“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have… To photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder.” So goes the famous quote by Susan Sontag, who viewed the camera as “a sublimation of the gun”. But what happens when you “shoot” yourself? When you wield the power of the portrait over your own image? Perhaps, as both photographer and subject, you become empowered. This is the thinking behind Tommy Kha’s ongoing series, aptly titled Soft Murders. Composed of several interrelated bodies of work, it explores themes such as identity, representation and inherited trauma. Intersecting within the series are various events and ideas that recur within Tommy’s wider practice as focal points for dissection, such as the murder of his aunt in 1998, his family’s history of immigration and asylum seeking (his mother fled Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon in the 70s), and their life within a marginalised community in the American South (Tommy was born in Memphis, Tennessee).
“I think of my work like an anthology film – I enjoy the disparateness of shorter narratives and themes,” says Tommy. “Soft Murders can be read together like a family album that is a collection of maps. It consists of pictures of my mother, portraits of the Memphis and Mississippi Delta Chinese communities, a growing collection of shrines, and photographs my mother made when she made pictures briefly.” The latter served as an inspiration for the series after Tommy was gifted a photo album by his mother six years ago titled Canada 1984. Some of the photographs from the album are used as archival imagery in the project, though her own thoughts on them remain relatively unknown. “She’s been mostly unwilling to speak about those pictures,” says Tommy. “They are so different from my own picture making and my parents have very different attitudes to photography, as it wasn’t seen as something important – especially in the context of fleeing from war.” His mother gave up her camera in 1985, but Tommy has endeavoured to continue her visual explorations through his own practice, enlisting her help as his primary and ongoing collaborator.
Together, their theatrical performances in front of the lens engage with and question issues of Asian representation in photography, and the “imaging, capturing, and evaluation of otherness”. By doing so, Tommy is able to not only work through his personal history and family trauma, but he is able to take control of his own image – in a way that pushes back against white and western-centric perceptions of the Asian diaspora. Cut-outs of his face and body emphasise these aspects, and allow him the freedom to position his image. He grants himself agency over how he is depicted, challenging problematic visual tropes that have long existed in photography and cinema. In a way, these images challenge reality by breaking from it, by allowing the viewer to see behind the photograph, to see the process of creation. “To repeat, to construct, and to improvise — I like when the artifice shows, when reality fractures slightly,” explains Tommy.
Last year, Soft Murders won the 2021 Aperture-Baxter St Next Step award, granting Tommy $10,000 in funding, a photobook project with Aperture and an exhibition at Baxter St Gallery at CCNY. Reflecting on the recent success of the work, Tommy says: “I feel inarticulate in describing the emotions, the gravity of it. There is so much gratitude, joy, relief, and excitement.” Looking ahead, he plans to continue investigating the past and present of his community and his own life, figuring out how to map it photographically. “I’m going to keep [these ideas] intentionally vague for now, but there’s lots of cutting, taping, copying and pasting – oh and more puzzles, lenticulars and photo collages.”
Tommy Kha: Soft Murders (Copyright © Tommy Kha, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.