By Jim Colton
“Any man can be a father. It takes someone special to be a dad.” -- Author Unknown
There is nothing like a father’s love. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be brought up in a loving family atmosphere understand the importance of the father/child relationship. We often look to our fathers for guidance and strength while always valuing their unspoken love. And someday, we hope to be able to do the same for our children.
But not all family dynamics are created equally; especially when it comes to the stereotype of the “absent” African American father. Every household is different and socio-economic conditions in all ethnic groups will affect the role of the father figure in any society.
For one person -- after the surprise revelation that his own biological father was an African American and dealing with years of resentment and unanswered questions -- insight, understanding and awareness came to him via a personal photographic project. Enter Zun Lee and “Father Figure.”
Born to a Korean mother and an African American father (with whom she later admitted to Zun she had a brief affair) Lee grew up in Germany in a dysfunctional family with an abusive Korean father who raised him. He found more comfort in the African American families living on nearby military bases than he did at home. Much of this, perhaps, was the genesis for Father Figure where he documented how many African American fathers actually embrace this role.
Lee is a relative newcomer to the world of photography. Self-taught, he didn't even pick up a camera until 2009. Upon graduating medical school Lee became a healthcare executive until the long hours and business travel wore him down. But his medical background provided him with “bedside manners” which Zun claims helped earn the trust of the subjects in his photographic endeavors.
This year, Lee was named one of Photo District News’ “30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch” and his work has been featured at Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan. Based in Toronto, he continues to pursue long-form documentary and editorial work. This week, zPhotoJournal has a candid chat with the introspective and eloquent Zun Lee.
Jim Colton: You "discovered" photography only quite recently. Please tell us a little about your early years, your background and your initial foray in the field of medicine.
Zun Lee: Photography has only been a relatively recent endeavor, but I've had a lifelong passion for the visual arts. I used to paint as a teenager and wanted to go to art school but veered into medicine to fulfill parental wishes and because it “made more sense.” I did graduate from med school and had embarked on my postdoc career in neurology but soon realized that clinical practice wasn't in the cards for me.
Career-wise, the short version of the story is that I went back to school, got my MBA in 2001 from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada and became a healthcare executive, managing healthcare technology projects at global consulting firms. My life was dominated by long hours and incessant business travel. A friend of mine suggested taking up photography as a hobby, since it’s an artistic pursuit I could tackle while on the road. I began photography in earnest in 2009 and seriously got into street photography in 2010.
There was something about connecting with strangers and documenting those encounters that quickly became addictive. Much of that give-and-take interaction also reminded me of the dynamics of patient care. I assume that most physicians who involve themselves in some kind of artistic practice make use of their bedside skills to engage people with compassion, establish trust and put them at ease, and it definitely helped me in my photography.
JC: I understand you had an "AHA!" moment when you were treating an asthma patient in 1993. Tell us what happened and why that encounter was so important in shaping your future.
ZL: I was a visiting medical student doing a clinical rotation at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. One of my patients during that time was Rigoberto Torres, a sculpture artist from the South Bronx who was quite well known for his plaster cast collaborations with fellow artist John Ahearn. Torres arrived at the hospital clinically dead after a severe asthma attack had left him unconscious for several minutes. The lack of oxygen to his brain resulted in blindness and seizures, for which Rigoberto spent many days in intensive care. I spent quite a bit of bedside time with him and once his condition stabilized, we had many existential talks about the artist life.
He encouraged me to find a way to cultivate my inner artist and to not give up on it. And Rigoberto’s own hospitalization provided that urgent reminder that life is short. I had lost touch with him but in a twist of fate, the New York Times’ David Gonzalez, who wrote my first exposé for the Father Figure project for Lens Blog in 2012, had Rigoberto’s contact info and reconnected me with him and his family. Rigoberto had recovered and eventually moved to the Orlando, FL area. I was able to call him and thank him for that inspirational push. Talk about coming full circle!
JC: Many years later, you enrolled in a workshop with David Alan Harvey where you also had a similar epiphany. What transpired at that workshop and how did it change you?
ZL: Harvey encouraged us participants to connect with the very motivations that compel us to shoot, and really make ourselves vulnerable to that compulsion in order to develop our voice. Not only would this give us the impetus to produce more meaningful images, it would inform everything from our shooting approach to developing a sense of authorship. I already had considered beginning a long-form photo project on African American fatherhood prior to the workshop but Harvey’s guidance confirmed my intention to do so versus playing it safe and doing what I was used to doing. I’m not going to abandon street photography – but doing long-form personal stories has given me another set of tools to tell stories to which I am personally connected.
JC: You have a section on your website called "Street Photography." The portraits and street scenes are fascinating. What do you look for when scouring the streets? What makes a portrait or scene captivating to you?
ZL: I think people, places and time conspire constantly to create stories and I just have this desire to get in on whatever those stories are; to expose at least an aspect of it that is meaningful to me. I tend to gravitate toward individuals that mirror my own realities back to me, so the scenes I am drawn to often reveal more about me than about what’s happening in front of me. That said, I’m actually quite shy around people but ironically my shyness actually led to this desire to be as close as possible with strangers.
By being in the same space physically and emotionally, people will eventually allow you into their story. And being so close forces you to do the same – you must also share a piece of who you are to enable the picture you seek to make. In that exchange, there’s a brief but powerful moment of someone expressing the idea of “I don’t know who you are…but I trust you,” and that is a real privilege to be granted. For me, being part of that “give-and-take” is very inspiring.
JC: You have a new book out "Father Figure" (see link below) documenting the lives of African American fathers. What first gave you the idea or the inspiration for the work? Did having an African American father yourself play a role in your decision to pursue the story?
ZL: The idea for Father Figure occurred at the confluence of many dynamics. At the heart of it was the process of dealing with the years of resentment and unanswered questions following the surprise revelation that my biological father was African American. But in equal measure, the work pays homage to the black military families that took me under their wings when I was a child growing up near U.S. military bases in Germany.
So on the one hand, I had become part of the “absent black dad” narrative and its persistent stereotypic visual tropes, and on the other hand, I had lived an experience of black men and families being loving, present and supportive; the exact opposite of what stereotypes will have you believe. The main thrust for Father Figure was rooted in an attempt to reconcile both aspects of my upbringing and to get a sense of closure on my personal story of father absence.
JC: The work is so under-the-radar and counter intuitive to what we hear all the time from mainstream media. Do you think this work explodes that myth about deadbeat dads? What message, if any, do you want this body of work to deliver to its viewers?
ZL: The work is first and foremost very sui generis. I wanted to show what I knew to be real because I had experienced it first-hand myself – that black men can be capable, affectionate, nurturing fathers, even if not in a “traditional” context. This is not to say that father absence isn't a profound social issue (it is, and it cuts across all ethnic groups), but Father Figure aims to address the problematic notion that father absence in America is largely viewed through an African American lens when studies have repeatedly shown that black fathers are essentially no better or worse than their counterparts of other ethnicities when you normalize by socioeconomic circumstance.
That this visual rhetoric about deadbeat black dads still persists, stubbornly points to a larger context: Black men continue to be pathologized, fetishized and dehumanized in many ways and fatherhood stereotypes are merely an extension of that profiling. I didn't set out to make Father Figure political but given its context, it has been perceived as such and I don’t mind that at all. But in the end, Father Figure is not primarily about “myth-busting,” that’s an attribute that’s more dramatic and far-reaching than any singular body of work can live up to. My aim is simply to add another facet to the conversation about visual representation of black males, and to do so…quietly and lovingly.
JC: Many of your images are of truly intimate and private moments. How do you earn the trust of your subjects to be allowed to get so close?
ZL: That is a tough question to answer. The truth is I experienced a ton of rejection when trying to find collaborative families, so only a handful ended up allowing me into their lives to the level I desired. I’m fortunate to have come across people who took an interest in my story to connect with me on a human level first. Gradually, I became more than just a photographer to these families, allowing me to really embed myself in their lives. Our relationships evolved into true friendships and, in some cases, I’ve been welcomed as an extended family member. Many visits were therefore not about making pictures but about connecting and spending time…lots of time…with the camera packed away.
JC: Your subjects in this project are from all over the country and Canada. How did you go about finding them? Did you have any financial backing at all, or was this all self-funded?
ZL: This was my very first long-form documentary project, so there was a lot of trial-and-error, and many lessons learned. I could have saved myself a lot of headache (and money) and it all falls under the rubric of “If I knew then what I know now.” In terms of finding my families, it’s been an opportunistic and not always methodical approach. Sometimes, I used my street shooter instincts, connecting with fathers I observed in public interaction with their kids. Other times, I’d ask my friends for suitable contacts. Once things got going and I established a network of families I had already worked with, I would get referrals to other people they knew etc., so word of mouth was often crucial. Social media also helped in finding some great fathers to work with.
This project was entirely self-funded. As an emerging artist without an arts pedigree or photography-relevant resume, it was next to impossible to access grants. I was fortunate enough to have a full-time corporate job at that time that allowed me to save enough money to pursue this project on my own. At the same time, completing this project was all-consuming physically and emotionally, so it came with a lot of personal and professional sacrifice.
JC: It appears that the project was all done in black & white, yet many of your portraits are in color. Why black & white?
ZL: That was a decision made very early on in the process, once I decided to focus on the quiet, non-iconic moments for this work. Black & white allowed for a level of abstraction that de-emphasized the families’ surroundings, and foregrounded their emotions and interactions. Not that color was distracting per se, but often times, the particular colors I encountered were not as effective with respect to conveying the subtle, intimate quality I wanted this work to achieve.
JC: What's next on the horizon for Zun Lee? Are there any projects that you are at liberty to share?
ZL: That’s the toughest question to answer. I have lots of ideas, but unless they are well on their way to being realized and close to coming to fruition, I’m a little hesitant to put them out into the world prematurely. That said, my most immediate work that’s already on the go is an extension of the Father Figure project; I will continue to photograph some of the families on an ongoing basis.
My relationship with them has taken on a life of its own and I want to explore that without a particular end date in mind. There is another major project under way, which is part creative and part curatorial – I stumbled upon hundreds of vernacular snapshots of black family life that remind me of my childhood experiences with the US military families. I’d like to properly restore and reassemble them into some kind of archive and exhibit. Other than these projects, I’m pursuing photojournalistic and editorial work and it’s gotten off to a good start with an assignment on the ongoing social justice movement in Ferguson, MO.
JC: In this very tenuous time in our industry, what advice or encouragement can you offer to those who are looking into photography as a career?
ZL: As a relative newbie, I feel I’m not the best person to give any profound advice. I’m still very much figuring things out for myself but am grateful for the opportunities that I’ve been given. Photography is definitely not an easy career field, especially if you’re not comfortable dealing with uncertainty. The reality is that the industry is still very much in flux, and traditional ways of earning a living continue to erode with no one having a clear sense of direction about the future. I think aside from continuing to hone your skills as a photographer, marketer and business person, developing a specific point of view and visually delivering on that will become even more important to differentiate yourself from others. It’s very important to know what kind of shooter you want to be, but remain flexible in how to get there.
JC: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers... about photography or life in general?
ZL: Work hard but always shoot with love and gratitude. Making images is a privilege and the images themselves are a gift. I am constantly reminded of that.
Zun Lee’s Website: www.zunlee.com
“Father Figure” book available: http://www.ceibafoto.com/goodies/father-figure-the-book/
Shortlist nomination for 2014 Aperture Photobook Prize: http://www.parisphoto.com/paris/program/2014/the-2014-paris-photo-aperture-foundation-photobook-awards/selection-premier-livre-father-figure-exploring-alternative-notions-of-black-fatherhood
Project Trailer: https://vimeo.com/81361691
Book Launch at Bronx Documentary Center: https://vimeo.com/107668997
Interview on CBC Q (syndicated in the US via NPR): http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2014/08/20/father-figure-zun-lee/
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM