Emanuel Hahn’s most recent series America Fever has a deeply enchanting quality. Making your way through the surreal shots, which are all divided into themed subsections, feels like traversing through a series of disparate yet interconnected dreams, each with their own storyline, history and feeling.
The series follows Emanuel’s 2021 photo book Koreatown Dreaming, which delved into the effects of Covid-19 on small businesses run by LA’s Korean immigrant community. Meanwhile, America Fever is a series that sheds light on Korean American immigrant experiences in the 1970s. Its title refers to the desire to immigrate to the US in pursuit of a better life that proliferated in post-war Korea. “The literal translation of the original Korean word 미국병 is ‘American disease’, but I decided on ‘fever’ to encompass a richer metaphorical spectrum, touching on excitement, mania, and the reckoning arising from the disillusionment of a fever dream,” Emanuel says. Upon arriving in America, as he explains, many immigrants had their dreams of relative prosperity and a new life shattered by the reality of inhumane working conditions and widespread prejudice.
To source inspiration for the project, Emanuel referenced books about Korean American history, the rich stories throughout them making up for the stark inadequacies of the US education system. Alongside his textual research, Emanuel looked at historical archives and domestic family photos from the 70s and 80s. To tie the series to Emanuel’s personal experience, he synthesised his research with the visual context of the American West – “whether it was California landscape, or Western movies, or Americana at large” – to reflect his own locale. “I wanted to find a way to merge a lot of the stories, myths and cultural practices of my mother country with the West – whether environmental or allegorical,” he says.
Many of the images throughout America Fever began with a simple phrase or idea, one that Emanuel jotted down. “If the idea was persistent enough after a few weeks then I knew it would be something to pursue.” For the collection of images entitled Jultagi, Emanuel worked from the sentence – ‘a man walking across a tightrope, with land, sea and mountains in the back’. As many of the images Emanuel was devising were fairly “fantastical”, he worked closely with his friend Ashley Miryo to help storyboard the ideas. “I would describe the scene in my head and she would draw them out for me, so that I could see if the composition made sense”. Sometimes, Emanuel continues, this would result in whole new ideas and directions. “Jultagi was supposed to be with just one man, but when I saw the storyboard, the balance of the composition felt off, so I decided to add a woman who was looking away. And that actually introduced a compelling tension to the image – this idea of striving so hard for a new beginning while longing for what you left behind.”
However, some of America Fever’s stand-out shots came from unplanned moments, those not rigorously planned in the storyboard stage. For the Lovers subsection of the series, Emanuel wanted to capture a couple “perched on the hood of a Ford Mustang at sunset”, but the day of the shoot turned out to be unforgivingly cloudy. After working best with what they had for a couple of hours, the clouds parted to reveal the “most intense sunset”. Working on pure instinct and adrenaline, Emanuel and his team shot solidly for 15 minutes, resulting in one of Emanuel’s favourite shots from the series: the couple from behind, the car behind them, the sunset before them. “When I got my scans back from the lab, I was going through the images quickly to make selects, but when I saw that image I just froze,” Emanuel recalls. “I stared at it for a good five minutes. Sometimes, an image just does something to you.” It’s not just the breathtaking visuals that moved Emanuel, but what the image represents: “That photo seemed to represent everything that immigrants dreamed of, which is just the moments of bliss and transcendence amidst the struggle of trying to make it,” he says.
In sum, Emanuel hopes viewer’s interaction with America Fever is multifaceted. On one level, he hopes people enjoy them for their “fun, surreal and unconventional” qualities, and the many visual metaphors nestled throughout them. But, in tandem, Emanuel hopes that people delve further into the context behind the images, formulating questions and seeking to learn more. “There are many parts of Asian American history that are not easily accessible to the public,” Emanuel ends. “I hope people feel inspired to read up on important events in Asian American history that have contributed to the country that we know today.”
Emanuel Hahn: Jultagi (Copyright © Emanuel Hahn, 2023)
About the Author
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.