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Ophelia Chong: On Photography, Race And Art In The Cannabis Industry

An instructor of photography at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Co-founder of Asian Americans for Cannabis Education and Founder of StockPot Images, Ophelia Chong offers DOPE Magazine valuable insight into what it means to create and advocate on behalf of cannabis art in 2016. Her diligent advocacy in the realm of art and cannabis aren’t going unnoticed. DOPE Magazine was fortunate enough to discuss the often perplexing and stigmatized relationship between cannabis and art, as our discussion tapped into topics such as race, gender and public perception.

On race in the cannabis industry…

Ophelia Chong has opened up new lines of communication regarding race and the normalization of cannabis. When I asked her why Asian Americans were under or misrepresented in the cannabis industry, she offered me a comparison between Latinos, African and Asian Americans. Latinos have been at the epicenter of the drug war as long as it’s taken place. There is the issue of Latino deaths related to the War on Drugs and issues surrounding its legalization. You’ll find similar atrocities in many communities of color where drug culture persists. Shootings, high numbers of arrests and incarceration—these have been the historical and modern day outcomes of the relationships between people of color and illegal substances. Asian Americans typically land quietly on the other end of the spectrum—often raised as the ‘model’ ethnic group. They are the quiet group, “they don’t make too much noise,” they go to school and live under an umbrella of expectations.

Within the cannabis industry, Asian Americans typically play ancillary roles. Take David Hua, one of the founders of a San Francisco tech startup company called Meadow. Meadow allows medical card carriers in the Bay Area to peruse local dispensaries and place orders for delivery through Meadow. The business sits in an ancillary position to the actual production of cannabis. Meadow is a tech company—it doesn’t actually have its hands in the process of growing or selling cannabis. To state that Asian Americans play auxiliary roles is not a rule, of course, and like any large-scale observation, there are exceptions to the rule. Hua’s relationship with cannabis is not under wraps and he’s been very open about it. Hua attended an Oakland-based cannabis college, Oaksterdam University, during which time his desire to begin a cannabis-related business was further developed.

“There are few Asian Americans, especially women, who have made themselves visible in the [cannabis] industry,” Ophelia added. Krystal Kitahara, a Women Grow member, is one exception. As the CEO of Yummi Karma, Kitahara has expressed a keen interest in bringing edibles to the forefront of everyday dining. Yummi Karma features chips, sauces and salad dressings to canna-consumers. She attributes the success of Yummi Karma to its female-centered appeal and design.

seagrassphotography-1Photographer: Michelle & Neka @ Seagrass Photography

On photography…

I asked Ophelia if any of her students were willing to associate their name with their cannabis-inspired photography. It is often times the case that photographers who capture cannabis in their work will use a pen name, just as a writer would, in an effort to keep their cannabis-related work on the down low. Anonymity remains a very common practice as the majority of artists fear revealing their identity may keep them from obtaining work outside of the cannabis industry. Ophelia was quick to share the names of artists who proudly associate themselves with their cannabis-inspired photographs.

Ezekiel Williams, a former student, shares pictures of his parents in their home. His mom reading on her bed with the family dog, casually puffing on a joint. Images of his dad smoking outside his garage, a hard hat and extension cords in the background, are also featured in Ezekiel’s collection. Linus Shentu captures his gleeful grandmother tending to her garden—the forefront speckled with cannabis plants; in the background ripe oranges weigh down gargantuan tree limbs.

When I asked Ophelia what aspect of cannabis-related photography was missing from the industry, her response revolved around women, empowerment and authenticity. She referenced Nike, the Winged Goddess of Victory. Representing victory, strength and speed, Nike has held a quiet but strong presence in mythology. Chong’s desire to see more images of empowered women was palpable. Her creation of StockPot photography came after a disappointing search online of cannabis-related images. The images of women that surfaced were not necessarily representative of female cannabis users and, in fact, were most often images that only perpetuate long-held, stereotypical beliefs. There is nothing wrong with a beautiful, half-dressed woman blowing smoke from her perfectly painted mouth, but when these are the only images that are made available, that’s a problem. Less white-washing and a greater need for more authentic images were common themes during our conversation as well.

A Chinese Grandmother tends to her Cannabis PlantsPhotographer: Linus Shentu, captures his grandmother in her garden.

On building an LGBTQ StockPot gallery…

People are quick to compare the struggles of LGBTQ communities with those fighting for the normalization of cannabis. This may very well be attributable to the fact that the LGBTQ community was one of the first to fight tooth-and-nail for the right to medicate with cannabis.

Discussing the challenges of building this library for StockPot with Ophelia was eye-opening. One of the hurdles that has surfaced relates to privacy and acceptance. “As a photographer, asking a cannabis user to pose as a cannabis user is, well, difficult in and of itself. Asking a cannabis user who identifies as LGBTQ is, in many ways, asking that individual to come out to the public in two ways,” she shared. You can find photographs on StockPot Images of Jay Jackson, who you may know as LaGANJA Estranja—a cannabis advocate, musician and drag queen who competed in the seventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ophelia stated that she has been diligent in her efforts to keep images of the LGBTQ community in the hands of editorial clients. She is very strict on where the images go, how they can be used and under which light they are placed.

On changing public perception…

I asked Ophelia which industry she felt had the most power to steer public perception. Her quick response was mainstream media. She referenced Dr. Sanjay Gupta and his attempts to bring cannabis-related information to the masses. In the summer of 2013, Gupta and CNN released WEED, a documentary featuring weed research, its medicinal uses and effects on the brain. There is no doubt that Gupta faced criticism for his stance, but in embarking upon the journey, he shed light on many of the serious questions related to the study of the plant. “It will take powerful media influencers in unison with collective, consistent and accurate research and development to alter many of the long-held falsities and shame often associates with cannabis,” Ophelia explained.

A large outdoor cannabis farm in Ukiah, inside the farm house.Photographer: Linka A. Odom, ‘Flower Feet’

On women in the cannabis industry…

The cannabis industry has allowed women to spearhead many well-deserved, leadership roles. Women hold more executive positions in the business than what is the norm for other comparable industries. Ophelia and I threw our ideas back and forth as to what we thought attributed to these numbers. The plant itself is female and this mere fact, while maybe just a remarkable concurrence, feels to Ophelia slightly serendipitous. “As gatherers, collectors, nurturers and tenders of the garden, women have often found pride and a sense of self in feeding, medicating and caring for the people they love through food. Cannabis, in this sense, is no different,” she expressed. It sends a little tingle down my arm and makes the hairs stand on end when she makes note of this during our phone call. Women, have a tendency to take on the role of caregiver—this is not to say that other genders do not. Many of us can think of remarkable people who, despite whatever gender with which they may identify, act as praise-worthy caregivers. Women maintain a sense of softness in this industry, making it one in which people feel welcome, loved and proud to be a part of.

On the value of photography in the digital age…

Our ability to share information effortlessly through online resources has in many ways been detrimental to artists like photographers. While the number of people who see and share an artist’s work has likely increased, compensation has been slowly declining for the last two decades. In a time where many aspects of our lives are disposable, the value of art has seen its hardships. StockPot Images offers its featured photographers fair compensation for their work, and strives to give value to the process, skill and passion that lives behind the camera. Ophelia and I ended our discussion talking about cannabis art. Whether your art directly involves images of cannabis or whether you use the plant as a source of inspiration is dependent upon the individual—and as you’ll read in this issue, there are many artists who opt to abstain.

spi_opheliachong13142Photographer: © Josh Fogel / StockPot Images

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