“Growing up, I was never forced to think critically about my Asian American identity,” says New York-based photographer Andrew Kung. “In San Francisco and at my time at UC Berkeley, I was surrounded by a large Asian American community – to the point where it felt normal to have this sort of kinship. It wasn’t until I photographed a small Chinese population in the Mississippi Delta that I started to fully understand the severity and magnitude of the discrimination and microaggressions that other Asian Americans experienced as both teens and adults.”
As Andrew became increasingly curious about the subject, he read more books by Asian American authors and asked his friends about their experiences. “In this process, I started recalling certain racial slights and spaces where I felt invisible and like an ‘other’. As a result, I started mapping out all of these anecdotes and realised that I had a larger commentary that fellow Asian Americans would resonate with.” The culmination of this “mapping-out” is a series titled The All-American, which challenges the stereotypes associated with Asian American men.
Published as a book, the project features an “A-Side” and a “B-Side” to explore and comment on the physical spaces in which Asian American men have felt invisible, while also celebrating and showcasing their tender and intimate sides.
The A-Side is set in spaces like classrooms, businesses offices and bedrooms to explicitly challenge alienation and the notion of “othering”. “Asian American men face a complex ecosystem of obstacles to ever feeling American," Andrew explains on the inspirations for this chapter of the project. “[This ranges] from lunch box moments, where we’re shamed for the food we eat, to the absence of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in school, to being viewed as desexualised, weak, emasculated beings as a result of the lack of representation in media, and having a ‘bamboo ceiling’ in the corporate world because of our race.”
Functioning as a second chapter, the B-Side contrasts with the first showcasing “a poetic and tender beauty to Asian American men that is rarely portrayed today.” On where the idea for the two “sides” came from, Andrew explains: “I like to think of my longer-term projects like how a musician would think about an album: each album has a few larger themes, and each song – sequenced intentionally in the larger body of work – carries its own meaning. Because I love this metaphor and how it parallels the photobook–making process, I took inspiration from musicians who put their albums on vinyl and separated their songs into two distinct sounds (A-Side and B-Side) that still complemented each other.”
While The All-American takes cues from the world of fashion photography with its well-lit imagery and slick styling, there is an authenticity to the images not possible in a standard editorial. This is in part due to Andrew’s casting, as most of the models were friends of his and not professionals. “I wanted to showcase the beauty of regular, everyday looking Asian American men,” Andrew adds. What’s more, they are all wearing clothes created by exclusively Asian designers, celebrating and championing his culture in every inch of every frame. “The idea to showcase strictly Asian designers in the book came from my stylist, Carolyn Son. She is an Asian-American herself and really wanted to add an extra layer of Asian representation in the book, chosing brands such as Sundae School, Private Policy, and Prabal Gurung who proudly showcase their Asian heritage through their designs.”
As a final note, Andrew explains what he hopes viewers will take away from the series: “My goal with this photo book is not only to provide another avenue of representation in fine art and fashion photography, but to also build empathy and educate viewers – inside and outside the Asian American community – on the nuanced experiences that all Asian Americans live through.”
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