Photography student has first exhibition

Story by Frank F. Pellegrino

Assistant Professor in the Communication and Journalism Department Ellen Mahaffy said she has seen numerous beginners take her introduction to photography course.

The beginners typically struggle with the fundamentals of taking a photo, and their level of interest and potential can vary, she said. However, she recalls junior Xiangyun Chen being far from the typical new photography student.

“She actually signed up for all of my other classes and really stood out in the (intro to) photography one,” Mahaffy said.

Chen, an international student from China, has attended UW-Eau Claire for two years and is now studying at the University of New Mexico (NM) as a part of National Student Exchange.

After just a year and a half of developing her skills, Chen is currently having her work featured at one of the largest photography exhibitions in China: the China Pingyao International Photography Festival.

Nothing has come easy for Chen though, who Mahaffy said is studying the art of photography 24/7 as she continues to develop her skills.


Not as advertised 

Chen grew up in Sanming, Fujian Prov., a small town in the southern part of China and first came to the United States in 2009.

She said that even though she already had a degree, she knew she needed something new.

“I had graduated from my first bachelors degree in China and was kind of obsessed with advertising and wanted to start everything over,” Chen said.

So, she chose UW-Eau Claire as the school where she wanted to pursue an advertising degree.

One day, Chen was meeting with her new adviser and discussing which electives would be beneficial to an advertising degree. Chen could have been paired with any faculty member in the CJ Department, but was randomly teamed up with Mahaffy, whose emphasis is in photography and visual communication.

Mahaffy said that since Chen was looking for classes to take, she suggested a photography course and explained the ways she thought it could benefit her.

“One of the things that I did tell her is that you need to learn about how to make an image, and how to create things, and photography is one of those places where you need to learn to have that
understanding,” Mahaffy said.

Coincidence, luck or just pure chance, Chen decided to go with it to see where it would take her. Before long, she said she started to realize where her passions really were.


‘Developing’ her skills

Prior to taking the course, Chen said she had taken photos before, but that she had never really considered it as a form of fine art. She’s quick to admit that she didn’t even really know what she was getting herself into.

“Photography is kind of a luxury activity in China, and there was nobody around me, or in my family that was doing photography stuff,”
Chen said.

At first, Chen remembers struggling with a lot of the technique aspects of photography like how to choose the right shutter-speed and how to adjust the aperture.

Not long after, Chen recalls the first time she started to think of photography as more than just a hobby. She was video-chatting with her mother back in China, and will never forget the sentence
her mom spoke to her.

“While we were video-chatting she said ‘You know what, whenever I miss you, I will go to your online album and look at it,’” Chen recalled.

This is when Chen said she started to really think about what photography meant to her and what type of a role it could play in the rest of her life.

“When you have a camera with you, you’re not going to lie,” she said. “And all of the pictures you take, tell your story, tell what kind of person that you are. Then I started taking photography very serious.”

From there she went back to Mahaffy and told her she wanted to pursue photography as a potential career.

Mahaffy said she responded by telling her that if she wanted to be a photographer, that she needed to take as many classes related to it as she could. She thought it would be hard for Chen to develop quickly enough with just one course. Chen surrounded herself with as much information about photography as she could, Mahaffy said.

“I’m in the lab and she has these big books of photography and I’m like ‘Wow,’” Mahaffy said. “So she’s looking at other work, she started challenging herself with large format photography, and not even knowing anything about it.”

This intense drive and passion are what Mahaffy thinks really set Chen apart from the other beginning photography students, who might be easily discouraged by faults.

“She’s OK with those mistakes, and learns how to move through them,” Mahaffy said. “That’s what makes her different from other typical students, is that she’s willing to push and move forward and try to move as much as she can.”

As Chen’s skills continued to become more polished, Mahaffy knew the next step for Chen was to have her work seen.



With Mahaffy’s encouragement, Chen decided the first place she would try to show her work would be on the Eau Claire campus. She was extremely pleased when one of her photos was accepted to the UW-Eau Claire’s 54th annual Juried Student Art Show last spring.

From there, Chen’s desire to be seen increased. Not for the personal attention, but because she said she wanted more feedback from the public.

She kept an eye on a show in China that she was fond of, the China Pingyao International Photography Festival, as she completed her first photography portfolio for an independent study with Mahaffy.

“I feel like the work talks mostly about my life in the States and about all of my experiences,” Chen said of her portfolio. “I felt like my work should be heard in my country, to let them know what is going on outside of the country and how people live.”

Since she already had the portfolio put together, Chen said applying to the show was actually a pretty simple process. The only barrier she encountered was paying the entry fee online, since she didn’t have a bank in the U.S. to pay through. After a bit of time, and finding a few friends that were willing to help, she finally got the application in.

She left Aug. 18 from Eau Claire to begin her first semester at a school in Albuquerque, NM as a part of National Student Exchange. Chen admits she doesn’t have the best memory, but this is a date she said she will remember for the rest of her life.

As she was traveling, she first got the news her cousin just had her first child. Not long after, she logged onto her computer and found out the rest.

“When I checked my email and I was told that I got accepted, I was very excited,” she said.  “I ran to the other room and was very excited and told my cousin.”

Chen was given an 11-meter area to feature ten of her photographs as part of the show that began Sept. 19 and will end Sept. 25.

Mahaffy said that this is exactly the boost that Chen needed, and that it will really help add to her credibility.

“That’s what drives you forward and keeps your work moving. It’s important to be seen,” She said. “This is huge for her, because she’ll get really good exposure.”

Due to travel costs Chen said she is unable to attend to show herself, but that her father will be attending it and sending back photographs from the event. Although Chen said it was disappointing not being able to attend, she hopes to have plenty more opportunities in the future.


What’s next

Chen said she wants to continue to focus on studying photography in the United States, and admits she is still a long way from where she wants to be.

“My goal is to get my MFA (Master in Fine Arts) in photography, and the biggest part for an art photographer is to start searching for your voice in the area,” she said. “I hope one day I will find it out.”

In the meantime, Chen said she has no intentions of slowing down after her first exhibition.

“I want to keep submitting my work to shows, because as a young photographer it is the best way to let people see what you are doing,” she said.

Mahaffy doesn’t seem to think that will be a problem for Chen, who awed her with this first portfolio.

“The one thing that really impresses me with this body of work is her use of color, and the color just seems to pop,” Mahaffy said. “But there is also this sense of isolation in them, and they are very quiet, but very deep.”

Mahaffy said she thinks Chen has what it takes to attend graduate school for photography, and that she has encouraged her to. She said she’s never had a student quite like Chen, and that she’s never seen a student come so far, so quickly, with their ability.

“She’s phenomenal, she’s exceptional.”