Village Breeze Heather Sten documents her mother’s later years

Cover Image - Village Breeze
WordsGem Fletcher

A long, leisurely retirement is something most of us can only dream of. Experiencing old age in general is not necessarily a given. Photographer Heather Sten observed her mother Thong making the most of the evening of her life and decided to document her in a series originally featured in WePresent Magazine No.6. She was interviewed by Gem Fletcher.

“I think my mom has lived her life in service of work and family,” explains photographer Heather Sten about her mother, Thong. “At 77, she’s just like, ‘fuck everyone’.” To Sten, her mother Thong embodies a kind of unexpected, elder anti-hero, who has emancipated herself from a life defined by struggle and labor and is finally living to please just one person—herself. 

 “I've never seen her like this,” explains Sten, who has spent the last four years documenting her mother's newfound freedom in “Village Breeze,” a quiet portrait of Thong's day-to-day habits. From swimming and Tai-Chi, to nurturing seedlings in old pill bottles and flax seed packets, to her obsession with tiny cookware. “My mom has always been the main provider. My dad left when I was 15, and she juggled work, raising my sister and me and caring for my grandma with Alzheimer's. Now that she can rest for the first time in her life, she’s finally free.”

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Thong grew up during the Vietnam war and worked as a translator for the American military during college. She left Saigon by boat in 1980 with her mother and eldest daughter, first landing in Singapore, where they lived in a refugee camp for three months doing hard labor. Eventually she was sponsored by a church in California, and at 33-years-old started a new life in Riverside, a busy metropolitan area near the Santa Ana River. Sten remembers her mother “always working,” commuting two hours daily to her job as an air pollution specialist for California Air Resources Board and her weekend side hustle as an Avon lady. In addition, she was an attentive mom, supporting her daughters in all their creative endeavors.

Where some photographers attempt to dramatize the quotidian, Sten looks for the opposite; quiet moments that shift between the deadpan and the mundane, lensed with love and admiration. “As a kid, I used to be so embarrassed by her and these idiosyncratic quirks,” recalls Sten. “Now I love them. She’s messy, and sometimes nothing she does makes sense. Despite being in this community shaped around socializing, she’s very hermetic. But her aloofness makes people want to hang out with her more. She isn’t curious about anyone, including me. She just does her thing and is really happy.”