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Interview with a photographer and film maker

Wei Qian, who is usually known as Eris, is a graduate of the University of Virginia where she was the first Chinese student to study a Media Studies Major. She now works at the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC as a Contract Video Producer for the National Museum of Natural History.


Eris Qian: Photographer and film-maker

How did you come to the decision to study at the University of Virginia?

Before I transferred to UVa, I was enrolled in a Chinese university that I had been unsatisfied with. The Chinese higher education system is kind of rigid – the student gets into a major based on the score of the national entrance exam, which happens only once a year, and has to focus on the major curriculum instead of exploring different subjects. Having spent too much time on studying the vocabulary and grammar (I was an English major), I felt that the hunger for broader knowledge and deeper critical thinking whined inside of me. So I decided to transfer to the US and since then my life has completely changed.

Was it a difficult transition to move from China to the US?

Oh yes.  My situation was particularly hard because I transferred in the Spring with very limited knowledge and resource of the American college system.  I lost around 90 credits due to the transfer, and I had to get into the prestigious Media Studies programme that only admitted 40 students per year at that time.  I was stressed out for both physical and academic survival. But fortunately, I made it through the hardest time and now I’m a stronger and better person.

What advice would you give someone considering the same move?

Transfer students, especially international transfers, are usually at big disadvantages to fit in the new environment, catch up and stand out. I think those who are considering the same move need to firstly prepare themselves well with the right information and attitude. The university provides various resources to help its students, yet you still have to seek them out and make yourself be heard. It’s the same for the social aspect that you need to reach out to make new friends. Most importantly, always have faith in yourself and trust the choices you make.

How I got the job & what it's like working at the National Museum of Natural History

I think the question every postgraduate reading this will want me to ask is 'how did you get the job?'

As the college graduation approached, I had been trying almost everything to get a job. The opportunity that led to my current position came with an intern recruitment email sent to my department. As a long-time museum and natural history documentary maniac, I found it a perfect fit for my skillset and my career goal. After three rounds of competition, I was lucky enough to stand out and thus got the job.

What was the competition like to progress from an internship to a permanent position?

It is extremely hard to get a permanent position at the Smithsonian, due to its high prestige and federal-affiliated status. I don’t have a permanent position now, and half of the staff in my department is on contract. The federal budget cut has influenced us in many different ways, and the decrease of available permanent positions is one of them.

On the other hand, I know people who have been extending their short-term contract for up to nine years and the fluidity of staff adds to the institution’s diversity and dynamics. Overall, it’s still a great place for new graduates to set their foot in the door.

What is it like working for such a prestigious institution?

As a video producer, I keep it in mind that everything I make is going to represent the whole institution. For example, I made all of the activity videos in the National Museum of Natural History’s new education space, Q?rius, which means up to 7 million visitors could potentially see my work in each year. It’s both a high honour and a huge responsibility. It is not the visitors’ job to understand the difficulties you met during the making of the videos, while their expectation for the Smithsonian falls on my shoulders.

With that heavy responsibility though, the work environment at the NMNH is rather fun and chill. Imagine going to a museum to work – it’s like a field trip every day! There are new exhibits and IMAX movies coming up constantly, and the staff get to see some of the exclusive behind-the-scenes. This place is also full of passionate professionals and academics with profound knowledge, open minds and diverse backgrounds. I feel like I have found my herd here.

How would you describe the day-to-day aspects of your job?

I learn something new almost every day. I didn’t start off doing everything I do now – I learned how to do them through time, and sometimes I even have to search for tutorials right on the spot. For example, the logo animation of Q?rius was done as my first complete After Effects project, and it’s now showing up in every video made for Q?rius. This gives me a great sense of achievement as well as significant improvements in my skills. As for something more regular, like taking photos for the Smithsonian Science How? Webcast, I try to explore new approaches every time I do it, pushing myself for a higher level of creativity and techniques. So my job both excites me and challenges me from day to day.

Film-making and photography in the USA

Your passion for photography and film-making is evident in your work. Where did this passion come from?

Actually, I didn’t find photography and filmmaking as my passion until the second year I studied at UVa. However, I think one’s career path depends on vision and personality rather than those more tangible things like major or GPA. In my opinion, every job is to put together a narrative in some way, as engineers assemble machines and businessmen package products. As curious, imaginative and visual-oriented as I am, I found photography and filmmaking the best form for me to embody and communicate my perceptions of the world.

You made a documentary film on the trafficking of people from China to Greece. You obviously feel passionate about this subject. Do you see yourself making more documentaries in the future?

The short documentary, The Lamian Shop, was really a surprise as my second student project. I’m really sympathetic to those people who left their homes for prospects yet suffered from inhumane situations, yet illegal immigration remains a big problem for a lot of countries in the world. I believe that the way to break stereotypes and help those people is through communication.  If conditions allow, I’d love to expand the scope of this film. And the idea of changing the world through communication will be carried out in all of my future documentaries.

Your future career could go in many different directions. How do you see it evolving? You mentioned that you want to study for an MFA.

A well-established photographer once asked me a question: “if there’s a genie that can make anything you wish come true, but no cash, what would you wanna be? You also have to be very specific because the genie could interpret your wish in any way.” My answer is still evolving, but I picture myself working in the film industry incorporating the resources from China and the US. It’s a process of exploring your true self and finding the balance between the dream and the reality. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of kind established people guiding me, and maybe an MFA will lead me to more doors. After all, life is not a multiple-choice question, but a river that finds its path by following the nature’s call. Until I am completely sure to answer the genie, I will stay open to all of the potentials and navigate myself through the turbulences.

What do you like best about living and working in the US?

What I like the best about living here is that the social norms are more laid-back and liberal. Bearing a strong Confucian traditional, the Chinese culture puts more emphasis on hierarchy. As for work, the documentary filmmaking industry is definitely more developed and sophisticated in the US.

How do you relax?

I’m very lucky that my hobby benefits my work. I also love reading, writing, watching films, and acting. All of these make me relaxed as well as enhancing my understanding of visual storytelling.  Other than that, I enjoy traveling and talking to my friends and family too.

You can read more about Eris’s time at university and see more of her wonderful photographs on Parke Muth’s blog