Lenscratch Student Prize Honorable Mention: Chantal Lesley
We are thrilled to share the 2021 Lenscratch Student Prize Honorable Mention Winner, Chantal Lesley. Lesley is pursuing her BFA at Texas State University.
It was a pleasure and an honor to be a juror in this year’s iteration of the Lenscratch Student Prize. Selecting only a few projects to be recognized from hundreds of impressive submissions is daunting, to say the least. But always fun. Among this year’s crop was Chantal Lesley. As I read her artist statement and began studying her photographs, I found myself nodding along—with the theme of family history, the exploration of personal identity, the contemplation of heritage, and the thread of color throughout. This is a project that you feel. The narrative she constructed was intensely heartfelt and personal. She utilizes family photos, which invoke sensations of nostalgia, and expands on the events of her life through newly created stories. En Medio de la Nostalgia is a touching and elegant interweaving of past and present, and is certainly deserving of this recognition.
The Honorable Mention winner receives $250 Cash Award, a feature on Lenscratch, a FUJIFILM X-E4 Body with XF27mmF2.8 R WR Lens Kit, Silver (MSRP $1,049.95 each), and a Lenscratch tote.
An enormous thank you to our jurors: Aline Smithson, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Daniel George, Submissions Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Kellye Eisworth, Managing Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Alexa Dilworth, Publishing Director, Senior Editor, and Awards Director at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University, Kris Graves, Director of Kris Graves Projects, Photographer and Publisher based in New York and London, Paula Tognarelli, Director of the Griffin Museum of Photography, Hamidah Glasgow, Director of the Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, CO, Raymond Thompson, Jr., Artist and Educator, winner of the 2020 Lenscratch Student Prize, Guanyu Xu, Artist and Educator, winner of the 2019 Lenscratch Student Prize and Shawn Bush, Artist, Publisher and Educator, winner of the 2017 Lenscratch Student Prize.
En Medio de la Nostalgia
This project started in the middle of a Texas summer. While cleaning out my family’s garage, I found a letter from my grandfather to my mother. I moved from the hot garage to the comfort of my cool room to inspect the letter further. It was dated 1989, a year after I was born, and a time where the only method of communication for my parents and my grandparents was through scheduled phone calls, letters, and packages filled with photos or VHS video recordings. My father and mother were born and raised in their respective countries of Germany and Peru. They immigrated to the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost tip of South Texas, and a portion of northern Tamaulipas, Mexico.
I, along with my siblings, are first-generation multicultural Americans. It has been hard to feel a sense of belonging or acceptance anywhere. I often question what makes up one’s identity, and when several cultures are involved, is there one that dominates above the rest, or can they all live within someone harmoniously? Growing up, it was not uncommon to hear things like “You wouldn’t understand because you’re not Mexican” or “I forgot you were Peruvian” from both close friends and family members, leading to a feeling of being othered by my communities. These feelings have led me to question my understanding of place, my sense of personal identity, and even the impressions of my memories. This project is a metaphor for the in-between– discovering a mental space that I have constructed while delving into my family’s past.
I have created a visual narrative that reflects the loss of ethnic roots, exploring the isolation and confusion felt from multiple cultures. This project consists of photographs constructed from my memories and life events. I rely on symbolism to relate to my cultures and combine them to find a new meaning representing my experience. The color red is consistent throughout my project. It is the only color that brings all four cultures together through their flags and a complex color that holds many meanings, from love and passion to anger and religious fervor. I use my family archives to explore my family’s history throughout several generations and make sense of myself.
Chantal Lesley is a conceptual photographer living and working in Austin, TX. She is a multicultural, first-generation American originally born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, located along the U.S./Mexico border. Being the daughter of immigrants, having cultural backgrounds from both Germany and Peru has inflicted a feeling of being stretched between four cultures and has led her to confront ideas that focus on identity and sociological contemporary issues in her work. Lesley has recently acquired her BFA in Fine Art Photography from Texas State University, and her work has been exhibited throughout Texas and the US. Selected shows include Houston Center for Photography, Houston, TX; Craighead Green Gallery, Dallas, TX; Touchstone Gallery, Washington D.C; and Humble Arts Foundation, New York City, NY. IG @thegeruvian
Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography?
I was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, specifically Brownsville, which is located at southern tip of Texas along the Mexico border. Brownsville hasn’t been portrayed in the best light, labeled as one of the least healthy and educated cities in the country, but I see my hometown as a place of immense creativity, and culture.
I’m a first generation American, with my parents being born and raised in Germany and Peru. My mom gave birth to me at a young age, and through my childhood I imagined that it was quite a culture shock for her to move to a completely different country where she didn’t know anyone or speak the language. Most of my childhood summers were spent in Peru visiting family, and I grew up in a time where the only method of communication for my mom and her family were through letters and packages that took weeks to arrive. Scheduling phone calls were necessary or else she would miss an opportunity to speak to someone for weeks on end. I remember assisting my mom in making videos for my family in Peru, waving and speaking to a camera imagining they were a relative.
As far as what brought me to photography, my dad was a bit of an untrained artist. When I look back at my family archives, I see beautiful, well composed images, and I have vague memories of him projecting his photos of landscapes in our living room while Peruvian flute music accompanied them.
I asked for a point and shoot camera when I was 14, and remember taking many of photos of myself, which is funny because it is still in my practice today. I didn’t know what I was doing back then. I was a shy, introverted teen, exploring and trying to understand myself. I had the stereotypical upbringing of being told that a career in art wasn’t possible. I naturally avoided pursuing art for as long as I could, and originally studied Business. But years went by, and I still felt completely unsatisfied. In retrospect, I was feeling the call to art, and I was at a point in my life where I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I didn’t take photography seriously until I started pursuing a BFA in Design and took photography as an elective to “get it out of my system”. At that point, my curiosity for art and photography was insatiable, and I knew I couldn’t deny my path as an artist any longer, and decided to also pursue a BFA in Photography.
Congratulations on your Lenscratch Student Prize! What’s next for you? What are you thinking about and working on?
Thank you! It’s truly an honor. It means so much to be able to share my work and my story on a platform like this. I am looking forward to graduating later this year from my BFA programs, to some post graduation rest, as well as transitioning from student to practicing artist as I prepare for my first solo exhibition next year in Austin, TX.
I’m also looking forward to the possibility of continuing this project and making a book. Before I was a photographer, my dad often shared his stories, and I fantasized about discovering more of my family’s history, and connecting the dots to write a book. I don’t see myself as a writer, and it wasn’t until I was creating this body of work that I realized that this was my way of visualizing my family’s story and “writing” our history.
In terms of future projects, my hometown is in the process of going through a big transformation as Elon Musk has decided to make it the home of SpaceX, while encouraging his followers to move there. It’s easy for my initial thoughts to go towards gentrification, but at the same time my hometown has been in need of financial support for decades. I’m hoping to be able to document it in the upcoming years no matter the outcome.
We’re always considering what the next generation of photographers is thinking about in terms of their careers after graduation. Tell us what the photo world looks like from your perspective; what do you need in terms of support? How do you plan to make your mark? Have you discovered any new and innovative ways to present yourself as an artist or connect with others?
The pandemic opened up the art world in terms of accessibility. I was able to attend artist talks from all over the world, and even attend photography classes throughout the country. I would love to see a continuation of that accessibility, to help diminish the barriers that prevent me from acquiring knowledge and new skills.
Of course financial support and mentorship are always needed. There is still so much that I don’t know and would love to learn, and I love the idea of pursuing an MFA, but it’s not something that makes sense to me financially at this point in time. I’d love to see more opportunities and support for emerging artists that maybe eliminate age requirements. There have been a lot of things that I was automatically disqualified for just because I started pursuing art in my late 20s.
In terms of making my mark, I don’t think I’ve done that quite yet and I don’t know how I’ll approach that. My work tends to be autobiographical and the more honest and vulnerable I am with my work, the more I see others form a natural connection to it. That’s really the basis of what I’d like to do, make honest work that fosters a connection and hopefully creates an impact and lasting impression.
I don’t think I’ve discovered any innovative ways to present myself just yet, but that excites me. I do hope to continue to challenge myself and my art practice. I guess you’ll just have to keep an eye on me.
Are there any instructors or mentors you would like to acknowledge?
Definitely all of the faculty of the Photography Program at Texas State University, Jessica Mallios, Jason Reed, Barry Stone, Laura Barth Turner, Anthony Francis, to name a few. Having the opportunity to finally study art was something that I never took for granted, and I hope they saw the joy that being in their classes and learning from them brought me. I’m eternally grateful that they helped me become a version of myself I had only dreamed of. I’d also like to thank Marilyn Montufar, who I took a virtual class with recently at Photographic Center Northwest. It was the first time I studied photography under someone who had a similar cultural background as myself and it was cathartic to say the least. I’m so happy to have a team of educators like them on my side to not only guide me, but cheer me on.
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Lenscratch Student Prize Honorable Mention: Chantal LesleyJuly 22nd, 2021
Lenscratch Student Award Honorable Mention: Vanessa LeroyJuly 20th, 2021