Go Inside Local Photographer Jennifer Silverberg's China

By Amy De La Hunt
In Culture

Anyone who’s picked up a local food magazine has seen the culinary world through Jennifer Silverberg’s camera lens. Her food, farm and lifestyle photographs capture the labors of love of countless chefs and restaurant professionals. She knows her subjects well, and it shows.

One might think her evocative travel photos come from a deep understanding of China’s culture and heritage. Not so—in fact, Silverberg was at pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum, trying to acclimate to the chaotic bustle of Beijing and Nanjing while simultaneously figuring out how to make art within the confines of a group trip for working photographers. Then inspiration struck, in the form of an upturned face.

All photos by Jennifer Silverberg.

JenniferSilverbergChina

The challenges: colleagues and chaos

When the International Photography Hall of Fame offered Silverberg the opportunity to travel to China in May 2014 with 10 colleagues, she didn’t hesitate. But as excited as she was about the “lovely and unusual” trip, the first two or three days were tough. “I didn’t know what kinds of images I wanted to make,” she remembers. “I didn’t know which side of my photographic identity I wanted to emphasize.” Silverberg’s personal work relies more on her background in environmental portrait photography for newspapers and magazines, while her editorial and commercial images for the restaurant industry focus heavily on food ingredients and dishes.

It didn’t help that she’d never before traveled with a group of working photographers. “Our host was like, ‘OK, here’s this amazing place. You have 45 minutes—go make art.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really work that way,’” Silverberg says. “You want to be grateful because you’re having the most incredible access and experiences—I’d never been to Asia before, and I loved it—but this was a weird pressure.” She wanted to come away with a small portfolio … but of what?

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“There was one night of sheer and utter panic, where I was like, ‘I’m going to be here for two weeks, and then they’re going to want to look at my work when I get back, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, shit! What do I do? I have failed as a photographer!’” she laughs in hindsight. “It was a little scary for me.”

China’s urban population density factored into her thinking. “The crowds and the stimulation can be exciting, but also, for me, overwhelming. The images that I found myself making were definitely more quiet. It was a nice way for me to organize the chaos around me—and I enjoy the chaos. I’m a city person. I grew up in New York. I understand it. But to make successful images, you have to make sense of it and organize it in your head.”

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The defining moment of the trip happened almost by accident. Silverberg had asked one of the college-aged volunteers accompanying the Americans if she would pose for photos. She didn’t like the light, so she asked the young Chinese woman to tilt her head up so the diffuse light would illuminate her beautiful skin.

“When she lifted her head up, something went off in my head,” Silverberg says. “It was so peaceful and serene.” That was the first of what became the #LookingUp images.

Collaborating with strangers

Silverberg continued to ask people to let her photograph them in the same position throughout the trip. The backgrounds varied—from urban parks to the Yellow Mountains near Nanjing, where the American group spent its second week. “I loved the idea of these very quiet human connections and moments when there was so much going on around us,” she says. “It’s not a true picture of the environment I was in. I was aware of isolating these moments. I was the only one who was creating moments versus observing them.

JenniferSilverbergChina

“But some were observation too,” she points out. “Like the pink panties on the clothesline in an ancient village. It just cracks me up! I like that contrast.” Some of her other observations included a dustpan and broom on a cement floor, a fern leaf and the legs of several women walking along a street.

For Silverberg, creating moments comes easily. “The camera is a great way to communicate,” she explains. “It’s this excuse to approach anyone. I’m not a shy person, at any level, but especially with a camera around my neck, I feel emboldened. … I like the dance of it, the communication when you don’t speak the language. It becomes this beautiful nonverbal collaboration.”

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Her portrait work relies on the same collaborative experience, but Silverberg sees it even more with strangers. “There’s something really special to find this point of humanity in a fleeting moment,” she says. “It’s powerful and humane and beautiful. … I love that I can be halfway around the world and find these moments of laughter or discomfort or self-consciousness.

“We’re all just human beings,” she continues. “We’re all just here. It’s a nice way to connect, especially when you’re feeling lost or overwhelmed in a new place. It’s like taking a deep breath and saying, ‘Here’s another human being. Let’s have a moment together. Let’s share this.’”

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Where to next?

“I want to go everywhere!” Silverberg says without hesitation. But it turns out she does have a wish list penciled in. “On a personal level, my husband really wants to take me to Italy. I don’t know the kinds of images I would make there, but I’m excited about the idea. Photographically, I’m dying to go to Iceland. I feel like it could be a continuation of the images I started in China. They would be different but evocative in a similar kind of way. There are very few people—it’s the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s isolated in many ways. I would love to see that.”

The key difference between taking a vacation with her husband to Italy and doing a working trip to Iceland is that she can’t be both a tourist and a professional photographer at the same time. Her husband understands, Silverberg says. He was along on the China trip, so he knows where her focus would be in Iceland. “He’s good about it—he appreciates that in me. He’s very supportive, which I am incredibly grateful for. Plus,” she says, with laughter in her voice, “he hauls my camera bag around. He’s the best Sherpa ever. So there’s that!”

And sometimes, when she knows she won’t have time to make serious images, Silverberg travels without her camera. On those trips, Instagram becomes her outlet. The tool is different, but the need to make sense of her environment doesn’t change. “I wouldn’t want to shut it off,” she says. “It becomes like therapy for me; it’s cathartic to think visually and make images.”

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To see more of the series, visit Jennifer Silverberg’s portfolio.

This story is part of ALIVE’s May/June issue: Voyages & Discoveries. View this issue online.

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