Off the grid from the usual New York City gallery circuit, the photographer Zun Lee’s Father Figures: Exploring Alternative Notions of Black Fatherhood opened in February 2018 at the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC). The show, which ran until the end of March, featured photographs Lee had taken since 2011 and were drawn from his critically acclaimed book Father Figures (ceiba editions 2014). Marking one of the only times Lee enlarged the photographs for installation, the occasion offered an opportunity to reflect on the career of this under-celebrated photographer.
The photographs of laughter, sadness, and moments of embrace differ from the mug shots and scenes of police brutality that frequently stream across Twitter and Facebook feeds. These popularized and criminalizing pictures of Black men foreclose any possibility of seeing them in the nurturing, sympathetic, and loving ways that Lee represents them. Lee openly acknowledged society’s narrow view of Black men, himself included when we spoke during my first visit to the BDC. As we talked, he commented on how many editors to whom he showed these photographs inquired as to whether he could show his sitters with guns. Lee neither intends to lionize his sitters nor to counter societal stereotypes. Instead, in his words, he questions what it means to look at these figures for “who they are”. The results of this labor-intensive project are deeply personal pictures full of confidence and integrity.
Lee was born near Frankfurt, Germany to Korean parents, and would go on to study medicine. During a conversation with the author and photographer Teju Cole in March at the BDC, Lee revealed how he became disenchanted with the medical profession. He found himself forced to provide care through codes and not based on his own training and instincts. Then, in 2004, his mother told him that his biological father was a Black man and not the Korean father he knew. This revelation explained his feelings of disconnect from his home life and supposed Korean heritage. At the urging of friends, who helped Lee recognize his true passion for photography, he abandoned medicine altogether to pursue a career as a photographer. He first participated in a workshop lead by Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, and since then has found inspiration in the works of Roy DeCarava, Jamel Shabazz, Eugene Richards, and, his contemporary, LaToya Ruby Frazier.
Father Figures developed within the context of Lee’s relationship to fatherhood as he initiated the series without an ideal picture of fatherhood. He, along with his potential sitters, were cognizant of society’s devaluing of images that showed them giving and/or receiving care. As he identified potential sitters to photograph, he encountered resistance. Some associated Lee and his project with the police. Others deemed their lives as unworthy of being photographed.
Lee himself is without his own pictures of Black fatherhood. He does not know the identity of his biological father and is without photographs of him. Furthermore, Lee found his ‘Korean’ father abusive, as he often criticized Lee’s facial features. Lee filled these voids with his experiences of hanging out with the Black American servicemen and their families stationed near where he lived in Germany. These Black men helped Lee with his homework, fed him, in addition to providing forms of mentorship and care that he felt were missing from his childhood home.
One photograph that stood out from the series showed one of Lee’s sitters seated on the floor against the door frame with his hand to his face. In full view are the tears streaming down a young man’s face. Immediately outside of the room, where Lee situated himself, another male figure stood against a bare wall, looking at Lee and his camera as if resigned and in search of answers to what was happening out of his view. The caption stated the names of the sitters and assigned them specific roles, “Jerell Willis, father, and Fidel Willis, son.” It is difficult to know who is assuming the role of father and son in the image. When speaking about the photograph, Lee told me that he resists “making sense of his images” for viewers. He also revealed the uncertainty he confronted about whether to give his sitters their privacy. Ultimately, though, he chose to capture the scene.
Initially, Lee’s sitters wanted directions on how to pose, or act, in front of his camera. Lee refused to give instructions and spent time getting to know his sitters, sometimes watching TV with them or accompanying them on their daily errands. A documentary space developed where Lee and his sitters were no longer looking for a specific moment to picture. He photographed his sitters over the course of hours of the days and spans of years. Rather than trying to show a change in terms of physical development, the photographs reflect the ways in which his sitters saw themselves within the bedrooms, kitchens, hallways, and rooftops that they inhabited. In the photograph before the one of Jerel crying, Jerell and Fidel sit on their building’s rooftop in an embrace with their backs against a brick wall. The background features the rooftops of other nearby buildings along with the skyline of New York City. While on the rooftop, Lee looked for other possible sites to photograph and pointed to the Empire State Building. Neither Jerell nor Fidel recognized the Empire State Building; the landmark was not a part of their everyday reality.
Across from the photograph of Jerell and Fidel, there was a picture of a person inside of a car looking out to another person who stood with their hand literally on the window. In order to show both people in the same frame, Lee had to insert his handheld camera into the open minivan window. Over the course of producing this series, Lee determined that many of his sitters did not aspire to be photographed far from leave where they lived. And often, there are no photographs or adornments hanging on the walls of their homes. Instead, they preferred to be photographed alongside the baby bottles and diapers that spoke to the emotional and physical labor associated with their roles as fathers with no desire nor impetus for them to dress up when Lee photographed them.
Shortly after initiating Father Figures Lee traveled across the United States. He found discarded polaroids in the streets and for sale on the internet. The polaroids attracted Lee in part because of how they showed people dressed and undressed “as they were”—the same underlying motivation and premise behind Father Figures.
His inclination was to search for the sitters and owners of these found objects. Lee uploaded the polaroids to Instagram and Facebook. The facial recognition software associated with these online platforms connected Lee to possible sitters and owners of the polaroids. Many people were unhappy that Lee used their images to find them and much to Lee’s surprise, wanted their images taken down. In a handful of instances, people accepted a digital copy of their image but did not want the physical print. Lee understood people’s refusal for their Polaroid as a sign of embarrassment, one for having lost their images and two for being unable to care for their photographs. Because of gentrification, foreclosures, and redlining, people lost their homes along with other precious items like their polaroids. This observation forced Lee to realize, “the assumption that people want their images back comes from a privileged place.” He added that people “don’t want to be advertised as the one who lost their pictures and as having to find some savior to give their pictures back. It is shameful for many people to admit that.” Lee grapples with these realities and positionalities in Father Figures.
A difference between the polaroids Lee collected and the photographs he made for the Father Figures series is the element of color. When speaking about Father Figures, Lee reflected on the decision and challenge of photographing in black-and-white. He sought “to remove color from the equation [and] to foreground what black skin is actually about.” For Lee, black-and-white photographs take away the signifiers associated with “brown skin,” leaving him to search for other ways to bring out this information.
Printing only exacerbated the difficulties he faced photographing dark skin. Skin did not appear “right” in prints. The labs and printers he used almost always printed the photographs according to the histograms recommended by digital technology and not the look of a person’s skin complexion. These were reminders of how photographic technologies conform to white and not brown bodies. As a result, for the exhibition, Lee, like DeCarava, deliberately underexposed his images so as to privilege shadow and darkness over light.
Instead of grouping the photographs according to the date photographed, Lee organized them side-by-side with respect to the individual families he collaborated with. The captions paired with each image featured the name of the sitters and the year photographed. This setup attempted to present a collective experience of fatherhood. Though at times, trying to interpret the individual photographs as a shared image was disconcerting and uncomfortable.
While Lee and I continued to bounce across the exhibition room, looking at and speaking about photographs out of the sequence, visitors occasionally inserted themselves into our conversation and asked any number of things, including whether Lee was the photographer and if he could point out who was the father and the son in the images. Although seemingly innocent, these interruptions were powerful reminders of the ways in which society stereotypes Black men for looking older than they actually are. The exhibition’s contents and presentation forced visitors to confront how labels associated with fatherhood (i.e., child, boy, son, man, and father) are fundamental to viewers’ encounters with pictures of Lee sitters.
There is no beginning, middle, and end to the displayed series. While sitters’ physical features may have or may not have changed with time, their bonds with each other, including with the photographer, only grew deeper.
We will never see all of the photographs that he took to capture subtle details. As part of their own questioning of Lee’s presence and work, sitters used their cellphones to document Lee photographing their lives. Over time, sitters grew comfortable with seeing themselves in what they referred to as these “random” moments. With this comfort came some images that Lee’s sitters posted to Facebook. In another instance, one sitter needed Lee’s images for a custody hearing in order to present himself as a caregiver.
Father Figures has brought less in the form of closure for Lee, who is on to his next project about Black queer masculinity and who still searches for his biological father. Nevertheless, there is great possibility in all the photographs. For me, the photograph that best represented this possibility, or “futurity” as Lee calls it, is the one of Jerell shirtless, revealing a tattoo of the Brooklyn bridge on his back. He carries Fidel, his son, who sheepishly hides a smile while hanging on to his father. Jerell takes Fidel across the Brooklyn Bridge towards the very skyline that they both had their backs to in a prior picture. In the exhibition context, they travel this path aware of their image in the presence of other fathers, sons, and daughters who Lee photographed. In Lee’s own words, “to see [these sitters] as they are is to ennoble. [And that] is enough.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Drew Thompson is Assistant Professor of Africana and Historical Studies at Bard College. Thompson is the author of “Photography’s Bureaucracy: Constructing Colony and Nation in Mozambique, 1960 to Recent Times” (In Progress). He researches and teaches on colonial and contemporary Sub-Saharan African history with a topical focus on liberation movements, technology, and methods of visual history and postcolonial theory.