Behind the Lens with Celeste Noche
Photographer and social activist Celeste Noche and I first met while working at our university's coffee shop together and bonded over our shared love of food.
Through the years, Celeste's travelogues and photography of food, people and places have been a constant source of inspiration to me. She has the unique ability to capture tenderness, excitement, love and passion in a single photograph. And somehow the light is always perfect for her! As soon as I had the chance, I hired her to document my engagement, then my wedding, then my first pregnancy. And I'm counting down the days until COVID is over so we can get together for a family portrait session.
In her seven years as a freelance photographer, I've seen her grow not only as a photographer but as an activist, advocating eloquently for human rights and fair pay of artists, especially People of Color. She founded the Portland in Color website and directory to highlight the many talented POC creatives residing in Portland. Her incredible work has been featured in Bon Appetit, BBC News, KQED and the New York Times, just to name a few.
To know Celeste is to be in awe of her talent and passion, and I hope we can get to know her a little better today. It is my absolute privilege to share this All WOCs of Life interview with Celeste:
A Few of my Favorite Photos by Celeste Noche
Describe the work that you do.
I'm an independent documentary and editorial photographer, focusing on the intersections of food, communities, and place.
When and how did you figure what you wanted to do for your career?
I suspect I knew I wanted to take photos professionally when I was in high school, but never thought it was attainable or realistic. I didn't pursue freelance full time until after working in tech for a few years post-college.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of working in your position and in your industry?
I love working for myself and not feeling beholden to a manager, but there are also a lot of happenstance factors that come to play in this industry. Navigating the inherent biases and systematic oppression of this industry (and society, ha) is exhausting, but I've found incredible community in fellow photographers also trying to make the industry better.
What was your family’s/ancestors’ journeys to come to America? Where did they live originally and what influenced them to come here?
Both of my parents were born in the Philippines, but they came separately and met in California. My mother was fleeing an abusive marriage when she left. I often think about what life would have been like if she had the ability to stay.
Do you feel strongly rooted in and confident of your heritage? Do you feel like you had to assimilate to be accepted?
I worked to assimilate long before I knew what assimilation was. My mom tells a story about picking me up from preschool, and my teacher telling her how upset I was, insisting I was American, not Filipino. The desire to fit in and survive starts early. I feel rooted in my heritage through my family and our traditions (mostly food!) but not speaking Tagalog or Ilocano, not knowing much about my family's history beyond my grandparents' generation— I often mourn the cost of survival and assimilation.
Tell me about a time when you experienced racism and/or sexism in either the workplace or school setting.
Before the new school year officially started at Stanford, I visited the Classics department for an open house. I met a professor who "asked what I was" and upon telling him I was Filipino, he said, "Are you sure you're not Native American?"
How has being a Woman of Color impacted you professionally?
I've had countless experiences where advocating for my work, value, and compensation has been incredibly challenging— often with the opposing person gaslighting me. It's like they can't handle an Asian woman standing up for herself, whereas I feel like this defensiveness is likely less likely when cis white men ask to be paid.
What advice do you have for other Women of Color in a similar industry?
Find fellow artists whose work inspires you, and whose principles align with your own.
What changes and/or improvements would you hope to see in your industry and/or the world for WOC?
Equity and transparency in payment, contracts, opportunities. Dismantling gatekeeping and white supremacy.
Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t already covered?
The change we need isn't happening overnight (as much as it should). Remember we're in it for the long game.
You can find and support Celeste and her work on her website and on Instagram. In recent years, she has published a calendar featuring her captivating photographs and one-of-a-kind lettering by artists so keep an eye out for that in the upcoming months. Thank you, Celeste, for giving of your time for this interview!
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All WOCs of Life is a series of interviews with Women of Color in all stages of their life.