I first learned of Tommy Kha when his work landed on my desk in physical form on the front cover of Vice magazine’s latest photo issue. The photographer, who splits his time between Brooklyn and Memphis, honed his craft at Yale, where he earned an MFA in photography. The journey there wasn’t straightforward. “I originally wasn’t the artist in my family,” Tommy tells It’s Nice that. “My older sister was the more artistic one but our family didn’t approve of creativity as a career.”
In Tommy’s teenage search for identity, the camera became a tool to signify rebellion and outline difference. “I picked up the camera at the same time I started realising I was gay,” he explains. “My family is culturally homophobic and I think subconsciously, I’ve used the camera as a way to reject their traditions and what kind of image they projected on me. Then, I went to art school and none of them talked to me for a while until I got into Yale for graduate school.”
I’m Only Here To Leave — which Tommy describes as less a series than simply a set of images which relate to one another — sees Tommy and others wearing and holding cardboard cutout images of the artist in real-world surroundings. It’s an exploration of queerness, desire, of fitting in and standing out. We caught up with the photographer to hear more.
Where did the idea for I’m Only Here To Leave come from?
I work on different bodies of work almost concurrently as I’m a very unsettled person. I’ve only began to accept the majority of my works are long form—I enjoy not seeing everything as a whole, they are in parts.
For I’m Only Here to Leave, I originally was making self-portraits using Google Reverse Image Search and re-staging its “visually similar images.” I suddenly scrapped the work, and two pictures survived. These two photographs were a prelude; so I began to make cardboard cutouts of myself, photographing them in the world.
There’s something strangely satisfying opening a parcel with your face staring back at you. Equally humorous are the lengths I go to not actually photograph myself. Sometimes, I’ve traced these cutouts (which I think is photographic) on top of white cardboard. Once photographed, the camera makes it appear I’ve cut myself out of my own pictures. Eventually, I found a fabricator to make a mask of my face. Like the cardboard cutouts, I made a self-portrait, which they created the mask from. I’m curious on how my [photographed] body alters my own reality, and how it’s perceived by the camera.
How did you go about making the images?
Essentially, the photograph is another photograph. I work in iterations — I work in an anthological way, meaning I don’t work with series, I make a set of pictures that thematically relate to one another. During the mask iteration, I originally set out to “ruin” nude photography by replacing my face on queer bodies, and bodies I desire to have. Eventually I got bored and started to include Asian bodies. I’m trying to make myself more queer, more Asian. And in almost all of these pictures, there’s something off, there’s something that doesn’t belong, which is my body.
What does it the title mean?
The title came from Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV who came to Yale to give an artist talk and I was in awe with them. As this project is about my body, I wanted to bring forward the divide between the Body and the photographed body, representation and image, and performance and humour.
Where do you turn when you run out of ideas?
If it’s a photographic problem, I keep making pictures—a lot of terrible pictures come out of this but it helps me refocus. I wander, drive, and walk around a lot, trying to find things to look at and revisit places to see if it can be new to me, visually, again, and also how I would fit in.
What would you like to work on next?
I have a few ideas. I work in video and performance too on top of my chaoticness (“chaotic mess”) that is my artistic process. I’m videotaping myself with athletic types. I’ve asked them to put me over their shoulders and squat me, while in another piece, I’m childishly riding bodega rides. Eventually these up-and-down gestures will be these large scale, multi-channel pieces.
I’ve joined an extras casting agency as it’s my dream to appear in the background of Law & Order: SVU and to finish this video piece relating to that. There’s an ancillary video where I’ve been collecting footage where I appear in the background of TV shows and films since 2006. I just got back from my trip to Memphis, where I’m from, having just photographed Elvis impersonators (AKA Elvis Tribute Artists), I’m excited to begin sequencing the iterations after three years. Oh, and I’m working on my next book!