Now See me
When people think of minorities who don’t have a “voice,” they often overlook Asian Americans. This underrepresented group is typically typecast as “model Americans,” vixens or villains onscreen or online. Frustrated, I collaborated with a subset of this population, Asian American female teenagers, to determine how they want to be represented in front of the camera. They selected their own clothing, accessories, hairstyle and makeup. Other than asking them not to smile, I did not pose or direct them. They decided what to do with their bodies.
Teenagers are especially interesting because they are just beginning to define themselves and with whom they choose to identify. They may lean towards the majority culture, counter-culture, somewhere in between or neither. As evidenced by the proliferation of social media, they are keenly aware of their appearance. But their selfies are self-curated for their peers. So it was fascinating to see how they chose to represent themselves to me, a person outside of their social milieu. Although I don’t believe portraiture reveals the “soul” of a person, I selected photos that offered glimpses of their unscripted personas, where their expressions were unforced and unrehearsed.
During the course of this project, I discovered that the photographs not only reveal the unique identities of these girls but also provide a window into the complex relationship that female youth have with the camera these days. Unaccustomed to not having complete control of their narrative, they were often uncomfortable and self-conscious. The way they held their arms or stood, they seemed vulnerable, especially the ones who tried to look tough and impenetrable. They reminded me of all teenagers, not just Asian Americans. In an era where there is an ever-present pressure to be “seen,” female youth have a tenuous and complicated relationship with the camera. Perhaps this is what they share the most with their non-Asian peers: the simultaneous desire to both reveal and hide their identities in front of the lens.