Ruth Chin · 2014

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Muncie photojournalist Ruth Chin is one feisty lady.

Never more than 5 feet 2 inches tall, Chin was Indiana’s first female Chinese-American photojournalist. Born May 10, 1924, in Chicago, she grew up in Muncie, where her parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in town.

She began taking pictures at age 8. Her dad loaned her his camera for a Girl Scout project, then bought her one of her own. “He wouldn’t give me money for candy,” she has written, “but if I wanted new camera equipment, he always got it for me.”

When Elizabeth Granger, past president of Woman’s Press Club of Indiana and Midwest Travel Writers Association, first saw Chin in 1988, she described her as “a much too tiny woman with a much too large camera hanging from her neck and a heavy bag of camera equipment dangling from her shoulder. It mattered not at all to her.”

Bilingual from birth, Chin majored in art and minored in English at MacMurray College for Women in Jackson, Ill. Though art was her first love, she stumbled into a job as the first female photographer at the Muncie Star and Press right out of college in 1946.

She was in a camera store trying to figure out how to use the Speed Graphic she had just purchased when a photographer from the paper came in and mentioned they needed another photographer. She went right to the newspaper office. The editor asked her if she could use a Speed Graphic. She held hers up and said, “I have my own.”

Chin was the first female photographer to cover the Indiana High School State Basketball Championship in Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. She was lugging in 55 pounds of camera equipment when a guard stopped her because no woman had covered the game before. “I told him I was going to cover it, and I had credentials to prove it,” she said.

Chin wore a strand of beads with her wool skirt suit. The gym was hot; the game went into overtime. Her battery pack blew up, and when she tried to remove the strap from her neck, her beads scattered across the floor.

“It was awful. I yelled for the other photographers to help me pick them up,” she said. They did.

She got her shot, and she vowed never to wear beads to another game.

“All in all, it was a fantastic day,” she told Ann Allen for a story in the spring 2013 issue of Traces: The Magazine of Indiana History. “I worked from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. and was paid $7 overtime. Photographers today don’t know what overwork is. With digital cameras, they can shoot hundreds of photographs in nothing flat without dragging around all that heavy equipment.”

In 1954, after seven years at the newspaper, Chin decided to expand her horizons and opened her own studio, Ruth Chin Photography, in downtown Muncie. It now is in her home. She continued writing a weekly column called Positives and Negatives for the Muncie Star.

“She was one of the first photojournalists to have her own darkroom, and she was the first to develop her own color prints, long before we ever did,” recalls Joe Young, a longtime photographer for The Indianapolis News, now retired from The Indianapolis Star.

In the 1960s, Ruth was singled out by the U.S. State Department for a feature in an agency magazine circulated in China depicting the lifestyle of a successful Chinese-American.

As a freelancer, she did a lot of industrial, aerial and medical photography “because I wasn’t afraid of blood,” she said. “When you work for a newspaper, you see a lot of blood.”

She fell in love with travel writing while on a camping trip to Canada. She had been taking pictures everywhere she went anyway, so why not write about it? Her story made the cover of Trailer Life Magazine. “Oh, this is easy,” she said, and never looked back. Her work has appeared in publications as disparate as Outdoor Indiana, Ceramics Weekly, Travel Holiday, Midwest Traveler, Horizons and Reader’s Digest Travel Books.

In 1951, she was the first female photographer to win the Bushemi Award, Indiana’s top news photography award, given by The Associated Press of Indiana. Numerous other awards came from the National Press Photographers Association, Life Magazine, The Associated Press, WPCI and the National Federation of Press Women. She was a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers and Professional Photographers of America. She also conducted workshops and judged photography contests.

In 1996, she was profiled for an article in The Indianapolis Star by reporter Janet Schneider, and interviewed on a segment of “Across Indiana” on public television station WFYI-20. In 2001, she was included in a calendar of Indiana’s Trailblazing Women, endorsed by the Indiana Secretary of State.

“Actually,” she told Schneider, “being a woman and a minority has been more beneficial than a hindrance, because you stick out like a sore thumb.”

Chin never married. Both her younger sister, who was a newspaper illustrator in California, and her younger brother, who was in the food business, are deceased. She has two nieces and two great nephews, “but I am the last of the Mohicans,” she said in a recent interview.

She will turn 90 in May and is independent enough to work only when she wants. She has two stories in the works but won’t discuss them. She is slowly getting back into painting and is working on a portrait. She still makes and flies model airplanes (the Academy of Model Aeronautics is based in Muncie), and she is teaching herself to play the piano.

“I learn something from everything I do,” she said, “Journalism is a wonderful occupation, because you never stop learning,”

When asked what being inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame meant to her, Chin said, “Me? I think it is a mandate to get back to work. I have had some wonderful experiences. For me, it was never about the money, it was about doing the best work you can do.”

–by Marion Garmel, secretary, Woman’s Press Club of Indiana

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