Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory
Earlier this year, I collaborated with my trusted friend, Mary Hauser. After enduring another harsh Chicago winter season, we did a photo project that celebrated the end of winter, and the rebirth of Chicago coinciding with the arrival of Spring. Being reinvigorated through our collaboration, we decided to come together for another project for this blog.
This time, I wanted to connect my narratives into photographic images. I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to peel my own vulnerability that are stacked in layers by way of creating, and hoping that towards the end of the process, a feeling of liberation will take place.
Collaboration is an intimate, creative process that involves a high level of trust, sensitivity, and understanding. To do a project requires understanding each other’s narratives, passions, fears, and mission.
I’ve long been drawn to black and white photography. With color, we capture what our eyes could see. We see the beauty, the invitation, destruction, and violence through our subject(s). With black and white, there are a series of gradations of light and shade that impacts what is revealed and what remains hidden. Vulnerability is my motif. Through the black and white medium, I wanted to capture parts of my vulnerability through my own space / my sanctuary. With it, comes the various degrees of shade / darkness that brings about the process of slowly coming to terms with certain aspects of myself. Originally, I looked at this project specifically from a black and white perspective, but decided to add in the color shots as I am in a more comfortable process of overcoming certain barriers with my own body and self. While there is light revealed in these specific parts through the b & w medium, there are more still to be uncovered through the abundance of darkness.
Representing What We Wear
On an unseasonably warm November Saturday morning, I prepared myself for our full-day photo shoot in my studio apartment. I wanted to express my lifelong insecurity about my own body, and the everyday angst of having to choose clothing that acts as some sort of agency for my identity. The photo shoot had been marinating in my mind for months. I was going to reveal myself in a way that I never would have envisioned.
Our first shoot was done in the hallway of my apartment floor. Whenever my mom would stay with me, weeks at a time, I thought about how often I would go out, sit by the stairwell, having a phone conversation with my friend, and then using that space when my own safe space is already being compromised by someone I love dearly. Whenever I would come home from a day’s work, I would stand by the stairwell for several minutes to have my own brief moment of solitude before having to greet my mom at the door. The hallway / stairwell has almost become my purgatory between the outside world and my own home.
Then, I prepared for my next shoot. I went into my bathroom, got undressed and wrapped myself around my blue towel. Mary asked me a few times if I was okay, and each time, I said “Yes, I’m good to go.” I plopped down and stared straight into my messy closet. Mary has never seen me in the buff before and she made a few catcalls along the way. Several of my clothes were on the floor. I channeled my inner anxiety of what I wanted to wear.I thought about growing up as a working-class immigrant child, and how one’s visibility was scrutinized by my peers through the kind of clothes we wore to school. I was far from being the best-dressed, and my parents were not inclined to buy me the NBA starter jackets, to the Tommy Hilfigers and Nautica brands just so I can appease my peers.
When I started working my part-time jobs in high school and college, I became increasingly conscious about what I wore each day. I wanted to earn respect which I struggled to do growing up. I was anxious to prove that I was a man of good taste, someone that would be desirable to date, and as a reflection of my intelligence.
When I had lived abroad in Korea, I taught in a poorer part of Busan, its second largest city. Fashion is prominent in that country. Korean actors / actresses, pop singers and models grace every billboard, cell phone store and LCD flatscreen TVs. I was a tad too heavy by Korean, let alone, Asian standards as my clothing sizes were a hard find at many of the stores. Some store employees would gesture the large “X” mark with their hands when I entered into their store. In the next several months, I began to lose weight, and when I did, I immersed myself onto the fashion scene, donning vests, hats, tight blue jeans. My students would be in full envy whenever I got into “fashion beast mode.” They oohed and ahh’d with whatever I was wearing. Sure, it gave me an ego boost, but soon thereafter, I realized that many of them did not have the luxury of having nice clothes. I was also reminded of my own past when obtaining name-brand clothing was scarce in my family.
I also thought about the times when I used to go to a formal work function, or put on a new pair of glasses, and a colleague or two would come up to me, and say, “you look so smart”. It’s as if you have to spend more resources on your appearances in order for your peers to validate your intelligence.
I think about how the clothes I wear each day represents a partial piece of my personality, my narrative, or associations of past memories. I think about how our clothes affect our relationship with the people we come in contact with. I think about how each layer of clothing we put on makes us choose what parts of our identities we feel most comfortable in revealing.
In the process of being captured in my own nakedness, I felt a sense of that liberation. Prior to the shoot, I had been uncomfortable with my own body for weeks because of my weight battles. I decided that if I wanted to express that insecurity, that vulnerability, it would be in a place that I should feel most safe in.
I stared into my bathroom door mirror, and Mary asked me to hold a blanket to my chest. I thought about my future. That I am now holding onto my youthfulness and being scared to let go. I thought about my family whose health has been problematic, and wondered if I would be next. I closed my eyes, embraced my blanket, lovingly wrapped my arms around my waist, and reassured myself that I’ll be safe.
“My Body is a Barrier”
“I’m half child, half ancient”—Bjork
My mind is restless, constantly envisioning imageries of utopia. Pleasures abound with Herculean lovemaking conquests, triumphant declarations of justice, limitless movement between existent spaces, and achieving the greatest prize of all, immortality, are the kind of magical dreams that conjure up during my nights of rest.
Immortality, humankind’s greatest fantasy, still remains defeated against Father Time. Even in our heroic efforts to keep it at bay, we inevitably fall to the decay that leads to our eventual demise.
As I am into my 3rd decade of existence, I have been a witness to the cruelty that Father Time has afflicted upon to older members of my family. My grandma, from my mom’s side as well as the only living grandparent on both sides, has been struggling with dementia. On my mom’s side, my aunt passed away in 2010 in her upper 50s from cancer. From my father’s side, my youngest uncle died in 2012, only a few years shy of 60 while my oldest uncle has been fighting off mini strokes and diagnosed with Parkinson’s for the last decade, and more recently, my other uncle was diagnosed with Stage 1 colon cancer. For my parents, it has also been an ongoing battle. My mom, a few years ago, suffered a massive stroke, and is disabled, while my father (a Khmer Rouge survivor) has experienced a number of mental health issues. In all of these recent times, my family has been besieged by health problems over the age of 50.
Growing out of my youth, and into adulthood, I am faced with the reality that the folks who have been mentor figures in my life are now aging and slowly deteriorating.
As I look into my bathroom mirror, I started rubbing through the smooth layer of my skin, and touching the palm of my face, and I thought to myself, “What will become of me 20 years from now? What will the process of aging look like for me?”
“Am I going to be faced with the same, premature illnesses that have greatly affected members of my family? “
I never feared death, but I admittedly fear the process of dying. The loss of functioning, freedom, movement, expression, and having choices are all part of our interactions with mortality. Will I go blind? Will I be able to remember my trips to other countries or of my loved ones? Will I be confined to a wheelchair at the end of life? Though I am not mentally consumed by such future potential physical / mental downfalls on a daily basis, I start to ask questions about my quality of life. What are my ambitions? What are my barriers? How can I preserve the physical and mental foundation of my body?
I dream of waving my F-You finger to my family DNA that is ready to detonate inside of me at any given moment. I want to fight off Father Time a bit longer in battle, and not have to lose limbs before I finally give in.
The only chance I stand of reaching my immortality is living. Living to create. Creating for what I can leave behind that will stay in writing, in capturing, and in sharing. The body machine may break down, but Father Time can’t erase the miles I’ve left behind on this journey.
Today, I am in combat. Maybe this time, I will let my imagination guide me when my body can’t.
For more on Mary’s work, please visit her site:
Photography and Editing Credits: Mary Hauser
Additional edits: Randy Kim
All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015