Jessica Chou on capturing the subtle moments within contemporary American culture
Photographer Jessica Chou tells us how the “same but different” experience of her youth informs her candid documentary and portraiture work today.
- Joey Levenson
- 18 June 2021
California-based photographer and artist Jessica Chou has an impressive portfolio under her belt. From beautiful, serene personal series to portrait work for celebrities across Hollywood, it’s impossible to box Jessica in as any one type of photographer. She can easily capture an artistic pastel candid moment just as easily she can a superbly lit and raw portrait of a noteworthy subject. “I used to spend hours looking at my family’s old photographs,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I loved how particular moments felt like they were caught in a state of suspension.” It was this idea of witnessing a moment of change within a person that captured Jessica’s attention, and catapulted her down a path of photojournalism. “I had always been curious about how the events in our lives can shape the way we understand ourselves and I had found permission to follow that interest,” she says. Whilst Jessica is cautious to not call herself a photojournalist anymore, she still is in gratitude to that field of work that landed her where she is today.
Across Jessica’s portfolio, there is a signature visual style that is recognisable – even when switching between different forms of photography, something is distinctly Jessica’s. “I tend to look at style as a tool for storytelling,” she explains. “I would say that my natural eye leans toward graphical elements as a way to abstract and heighten subtleties in colour, gestures, and environments.” This keen eye for the graphic elements of a frame is what ultimately gives Jessica a reason to bring views from the periphery into focus. For her, it’s a way “to let those subtleties reveal the story, as this is what I care most about in my photographs.”
Such a subtle and humanistic approach to photography is no better seen than in Jessica’s mesmerising Suburban Chinatown. “[The series] is a look at daily life in my hometown in the San Gabriel Valley, a cluster of majority-Asian suburbs just a ten-minute drive east of Los Angeles.” Jessica's home city, Monterey Park, was the first city in the US to reach a majority-Asian population, which inspired her to create the project. “I knew that my relationships and my interior life were drastically different from the lives I read about in books or watched on television, which often reflected idealised white suburbia,” she explains.
As with all Jessica’s work, the project unearths a subtle amorphous sensibility: “It tackles the notion of the suburban landscape and how the narrative of the American Dream and California ethos take shape within an Asian community that is largely disconnected or omitted from that history,” she tells us. “What does it mean to maintain cultural heritage when it is absent from the physical landscape that it originates from?” For Jessica, an image that encapsulates the project’s intentions is one with an Asian woman standing in front of a house waiting for her car ride, next to her Ambercrombie shopping bag. “The scene looks like it could be anywhere in America, with all its green and brown [background] hues and the iconic Abercrombie imagery of an idealised all-American white male with chiselled abs,” she notes. “It’s a rather classic scene and yet, she paired her pink shirt with yellow pants, and a green hoodie draped over her arm – none of which is typical of what you’d expect as an American aesthetic,” Jessica clarifies. “It’s a much more Asian sensibility toward colour usage and she pops out in this frame.”
Quotidian and mundane scenes that come to vivid life in the details is what Jessica ultimately relishes. It’s how she worked on her series Hollywood: On Set, which takes a refreshing new angle on photographing celebrity. “The images from this series came from time as a regular contributor to The Hollywood Reporter,” she says. “I never cared much to repeat the key art imagery as it didn’t say anything new and so my opportunities to create photographs were going to be during the in-between moments.” The more quiet, observant instances on set attracted Jessica during her time working behind-the-scenes, and she credits her “unobtrusive nature” as to how she managed to capture celebrities off-guard. “I never really needed anyone to do anything for the camera as there's already so much going on when you’re on set,” she explains. “Finding the quiet, contemplative moments leading up to the action just felt much more interesting.”
Going forward, Jessica is honing in on her observant lens. “It’s been my way to understand the world around me and to see how I fit into that narrative,” she says, referencing the new direction her work is taking. “I'm now more interested in constructing a visual expression that reflects how I see things and which hopefully contributes to defining a new sense of Americana.”
Jessica Chou: Suburban Chinatown (Copyright © Jessica Chou, 2013)