A Conversation With: Diana Chao
Interview by Elisabeth Siegel
This interview was originally published in Issue #6 “CLEAR 清”. Read it now on BLURB.
Earlier in the Fall, I had the chance to talk to Diana Chao, a current freshman at Princeton. A renowned photographer and artist, a philanthropy-founder, serious physicist and Dengue-virus-researcher extraordinaire, Chao is one of the only people I’ve come across that truly embody the term polymath. I got to talk to her about her upcoming (at the time) speech at TedxTeen, her fascinating past, and what really makes her a “curator of dichotomies.”
Elisabeth Siegel: Let’s start out by talking about the present and now. What are some things you expect to address in your upcoming [as of November] TedxTeen speech?
Diana Chao: Mental health is the main theme, but I wanted to look at it through a lens that applies to more broader topics. The main idea is how empathy matters, how words can be a medium for that, and how that ultimately can benefit us in terms of cultivating relationships and making decisions that matter to both us and the world we live in.
ES: What do these ideas have to do with the philanthropy you founded, Letters to Strangers (L2S)? Could you talk about what that is and how you founded it?
DC: I founded it in my sophomore year of high school. L2S is a global, youth-run organization that seeks to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment through education, anonymous letter-writing exchanges, and peer-support networks. I founded it because I had severe depression and bipolar disorder starting from middle school and attempted suicide several times. I felt extreme loneliness in part because I was a Chinese-American in a town that [was] largely white. Writing became a big way of feeling like I did have a voice; whatever I was feeling was worth letting out and my story was worth telling. When I founded L2S, the idea was just providing that same platform to as many people as I [could] and allowing people to recognize that when we don’t have that burden of attaching our name to something, our story becomes the only thing that matters, and that focuses on cultivating a human connection in its most pure state.
“Whatever I was feeling was worth letting out and my story was worth telling…when we don’t have that burden of attaching our name to something, our story becomes the only thing that matters, and that focuses on cultivating a human connection in its most pure state.”
ES: I also see that you got a publishing deal for fantasy fiction.
DC: I used to be a book blogger. In seventh grade, I started the Reviews News and I blogged under a pseudonym. I cultivated a fairly large number of followers by the time I was writing a book, and I was “in the circle” with the publishing industry. I went to book conventions, and by the time for me to query agents and to look for editors, it fell together. I ended up having to drop it because my dad was opposed to the idea of me doing anything writing-related, and the arguments that ensued [were] not worth what I could gain out of going my own way.
ES: What was the reason, if you don’t mind me asking, for him not wanting you to continue with publishing?
DC: When we emigrated here, we sold everything we’d owned and fell into hard financial times. I worked as much as I could within legal boundaries to support my family. We had a family business, and my parents didn’t really speak English. I had [to do] a lot of things to make sure we stayed sustainably afloat. The idea of them giving all that up for writing, which would be far more “volatile” than our current situation, didn’t feel [plausible].
ES: You’re studying physics now, which people would think is a disparate field from creative writing. Is it that different to you? Do you find connections among the different things you do?
DC: I always hate saying this phrase because I can’t think of anything better, but I refer to myself as a “curator of dichotomies,” which sounds kind of pompous. We note art and science as dichotomous fields, which in many cases might be true. But when we look towards the fusion of these topics, we can really innovate something. One example is the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in physiology, a Chinese lady who found the cure to malaria. She was able to find it without an actual medical degree because she had a deep knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine. That, to me, was a gleaming example of how we can fuse unexpected forms of art with modern science.
“We note art and science as dichotomous fields, which in many cases might be true. But when we look towards the fusion of these topics, we can really innovate something.”
ES: Could you talk about how you started photography?
DC: I really started pursuing photography in freshman year of high school, but I was mostly self-taught. I learned a lot, experimented with it, and decided fine art photography and conceptual photography were the things I was most interested in. One point that jumpstarted me was [when] I was chosen as an assistant to Zhang Jingna, who is a famous fashion and fine art photography from Singapore. I was able to learn a lot from her, and I submitted to Vogue Italia and Redbubble and various other art sites and magazines. My work was featured, and over time it grew, and I now have a community from the photography industry with whom I collaborate to keep creating pieces that push forth the mission I believe in, which is the presence of people of color in fine art photography, something that is rarely seen.
ES: Could you talk about the values you see in including voices of people of color in conceptual photography industries?
DC: We shouldn’t use our cultures to conform; we should use our cultures to inform others. [During my childhood,] all I could see [were] these white faces in art, and that felt like what it meant to be part of society. I went into fine art photography and realized that 99% of the models were gorgeous white women in flowing gowns in mystical forests, it felt like stories that spoke to my soul. Yet, there was no one who looked like me in those stories. I would have liked to see myself as this badass princess warrior, or whatever conceptually I could think of, when I was younger, and that’s why I wanted to make sure that POC were represented in my portfolio.
ES: What’s been your favorite shoot that you’ve been on?
DC: One of my favorites is for a piece in my Oriental Folklores series inspired by a Korean folktale. It was this picture of my friend Dorothy in [a] giant lotus. At the time, I had never done anything so conceptually daunting, but I knew it was a story I really wanted to tell. I hiked for a long time; I had to cross a creek on these small stones and I almost fell into the water and dropped my camera. When I ended up taking the picture, I had to walk across this rotten log in the middle of a rushing river to take [it]. It was a very hazardous situation, but also thrilling because it made me feel like I was not just creating images of adventures — I was creating adventures for myself in the process of creating those images.
ES: You fell blind temporarily multiple times. Would you mind talking about that?
DC: I have anterior uveitis, which is an inflammation of the eye. My eye pressure increases to three or four times what the normal person’s eye pressure would be, which often rendered me blind from days to weeks at a time. The worst relapse was [during] my sophomore year of high school. One morning, at 3 am I woke up throwing up blood. My mom rushed me to the emergency room, and when we got there I had lost my ability to speak and my hearing and I had gone blind again. I fell into this coma state for about a day. My first thought after waking up was, “Oh my god, I missed AP Chem.” I was freaking out that I would be behind on homework, but I couldn’t get out of bed without collapsing.
ES: Do you think those experiences influenced your art?
DC: Yeah, photography is about seeing the beauty in places that other people [may not]. When I was able to see again each time after the relapses — because I’m never sure if the relapses are temporary or if I would become legally blind — I would feel so lucky. The world was shining in these colors that I had never fully appreciated before: the way the flowers would open, the ways the petals would curl, the way the leaves would drift. It felt like if I didn’t capture that in my photography and show through art how beautiful this world was, we wouldn’t notice.
“Photography is about seeing the beauty in places that other people [may not].”
ES: Could you talk about how your difficulties with mental health have informed the creative work that you do?
DC: My writing tends to be more emotionally focused, because my personal experience has been with intense emotions. It forced me to confront nuances of human personality and allow more dimension to my characters. I had to think about why people make decisions the way they do, and why those things may not be visible at the surface. For art, this summer I did a conceptual self-portrait series for minority mental health month. It was another way for me to create dialogue on mental illness by showing how I personally felt. Mental illness is different for everybody, and I can use photography to give people a glimpse of that pain or that confusion to establish bridges and empathy with more people.
ES: Could you talk about your STEM research experience and if you’re currently doing work related to that?
DC: I grew up wanting to be a scientist. At one point, I was working in this lab to develop a device [to improve] diagnosing Dengue virus. Our work got recognized by the US Navy, and we’ve gotten a lot of funding for it. Afterwards, I decided that biology was cool, but physics was cooler. I took a gap year [and] worked at NASA for half a year. I was using a new image tracking and analyzing program to discover and catalogue a lot of the smaller asteroids that normally wouldn’t be able to [be detected]. Our project was featured at the American Astronomical Society conference this past January. Since then, I have not really done anything big in the STEM field. STEM doesn’t really come to me as intrinsically as art does.
ES: It seems like you have such a wide range of things that you’re capable of and that you like to do. Where do you think that comes from?
DC: I went to a traditional Chinese primary school, so I always thought I was going to study science, but when I came to the U.S. I was overwhelmed by how many choices I had. Art became my way of re-centering myself after mental and physical difficulties, and science became a way to give myself hope that there was still so much to learn. Philanthropy became a way to remind myself that regardless of what I do, social impact should always be at the root of my pursuits. I think the way to make these different disciplines work for a person the way [they] worked for me is just realizing all of us have different aspects of ourselves [that] can be complemented or strengthened by different things.
“Philanthropy became a way to remind myself that regardless of what I do, social impact should always be at the root of my pursuits.”
ES: Could you talk about how your identity as Chinese in the diaspora has affected the work that you do?
DC: I am Buyi, which is one of the ethnic minorities in China; we’re about 0.2% of the population. That didn’t really affect me much growing up, because I’m from Guizhou and Guizhou is the place where Buyi and other ethnic minorities have autonomous regions. But when I came to the States, I became more aware of what that meant. It meant that I wasn’t just a “fob” from Beijing or Shanghai, which has a different commercial flavor than coming from the rural mountains. That influenced a lot of my writing, [which] is very fantasy-based because I wanted that large natural landscape that you really only see in rural China. My family [has] ties to traditional beliefs or practices [that] made me think about folklore and Chinese history, and I incorporate those into my conceptual photography. It’s not just about showing an Asian face, but also showing the Asian history.
“It’s not just about showing an Asian face, but also showing the Asian history.”
ES: Do you think that the intersection of being Chinese and also struggling with mental health possesses a unique element?
DC: Absolutely. Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the body from a holistic standpoint, which means if there’s something wrong with [somebody’s] mental health, it’s dismissed as something wrong with their overall health, so remedies are suggested in the form of medicinal drinks or herbs or powders. These things don’t address the root of the issue. Also, I would say that there is stigma, like suicide meaning weakness or dishonor in a Chinese family, so it’s hard to bring that up sometimes. But I think that’s one reason I tried to tell my story, to show how you can have mental illness and still be someone who is contributing to the world. It doesn’t have to be visible, but it’s there, through self-expression and summoning the strength to keep on fighting for another day. That is powerful enough to dismiss claims of dishonor that stigma may bring onto a specific person.
“It doesn’t have to be visible, but it’s there, through self-expression and summoning the strength to keep on fighting for another day.”
ES: Besides TEDx, are there ongoing projects that you’d like to talk about?
DC: My biggest project right now is L2S. We’re creating action plans for people of color, immigrant families, and school administrators, because that’s the access issue I don’t think has been tackled successfully. I’m also working at Adobe’s project 1324 now, which is this new initiative to create a platform to support, connect, and amplify young artists who use art for social change. That’s a big part of my life as well, allowing myself to revel in something I care so much about: art intersecting with social impact.
ES: Anything else you’d like to share?
DC: Give yourself the freedom to not know. That’s the biggest thing that’s helped me. I don’t know what’s happening 99% of the time. But if you do what feels right to you and you put your whole being into it, even if it doesn’t work out, there’s no shame in that. Allowing that uncertainty to be an asset in your life rather than something that is terrifying is important.
Original interview by Elisabeth Siegel. Medium article edited and uploaded by Jessica Ho.
Sine Theta is a creative arts magazine made by and for the Sino diaspora.