Brian Van Lau’s powerful photo series deals with his father’s premature passing and questions of identity

The photographer describes the work as “a therapeutic process for finding my role within the family”.

1 April 2022


When discussing why so much of his work focuses on family, photographer Brian Van Lau tells us that “I think my interest mainly lies in the longing of it, the desire for understanding it, finding it, processing it in different ways”. And, as opposed to viewing his practice as a form of “documentation”, Brian views it as “more of a therapeutic process for finding my role within the family as a son, as a partner, as a parental stand-in”.

This exploration of familial roles and dynamics is beautifully explored through Brian’s series, We’re Just Here for the Bad Guys, the second instalment of “a sort of pseudo-trilogy”.We’re Just Here for the Bad Guys, is a project that Brian explains to be both borne out of the archives and the last two months he spent with his father before he passed away from brain cancer in 2020. But, the project was initially conceived as a project Brian’s father requested to “document his journey through illness and his eventual recovery”. With this shifting focus, the project was given a new pertinence and Brian tells us that, after his fathers death, he “began to look at the pictures almost as an attempt of answering and piecing together the ambiguities still left in his wake and the lack of emotional closure we had”. And, later on, he continues to state how “this became more of a question of and reflection on the relationship between my father and I, one of mutual interpersonal grievances, and a practically Outoborian cycle of shame and alienation”.


Brian Van Lau: We’re Just Here for the Bad Guys (Copyright @ Brian Van Lau, 2022)

Born in Honolulu, Brian’s relationship with photography began quite typically, taking pictures of friends and day-to-day life. It was when Brian later came across his mothers 4x6 drugstore prints of when he was first born, and she and his father began dating, which pushed him to “think about photography not just as a diary, but as a selective narrative through archiving”. Since then, Brian has found himself particularly drawn to work that “sits in-between documentary and conceptual fine arts, while leaning on images that feel more poetic and emotionally charged by nature”. Naming a few such projects, Brian lands on McNair Evans’ Confessions for a Son, Eli Durst’s The Community and Mimi Plumb’s Landfall.

Upon viewing these projects, you can see how they have served as aesthetic inspiration to Brian; atmospheric, unstaged, black and white photography that crafts a subtle narrative without telling the viewer too much. Interestingly, however, Brian tells us that some of his aesthetic choices were not purposeful. “The choice to shoot on medium format film was more of a budgetary and practical choice, along with the use of flash; especially in the pictures of my father. The images aren’t staged and they document the process of hospitalisation and the fall out from the surgery, where natural lighting isn’t always available or practical because of the limited time I had with him.”

But, whilst Brian may not have had control of some of the aesthetic variables, he worked within very strict parameters to produce the sense of atmosphere and address key themes. One choice Brian made was to not include images of the Vietnamese landscape and culture, and to instead lean upon American depictions, so as to “more fluidly stitch the pictures together”. This decision, Brian elaborates, is “both to deliberately focus on the space contained by my Dad’s illness and an unconscious play deception of rejection or shame of Asian-ness”. Concluding his thoughts on the series, Brian says that “I don’t think the story is just about my late father, and not explicitly about the process of terminal illness either”. Instead, he finishes, “I see it as the evidence that either leans towards catharsis or entrapment, almost like a divorce proceeding in a way.”

GalleryBrian Van Lau: We’re Just Here for the Bad Guys (Copyright @ Brian Van Lau, 2022)

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Brian Van Lau: We’re Just Here for the Bad Guys (Copyright @ Brian Van Lau, 2022)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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