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DISCOURSE: March - Sarah Ching

Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and have a discussion on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart. 

Sarah Ching is a friend of mine from Cal Poly. I've always admired her laid-back style and the dreamy aesthetic of her photos. I had the privilege of catching up with her while she was back in the Bay for her spring break.

What are you passionate about? Describe your journey up to this point.

My first passion is photography. I’ve been shooting for as long as I remember. Even as a kid in the 90’s, there was that weird, long camera, kind of like an instant polaroid, but there were stickers, and they would come out in this really long strip, and you could stick them on things. I remember really wanting one in second or third grade, and my parents got me one. And from there, I’ve had multiple cameras that use film. So I’ve been shooting for as long as I remember. When people ask me “how long have you been photographing?” I’m like “I don’t know!” Officially, if you want to say when I got my first DSLR, if you want to put a number on it, it would be 8 years. But I didn’t really begin to “push” anything until the last few years. I’ve always been shooting just because I really wanted to do it. And now, I still photograph because I love it, but I also do it for a career and for different purposes. So it’s always been authentic for me.

Another passion is dance. I’ve been dancing since I was 9 years old, and now I’m 22, so it’s been a long time. I do mostly hip-hop but I’ve also been doing contemporary competitively. We have a show in two weeks, which is pretty cool, but also kind of stressful, because I’m not there practicing with them right now because I’m on spring break.

I’m a graphic design major, so that’s another passion of mine. That has fallen off a little bit, because I want to do more photo. All my life I feel like I’ve been pulled in these three primary directions, because I want to do all three, but I personally feel like I can never get good at any one of them, because when I focus on school and design, it takes away from dance and photography, and when I do more photoshoots, it takes away from dancing and designing, and so on. All my life has been trying to figure out how to do, master, and balance all three, but obviously at different periods in my life, one has been more important than the others, but it’s hard for me to pick just one, so I can say all three.

And I guess I’m just passionate about… people, as cliche as that sounds. If you really got to know me and were good friends with me, I kind of have attached myself to people, not in a clingy way though. You know when you go through college and you lose your friends and you figure out who you want to be friends with? I try to prioritize staying in touch with people, and making sure that all the time I’ve spent with them is not given up. So my first year in college was tough because I wasn’t surrounded by the right people, which was what made school hard for me in the beginning. I was still engaging in all of my passions, and that was keeping me sane, but it was not having people that made it harder.

It’s cool that you have multiple passions, because it’s a good dilemma to have, better than not having any passions. So you can have the choice (sometimes) of what you want to engage in, and be more versatile in that way.

Yeah, it’s mostly in the right side of the brain, like more creative things, so I guess I can say that I’m mostly right-brained. But sometimes I feel like I'm lacking as a photographer or a designer because I can't really just push myself in one direction. It ends up being “I’m a mediocre designer”, or “I’m a mediocre photographer”, because I’m doing both.

So you’re going to be graduating college in June. Looking back at your time spent in college, what stands out to you, and what are some valuable lessons you’ve learned from the whole experience?

Something that I live by throughout my whole life has been: work hard and be nice to people. I can definitely say that I work hard, and I’ve never necessarily been handed things. Opportunities do arise through working hard, but I’ve never gotten anything spontaneously, for no reason. Everything has happened because of something that I’ve chosen or decided to do or put in the effort for. I’m not one of those people who are the top 1%, most talented individuals in the world. I’m not gifted like that, but I can say that I’ve been given the work ethic for it. You can get places by working hard, but if you’re not nice to people around you, then it’s not going to get you anywhere. And it’s not necessarily about getting farther than someone else, but just going somewhere because you worked for it and you were nice to people along the way.

Something I’ve found with photographers that turns me away is people’s unwillingness to help others because they’re selfish about how they do things, or where they shoot. Even though it’s important to learn by yourself, there’s nothing wrong with sharing with others and encouraging them. That’s where I’ve really figured out who my friends are, not just in photography, like Mike Larson, the private estate wedding photographer that I'm interning for right now. He’s a follower of God, so he’s really willing to share and help. Whenever I meet people like that, it’s super encouraging, and reminds me of why it’s important to work hard and be nice to people, because it helps others and makes others feel good.   

Who are some people who have gotten you to this point?

People who believe in me… every time someone gives me an opportunity or a chance. I kind of feel like I go through this world as an underdog. But there are people who see past that in me and instead see what I stand for, and I appreciate that so much. I don’t try to rub it in people’s faces, like “I worked super hard, so you should give me things.” It’s more like, if I worked hard enough, it’ll show for itself. For example, I had one history teacher in high school that I still keep up with named Mr. Jeffers. I never tried to stand out too much in classes, but teachers know their students, and he was one of the only people who figured out that I really try to be an honest person, because I feel like there are a lot of students, especially from the high school that I came from, who try to compete to get ahead and try to take sneaky routes to get to the ultimate goal of the best college, and so on.

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I’ve heard it said that nothing is ever purely original. It’s always based on something you’ve experienced, even if unconsciously. When you shoot and edit photos, is there a particular look you're going for? When you were developing your style, were you aiming for a certain goal?

I don’t necessarily try to copy others. Because of that, my style comes from just different things that I’ve seen, like you said, and it’s really hard to pinpoint what it’s based on; rather, it comes from things stored in my subconscious, and ends up being my own. Depending on the shoot, I’ll go for different editing styles. I think I have some kind of consistency, because people like what they perceive my style to be and hire me for that, but it’s not always the same. And even in recent months, my style has changed a little bit, because someone messaged me saying “You’ve changed the way you edit, what did you do?” But that wasn’t a conscious decision.

What are your plans after college?

My current dream job is to work for Urban Outfitters’ home base. Ideally, I’d like to photograph for them, but I’m not sure if that’s possible, so I’d also like to design for them. Ultimately, if I could make a living off just photography, that’s what I would do, but right now, realistically speaking, it’ll probably be a 9-5 design job in SF or something, but if I could do anything, it would be to photograph styled shoots for Urban, Free People, etc. The whole corporation.

Photo by Sarah Ching.

Photo by Sarah Ching.

What do you like about them?

Aesthetically speaking, I like their style. But something that drew me to the company is their encouraging culture toward artists. And not just painters and visual artists, but also music and culture… it’s something that’s so cool to be surrounded by. My interests will probably change over the next ten years or so, and I might be like “I’m over this; it was a teenage thing.” But at the same time, if I found the right company with the right culture, then I would love to stick with it for the rest of my life. But for now I like how [Urban Outfitters] is not just a brand that sells products, but it’s also a place for artists, and has such a great community. I was talking to one of the district managers, and she said that they always want to find ways to find and encourage artists, and through that, I’ve been able to make a lot of cool connections. Obviously they want talented people to work for them, but they genuinely want to help us achieve what we want. What I’ve been doing with Urban is selecting some clothes to style shoots that I have in my head. It’s a win-win for all parties, because they get promotion on their products, and I get the opportunity to shoot and get exposure and get noticed by the company so that I could one day end up there.

Another dream job would be to travel the world and take photos. I mean, isn’t that everyone’s dream job?

Yep...

There’s only so much I can shoot in Fremont or SLO. so I’ve been really fortunate to go different locations in the U.S. and the world and shoot. Something I did last summer was, whenever I’d plan a trip somewhere, I’d reach out to a style blogger or something, and tell them that I want to meet up and do a styled shoot. The first time I did it was in Japan with this girl, and it was such a surreal experience to travel to different places and shoot people, because I’m primarily a portrait photographer, so being able to do that from the opposite side of the world was super cool.

Photo by Sarah Ching.

Photo by Sarah Ching.

I also went to Vegas when I turned 21, because… everyone does that, but when I was there, I wanted to shoot someone in the canyons there, so I went hiking and photographed this style blogger there.

Doing that has been fun. You reach out to people, you’re nice to them, and they’ll want to work with you. So that has been another way of connecting with creative people more. I did the same thing in Los Angeles and Florida. Because I reach out to style bloggers and people who are into fashion, I let them style themselves, and allow other factors like location to dictate how the shoot goes. So a lot of times I’ll go into the shoot not knowing what the shoot will turn out to be. It’s always weird, because you meet someone for the first time, you get to know them for the 2-3 hours that you’re with them, and you get to create something cool!

Taking that a step further: if you could have complete creative freedom to work on a shoot including location, style, models etc, what would you do?

Something I live by is collaboration. As an independent designer, I get so stressed out and pressured to create or do something that I really value the ability to work with others, because that’s what enhances me the most as a designer, and that’s usually when my best ideas manifest themselves. Like a recent shoot I did with my roommates: it was a vision I had in terms of props, location, and the outfits, as well as the models I picked. The theme of the shoot was 50’s, and because my roommates Allison and Skye really know their eras, they were a big help. I had my vision, but I couldn’t necessarily put it into exact words of what I wanted, so they were able to help me tie together all of my separate ideas. Once I edit the session, I’ll see if it actually worked.

Nice, I’m looking forward to seeing that!  [Note: see a sneak preview here]

What other projects have you been working on lately that you’ve been excited about?

I’m really excited about editing that shoot with my roommates. Other than that, I’m just trying to graduate college right now. I only have to take two more classes this upcoming quarter, which I’m stoked about, because I’ll have time to do more shoots, take advantage of the Central Coast, and take advantage of working for Urban. Hopefully I’ll also be able to spend time with people that matter to me. So that’s the goal: to hang out, take more photos, and work on my design portfolio somewhere in between.

Yeah it’s nice to have a chill final quarter. You can look back and realize what you want to be prioritizing before you leave, and you can be more intentional.

Did you?

Yeah I tried, I definitely had an easy last quarter other than senior project, which wasn’t even that bad. Actually, my last final in college was tractor driving…….

Anyway, to wrap up: what is one message you want to share with the world?

I mentioned this earlier, but really just work hard and be nice. It’s so cliche, but making me the effort to be nice to people has gotten me so much farther than trying to outcompete people or trying to be sneaky about things. That might be the most cliche thing anyone’s ever said to you, but it’s so true!

I’m not saying that I’m always nice to people, because that’s impossible. But the key is to remind yourself that they’re still people, and there’s nothing to lose from being nice. Well, sometimes you could be taken advantage of, but for the most part, it doesn’t hurt; in fact, it gets you really far.

You can view more of Sarah's work at @_syching, @sarahchingphotography, her Facebook page, and her tumblr.

Gear used in this shoot:
-Fujifilm X-T1
-Fujinon 16-55mm 2.8 lens