An Interview with Stella Kalaw

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

My recent photographic journey across the web has led me to Stella Kalaw. It leads me to her project “Family Spaces” which has become one of my inspiration ever since. She has been documenting her family spaces in care of small details of mundane things of her and her family’s life. And with consistency too, producing great images that stand out from the first time I saw it on her website (especially the red tsinelas). Sooner or later, I knew I have to contact and to talk to her. She’s been kind to reply my e-mails and agreed to be interviewed. I’d love to see her works on prints someday.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

Hi Stella, can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Manila, Philippines and I moved to America with my siblings in 1991. I’ve been doing photography since the age of 19 and till this day, I’m still very much engaged with the medium.

When was your first encounter with photography? Do you still remember your first picture and your first camera?

I recently rediscovered a super 8 film footage taken by my dad in the 70’s where I was photographing my siblings using an old kodak instamatic camera. Although I don’t remember the image I took, it was fascinating to see myself as a young child so eager to take a picture.

The first SLR camera I used was a Canon AE-1. I was in 7th grade when I photographed my first images of volleyball players during an annual sportsfest in school. I was fascinated by the power of the camera to stop time and to have a tangible material hold memory. It has stayed with me and I’ve never lost this fascination.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

I first knew you through your work “Family Spaces”. I like it a lot. Can you tell me the story behind this project?

I’ve been apart from my family for over a decade and I wanted to do a project that speaks of my longing to be close to them. I did not want my family to be in the photographs because I wanted to emphasize their absence. So, during a visit to my brother in Prague, I suddenly thought of this idea of a floor plan where I would photograph each of their personal space and juxtapose them together as if they belonged in one home. Building the visual narrative was quite a slow process. I only see my family once or twice a year and those are the only opportunities to photograph their homes. I am still continuing the series and I am hoping to turn it into a book someday.

What prompted you to do daily life documentary like this?

In early 2002, I took on a full time job in a different field to get my financial situation in order. Because work ate up much of my time, I began to look at my everyday life in a different way. I took my camera with me at all times so I could discover the beauty of the ordinary. Several years later, I’ve also discovered that mundane things, when closely observed, can hold meaning based on one’s own personal experience.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

In your bio, you wrote that your work “explores narratives rooted from memory, cultural identity and familial experiences”. I think those are common concepts that most people encounter everyday. Yet, not so many people turn them into a more positive outlet, such as art, the way you do. How do you visualize such concepts into your work?

Aside from my own life experiences, I draw concepts from different things. I look at other art disciplines such as painting, drawing, sculpture, graphic design and architecture. I also look at other photographer’s projects as well. I always keep a notebook in my bag in case I come across a passage from a book or a magazine that spoke to me. Sometimes, I draw rudimentary sketches of visual ideas that come to mind. Lately, I’ve been writing down my observations of mundane things or situations. I have plenty of these notebooks filled out and I refer to them when I want to begin a project or when I find myself in a creative rut.

What is your advice to young photographers who want to start similar projects?

Develop a keen sense of observation of your everyday life. Make it a habit to photograph regularly or at least frame your surroundings in your mind as if you are constantly looking through a viewfinder. Be patient with yourself and with the creative process. It takes time to complete a project. I always remember what Alex Webb said in a workshop I attended: “the pictures will dictate when the project is done.”

How important is your family to your life and your works?

Family is very important in my life especially now that we live so far away from each other. We make it a point to see each other once or twice a year. As I get older, I feel reminiscent of my siblings and our childhood growing up in Manila. I draw my strength and inspiration from them. They have been very supportive of my photography.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

I also saw your other work “The House Remembered”. In a way, it also shows us your family spaces. Is this series somehow related to “Family Spaces”?

In terms of concept, the two projects are not related to each other. However, I would say they are aesthetically similar which alludes to consistency in style and personal vision.

On “The House Remembered” you collaborated with writer, Marianne Villanueva. I think it’s an interesting collaboration. I liked how the pictures and text work together beautifully. How did it work out for the two of you? Which one came first, the writing or the pictures?

Thank you. I am glad you responded to the work. I showed Marianne the rough prints from Family Spaces about two years ago and she responded to them quite positively. Later on, she came across a submission for an anthology project and broached the idea of collaborating together. Once we agreed on a concept, I did the photographs first and then she wrote about them afterwards.

If you can choose, who do you want to work with (collaborate) for your next project?

I would like to collaborate with Mediastorm, a multimedia production studio based in Brooklyn, New York. Their projects are so evocative. I see some of the work I will be doing in the future have an audio visual component to them.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

What is your next project? Can you share a sneak preview?

There are so many projects I want to pursue but I have to prioritize them based on limited time and resources. Currently, I am working on a project that tackles the subject of family again but instead of focusing on absence I want to document their presence. Right now, I have a series of portraits I’ve taken in the last few years but I don’t see a visual narrative emerging yet. Somewhere down the road, I want to work on something about the Filipino diaspora around the world. I’m inspired by the book, “The Roma Journeys” by Joakim Eskildsen.

Who/what is/are your inspiration(s) in life and photography?

Life: I am always inspired by simple people who live their life with dignity. I am also inspired by men and women who have undergone adversity but still come out of the experience looking at the brighter side.

Photography: Currently, I am inspired by the works of the these photographers: KayLynn Deveney, Martina Mullaney, Harry Gruyaert, Michael Wolf, Mitch Epstein, Dinu Li, Alec Soth, Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, Sam Abell and Irving Penn.

Stella Kalaw: Family Spaces

What do you do when not taking pictures?

That’s a difficult question because photography is very much integrated in my life. I love to travel but I always have my camera with me. I love spending time with my family and yet, the camera is close by. I recently discovered that I actually enjoy writing after blogging for almost a year. That involves photography too.

What is the meaning of photography for you?

Henri Cartier-Bresson in his book, The Mind’s Eye said that “photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing…” Photography means being able to preserve those vanishing moments and hold pieces of them in a tangible form. In the end, it is about bringing them together to form a view of the world that is uniquely my own.


ALL IMAGES, from (“Family Spaces“)
© Stella Kalaw

Stella Kalaw is a photographer based in the San Francisco Area. Her images explore narratives rooted from memory, cultural identity and familial experiences. She has participated in group exhibitions in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Manila and Singapore. Her first solo exhibition is slated in January 2008 at the Silverlens Gallery, Manila.

More of her works can be seen on kalaw.com.

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