Heather Sten is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Originally from California, Heather is known for her subtle portraiture work. Wielding a thoughtful and empathetic tone in her practice, Sten captures her subjects elegantly with a sense of peaceful stillness.
“Con Chau” is a project that stemmed from Sten’s fear of losing her grandmother, who was with Alzheimer when Sten was 17 year old. “Con Chau” vibrates with grace and compassion as Sten observes her family’s struggles with the loss of a matriarch who undoubtedly have shaped them.
Could you describe your relationship with your grandmother?
We were very close — she really was a mother figure to me. My mom was pretty strict about going over to friends houses growing up, so my grandmother and I spent a lot of time together. As I look back on my childhood with her, she really nurtured, healed, and comforted me in her own way. She did things for me every single day that I now cherish so dearly; she would put a Flintstone vitamin & juice on the counter for me every morning, walked me to the bus stop, made an after-school lunch she prepared from scratch, oiled me up with chinese herbal medicine, stood in the bathroom with me to brush my teeth because I was scared of the mirror (every night!). She didn’t speak any english and couldn’t drive, so her life in America revolved around the home and taking care of me.
It seems that the women in your family have a very strong bond with each other. Could you describe your relationship with your mother and your sister? What was it like to grow up with figures like your grandmother and your mother?
Most of the Vietnamese families that I know are matriarchal. My mother and grandmother were not only unmarried before having children (which is uncommon and stigmatized), but they both raised them on their own. My mother’s relationship to my grandmother was layered, complicated, and sometimes cantankerous, which I tried to integrate into this series. But they taught my sister and I to be resilient, to trust ourselves, our instincts, and to never rely on anybody but ourselves. When you’re young, you don’t fully recognise what your caretakers go through or sacrifice for you; my mom & grandmother fled their country with my sister, stayed in refugee camps, and then immigrated here. Shortly after that my mom was in school, got a job (that she just retired from — 25 years!), bought a house, and took care of 4 people all on her own. I feel so lucky to have my sister, mom, and grandmother as such exemplary women to look up to.
What was your earliest memory of your grandmother?
Giggling in bed. I slept in the same bed with her from being a wee little baby to my early teens, and I would always try to make her laugh before going to sleep.
What was the first photograph of our grandmother that you’ve ever taken? Looking at it now, how do you feel about the photograph?
The first photographs I remember taking of her were terrible. I was in high school, and she wasn’t used to having her photograph taken, so she looked annoyed in every picture. I think over time she understood my intent, and once I began a body of work on her and my family, she really enjoyed seeing the photographs together. She started forgetting that a camera was there, or would carefully listen to my instructions.
How do you feel about being an American? What does it mean to be an American today, in your personal opinion?
Sometimes, being an American makes me feel embarrassed, frustrated, enraged, exhausted, disgusted, incredulous. But other times, I feel an overpowering sense of pride and hope, especially recently; amongst peers and activists, I’m constantly listening, reading, and learning, and feeling like we’re making small bits of progress. Being an American today, we must continually fight and work towards freedom, because not everyone is free.
What is a lesson that you learned from either your mother or grandmother that you hold dearly to your heart as a person and/or photographer?
One of the biggest traits that I share with my grandmother is laughter, as cheesy as that sounds. She could find humor in the dullest situations, and she would belt out her jelly belly cackle until the tears came, and I surely take after her in that regard. She never cared what anyone thought of her and steamrolled her way through life, which I continually try to cultivate within myself.
You capture really beautiful portraits. How is photographing your family different from your other subjects, especially “strangers”?
My family was forced to deal with me taking their photo all the time, and eventually came to terms with it, ha. So they stopped being aware of the camera after a while, for the most part. Now, I’m sometimes commissioned to photograph people that don’t want to be photographed, or are highly uncomfortable with it, and I try to handle that delicately and make them feel comfortable. Being photographed is a very vulnerable thing, and I’m learning to be more vulnerable and open myself up when photographing “strangers” too.
Name up to five people that you want to photograph (that you haven’t photographed) in the next three years. Why do you want to photograph these people?
Just Michelle Obama, for obvious reasons.
Do you have a song from your childhood that you still listen to today? What is it?