Photographer Interview: Zun Lee

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee

The following interview is a guest blogger contribution by photographer/artist Kim Weston.

How would you sequence your journey to becoming a photographer?
It’s definitely not been linear. I didn’t seriously pick up a camera until about five years ago. At that time, I was traveling a lot as part of my corporate job, and photography was about having a creative outlet in whatever little spare time I had. However, I pursued many other artistic endeavors before studies and work took my life in a different direction.

Soon after I began shooting, I became passionate about street photography and in 2011, I took a workshop in NYC to get into long-form photography work. It was still a hobby at that time, and I never had full intentions of becoming a professional. But the first “practice project” quickly morphed into an all-consuming mission to tell my story, which has gotten me to this point.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
Can you tell us about your work and what exactly it means to be a photographer?
The project I’ve been working on for the past three years now is called Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood. With this work, I aim to reconcile two things: 1. the pervasive and limiting stereotypic visual tropes around black fathers (whether “bad,” or “good’) and their relationship to black masculinity as problematic and threatening, and 2. Seeking a way of redemption and forgiveness for my own personal history of black father absence.

I’ve expressed many times that photography for me was about connection, revealing untold aspects of a stranger’s story and by so doing, uncovering aspects about myself that I am finding challenging to process in other ways. So, photography for me is about foregrounding stories that I know I’ve experienced myself, and to which I can thus feel personally connected.

Photography can create scenarios that allow people to make quick judgements (usually based on their personal experiences). How have your personal experiences shaped how you create images?
I think shooting from lived experience is critical for me. I don’t have any pictures of my childhood at home, and re-creating images that memorialize aspects of lived experience that have remained important for me is a huge motivation. I came up in a Korean household in Germany, but my most important aspects of socialization and identity formation came from being surrounded by African-American GI families since my early childhood. Other than memories and anecdotes passed on by friends I don’t have a visual record of that time.

My storytelling is about tapping into these visceral aspects of shared lived experience that are at once uniquely my own and yet relatable by many others. For Father Figure especially, I wanted to tell stories of families and fathers that I knew first hand, and that I didn’t see reflected in the current media landscape.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
Black men have a complicated history throughout the world. Their struggles and successes continue to dominate urban culture but as we've seen recently, Black males are often viewed in a negative light. What inspired you to start photographing them?
It was important for me to stress the connection between stereotypic visual aspects of black fatherhood and how black masculinity is portrayed in the media, period. Whether unarmed black males lose their lives due to police brutality because they were perceived as overly threatening or whether black masculinity is “celebrated” in commercially permissible ways (the star athlete, entertainer, rapper, etc.) – the common thread is that the full depth and breadth of black men’s humanity continues to be negated on a broad level.

Even with respect to black father absence, the knee-jerk response to the negativity is an equally problematic view of the traditional, married, cohabitating patriarch as the panacea to all social ills plaguing the black community (see Mychal Denzel Smith’s “The Myth of the Magical Black Father” in The Nation.)

The question remains, who benefits from the perpetuation of these limiting images and who would like to keep it that way? My photographic quest focused on these everyday, non-newsworthy moments that manifest fatherly presence in many different modes but that remain stubbornly invisible. I also wanted to show black men as affectionate, caring, and responsible in a very direct, simple visual way. Intact, even if unconventional, family dynamics – that brings me back to “telling stories we know:” I experienced many of these kinds of situations first-hand to know that the stereotypes do not live up to reality.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
How long has the Father Figure project been going on?
I’ve been working with some of the families for three years now. The book may be out, but the work, at least with some of the families, continues.

What types of questions did you ask yourself while creating this body of work?
There were many questions that can overwhelm you when you’re still struggling with initial direction-setting. But the majority of questions I had were centered around basic, respectful interaction and engaging your families as full collaborators: do the fathers and families feel that the images reflect who they are? How do I ensure that the stories told are their stories? Have I exhausted the possibilities or is there room to deepen relationships without becoming overly “familiar”? The families and I walked a fine line between fully opening up and keeping a healthy photographic distance but negotiating that fine line wasn’t easy.

What do you want children to see in these photographs?
That’s a great question. We included many images with children without their parent(s) in the frame, because fatherly presence often shows in the way a child smiles or expresses being loved. It’s hard for me to answer this question because I often didn’t have the experiences depicted so I feel I cannot react the same way another child could or would. But when the children I worked with browse through the images, whether they’re of themselves or other families, they often start smiling and pointing and are happy to exclaim “that’s dad,” or “that’s me!” And that sense of seeing themselves – and proudly so – is what I would love for kids to have. Kids know whether they’re loved or not and you cannot fool them.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
A sustained artistic pursuit can lead one not only to a deeper understanding of oneself, but to the people around you. How has your image making affected your life as a practitioner of photography?
I initially didn’t have a full appreciation of the emotional and mental work it takes to work on a project that is so deeply personal. Resistance is very strong and the toughest part is often not the photography, but getting over the myriad of excuses to not continue. Invariably, the images you make are a direct reflection of yourself. You have to be willing for others to see the story you’ve been trying to protect from the world for so long. I often felt like I’m holding up the mirror to my own face and I had to work hard on getting comfortable with what I see.

The flip side is that this work has deepened the connections I have long had with the community in ways that I didn’t anticipate. It was a reminder that, even though I was attempting to depict a personal story, the work is always larger than yourself and has to be done in service to the broader community. Particularly when it comes to the notion of “family”, this work solidified my understanding that photographic practice is embedded in a larger context that I have to see myself as part of. You stop taking pictures of “subjects”; the images are – ideally – the product of a collaboration of equals.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
How do you describe your art/photo practice?
That’s a tough question because in many ways it is still evolving so much. But the aspect I feel will be constant is that I am always going to be drawn to the untold story that may seem obvious or may seem to have been covered before. That also means that I’m going to continue to explore a space that I am intimately familiar with – issues around black identity and “othering.”

If you had to make a “family tree" of photographers who would you include?
That’s an interesting way to ask this question because many of my “elders” are not photographers but perhaps painters and other artists. There are also too many individuals, past or present, who continue to influence me. But to answer your question in a specific way: If I had to build a family tree, I’d name Roy DeCarava first and foremost as my spiritual father. Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Garry Winogrand, Gordon Parks as my aunts and uncles. Contemporaries I’d include are Carrie Mae Weems, Eugene Richards, Dawoud Bey, Brenda Ann Kenneally and Jamel Shabazz.

Can you also say something about the equipment you use?
For Father Figure, I used a variety of gear, from a full-frame DSLR to a point-and-shoot compact. Some of my most poignant images were made with the latter. The camera I ended up using the most was a micro-4/3, not only because the weight mattered after several long days of shooting, but also because inside a family’s home, it ends up being the least intrusive gear when interacting with children in particular. Perspective-wise, I’m most comfortable photographing wide and close, 28mm or wider.

From the series Father Figure by Zun Lee
Please finish this statement: Photography matters because... people matter in ways words alone cannot convey. In the purest sense, photographs are not aesthetic objects; they are vessels of knowledge and purpose.

As part of the exhibit "Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration" curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, on Monday, September 29th at 6:30pm Zun Lee will participate in a panel discussion along with Sonia Louise Davis, Lonnie Graham, Richard Renaldi, Lorie Novak, Kemi Ilesanmi and The Laundromat Project, Bayeté Ross Smith and Question Bridge Interactive and Shane Aslan Selzer. Space is limited. To reserve a seat at this panel, please email exhibits[at]nathancummings[dot]org.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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