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Nancy Wong: Capturing the Soul on Camera

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We live in a world where everyone can feel like a photographer. Easy access to cameras, smart phones and editing software has made the art of photography more accessible than ever before. Product placement and marketing through well-curated images make it confusing to decipher ads from art. Our news feeds inundate us with photos of faces, places, and events from all over the world, and the point and shoot mentality continues to pervade. All of this begs the question: what’s left of the art of photography?

Although aware of the current climate, Chicago-based photographer Nancy Wong remains unperturbed. Her noble calling has enabled her to devote her life’s work to facilitate connection and upliftment through the photographs she captures. Inspired by these words of Baha’u’llah, her philosophy as an artist is to visually document the inherent nobility, dignity and beauty of the world through photography:

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.

Nancy WongBorn and raised in Minnesota, Nancy’s parents migrated from Hong Kong in the 1960’s. Her service-oriented family joined the Presbyterian church once settled in the US. It wasn’t until her youth when Nancy first heard about the Baha’i Faith through a childhood friend. Having watched her friend become a Baha’i, Nancy immersed herself in a vibrant young Baha’i community, which helped her along her own spiritual journey. She also grew to love prayer, and found great solace in the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Five years after first hearing about the Baha’i Faith, Nancy followed her friends to a Baha’i Youth Conference in Barbados where she was inspired to declare her own faith and belief in Baha’u’llah’s world-embracing vision for humanity.

Her new-found faith began a lifelong exploration finding ways to serve humanity. Although Nancy had a passion for art and photography, she decided early on in college that it would be more practical for her to complete a degree in the Chinese language. This led to a long career as a youth worker specialized in dealing with domestic violence, dating-related violence, sexual education and pregnancy prevention for various non-profit organizations. From there she was asked to utilize her education skills at a national level, working on behalf of the American Baha’i community on an educational project. All throughout her career she continued to take evening photography classes.

Her life as a full-time photographer began in 2003, when she was invited to volunteer as the only staff photographer for the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. Up until that point she had little to no professional experience in the industry, but with zeal, prayer, and the help of a few principal mentors, she gathered the courage and expertise required to fulfill her duties for five years. Her time working at the Baha’i World Centre exposed her to unique events and opportunities, capturing various renovation and reconstruction projects, ancient relics and diverse people. In her interview with Cloud9, Nancy shares how these experiences encouraged her to reflect inwardly and refine her character in order to find her voice as a photographer. Nancy was particularly influenced by the female entrepreneurs she met while serving in Haifa, who inspired her to start her own creative business as a freelance photographer upon her return home to the United States.

Since her return to the U.S. in 2008, Nancy has kept busy freelancing as a photographer while also working in the non-profit sector. Nancy strives to consciously convey the spiritual attributes and inner realities of her subjects through her photographs. The philosophy behind her work as a photographer is to reveal the light latent within her subjects. In her Cloud9 interview we reflect on the following words of Abdu’l-Baha, and how they influence her creative approach in perceiving and capturing the inner reality of her subjects:

This other and inner reality is called the heavenly body, the ethereal form which corresponds to this body. This is the conscious reality which discovers the inner meaning of things, for the outer body of man does not discover anything. The inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application. It discovers electricity, produces the telegraph, the telephone and opens the door to the world of arts. If the outer material body did this, the animal would likewise be able to make scientific and wonderful discoveries, for the animal shares with man all physical powers and limitations. What then is that power which penetrates the realities of existence and which is not to be found in the animal? It is the inner reality which comprehends things, throws light upon the mysteries of life and being, discovers the heavenly Kingdom, unseals the mysteries of God and differentiates man from the brute. Of this there can be no doubt. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 463.

In her interview with Cloud9, Nancy describes her two most recent projects. The first, which she started two years ago, takes its name from the Mandarin Chinese word JIA, which translates to the word family in English.

A Photograph from Nancy Wong's most recent JIA project.

A Photograph of the ‘Werner Family’ from Nancy’s most recent JIA project.

This collaborative project documents families of African American descent living in the Southside of Chicago. We discuss the motivation behind the JIA project, who she’s been collaborating with, its outcomes, and how the following words of Abdu’l-Baha inspire her:      

Note ye how easily, where unity existeth in a given family, the affairs of that family are conducted; what progress the members of that family make, how they prosper in the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 279.

Nancy’s second current effort, Project 750, is inspired by the Bicentenary of the Birth of the Bab, forerunner of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate this auspicious occasion, Nancy is organizing a photo art piece as part of a larger art exhibition at the Art in Response to Violence Conference in Chicago. Nancy shares the significance behind this project and lets us know how readers and listeners can get involved!

We close our interview by learning about some of the future projects Nancy has in the pipeline, and how she aspires to cultivate a lifestyle that enables her to continue working on photography projects that benefit humanity.

For more information on the 750 Project, email Nancy at: [email protected]

Or private message her on Facebook: Nancy Wong Photography, LLC Facebook

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  • Don Boykin
    Jun 3, 2019
    Thanks for sharing your conversation with Nancy Wong. I am an architect, photographer, author, educator & lecturer and sports coach (81 yo) currently pioneering (24 years) with my wife in the Solomon Islands. Nancy's family shot is wonderful. Peace, unity, justice, love. Allah'u'Abha.
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