Photos celebrating Asian American pride
Inspired by 90s fashion campaigns, photographer Andrew Kung's new series 'Perpetual Foreigner' rights the lack of representation he saw growing up.
Photography: Andrew Kung
“The American gaze is credited to whiteness,” says photographer Andrew Kung and his co-creator Kathleen Namgung, “but America itself is made up of many diverse and rich cultures and communities.” In their new photo series, titled “Perpetual Foreigner”, the pair take the idealised image of American life they grew up seeing all around them in the 90s and early 2000s, and twist it to honour the Asian American cultures and families they both grew up in. “We wanted to celebrate and highlight Asian Americans belonging within a country that has often labeled us as invisible, the ‘Other’, and not American enough.”
In one photo from the series, all shot in spring 2021, a couple lie in the sun on a yellow tartan picnic blanket. In another, a girl in wellies lounges on the back of a pickup truck, its rear view window proudly displaying an American flag sticker. A third shows a boy in casual light double denim playing with the grass in front of a white picket fence. While all the Asian American subjects play on traditional American tropes in some form, the photos aren't about blending in or assimilating. “The series is not an attempt to fit into ‘white American imagery’ but rather to represent how Asian Americans contribute to the diversity of American culture,” Andrew and Kathleen point out.
“Asian Americans are Americans when convenient,” the pair add. They point to Minari, the groundbreaking and lauded A24 movie about an American immigrant’s story that won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year. “American culture rejects narratives that don’t look and sound like the norm,” they continue. “Asian Americans have been labeled as perpetual foreigners and the model minority.”
These are themes that San Francisco native Andrew — who left a job at LinkedIn in Silicon Valley to pursue photography in New York — often explores in his work. His first project was photographing a small Chinese American community in the Deep South, marking his “first exposure to Asian Americans outside of large, urban metropolitan cities”. Later, he created a zine that explored the de-sexualisation of Asian American men. His own heritage plays a role in the “Perpetual Foreigner” series as well: his parents are the couple on the tartan picnic blanket. “[That picture] was a special one because it was an opportunity to highlight my parents as first generation immigrants to the US who were able to achieve the American dream. The tender and intimate portraits I took of them reflected how I saw their relationship as their child.”
Despite the American flag looming in the background of many of the pictures, the youthful gaze through which Andrew saw his parents, void of the politics we’re so aware of as adults, echoes through much of the series. Indeed, the overarching sentiment is one of joy, serenity and harmony. There are, however, glimpses of loneliness and contemplation that reflect the dichotomy of being a person with dual ethnic identities. In a powerful photo — one of creative director Kathleen’s favourites — a man, lit by the moon, holds his two young children in his arms as he stands in front of the incoming ocean tides. “In my recent projects, I've been exploring my identity as a Korean American,” she tells us. “I've been deepening my relationship with the Asian American community, as I've always struggled with my own identity and only recently started to find comfort and pride in being Asian American. The series reflects my own journey.”
It’s a feeling often cited by people of colour born or brought up in the West. Their ancestral homelands often seem like another world, one far removed from what they know; meanwhile, the country that shaped them forever sees them as an outsider. That feeling of alienation, and the way in which Western cultures overlook their ethnic communities, plays into the photos. Kathleen’s styling reflects the “Abercrombie and Ralph Lauren ad campaigns and shopping bags and mainstream music, series and films” — the latter also a big influence of Andrew’s photographic style — that surrounded the pair growing up, but rarely featured Asian Americans.
Hate crimes towards Asian Americans in the US saw a 70% rise in 2020, with rates spiking even further in 2021, so to see the American story presented from the perspective of its Asian American community is powerful. A reclamation of the tight-fisted grasp White America has had on representation for so long. When they started to conceptualise the project late last year, Andrew and Kathleen knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this series: “Our role is to continue educating ourselves on our history, communities and our allies, so that the stories we share have the same human and emotional qualities as the individual behind them.”
All images courtesy of Andrew Kung.