Body Sessions

wp-1449717946956.jpg

Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

Contemplating between home & the outside world: My purgatory

image

Body Sessions

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.

wp-1449892814619.jpg

“I am guided by the light above as I stare into the darkness.”

image

image

wp-1449718270953.jpg

image

Staring at the unfulfilled dreams from an immigrant son

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.

image

image

image

image

image

“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.

wp-1449718513968.jpg

wp-1449718534388.jpg

My silhouette reflection

wp-1449718548061.jpg

image

image

image

image

For more on Mary’s work, please visit her site:

http://www.portfolio-of-maryhauser.weebly.com

Photography and Editing Credits: Mary Hauser

Additional edits: Randy Kim

All Rights Reserved by Randy Kim 2015

The Unbreakable Icon

image

Entering her 4th decade, Janet Jackson has set the barometer of pop music success since her musical debut in 1982 at the age of 16. Along with her brother Michael and fellow peers Mariah, Madonna and Whitney, their work have often been referenced by current pop stars today. In recent years, Janet has disengaged herself from the public eye following the death of her brother. She has since been married and living a relatively low-key affair, until she reappeared this past summer to surprise fans with her upcoming album and a world tour (both for the first time in several years).

image

This week has greeted Janet’s arrival to the Windy City for a 3-date show at the iconic Chicago Theatre. As a longtime Janet fan, I would finally get the chance to see her live for the first time in concert. In her last two tours, I was either unemployed (2008) or living in Korea where she didn’t make a stop there (2011). Growing up as a kid, I recalled hearing songs from the “Janet” album in the mid 90s such as her dance-rock workout “If” and her tearful ballad, “Again” dominate the B96 airwaves in Chicago. I was entranced by her futuristic sci-fi take on her collaboration with her brother in the music video, “Scream.” As the years went on, I connected parts of her music to certain events in my life. The song “Control” was Janet’s declaration of independence from her domineering showbiz father which resonated with my own problematic relationship with my father. Then there was the “Velvet Rope” album which took on depression and a pro-LGBTQ stance that came at a time when I was discovering my queer identity in high school, and the “All for You” song that I danced to on prom night that eventually got me voted as the Best Dancer in my senior class.

image

With Janet soon approaching 50, she has taken a different approach with her new album “Unbreakable.” Unlike her last few albums, she is more focused on creating an adult-contemporary, R&B driven sound, rather than following the current trends that Rihanna, Ariana Grande are on now. She is back with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and she has shunned herself away from doing interviews and public appearances to promote the album aside from her tour. With the new album and her tour, she is unconcerned about making new fans and reaching out for the teenage audiences, but instead, doing it for her longtime fans and reminding them as to why she was more than just Michael’s little sister.

image

image

image

image

I arrived early at the Chicago Theatre at 6:30 pm with my ticket in hand. A small crowd calmly gathered by the entrance as folks were eagerly snapping selfies by the theatre’s sign illuminating the arrival of Janet Jackson. As I was about to have my ticket checked, I was asked if I was a part of the VIP list which had me do a double take. I was asked if I got the tickets to a presale and pre-ordered her new album which I said yes. I was told that it would qualify me, and they asked me for my name which was on the list. Much to my surprise, I could barely contain my excitement as I soon found out that I could visit the private Janet room containing many of her memorabilia (I.E. MTV VMA awards, Grammys, wardrobe). The theatre itself had a magical aura surrounding it through the opulent staircase, the bright tall chandeliers, and the lavish artwork around the walls. I got myself a t-shirt and a program which came with 2 copies of her latest album.

image

The private Janet room featured wardrobes that came from her most memorable music videos and tours which included “Rhythm Nation”, “Scream” that also included a framed photo of the star with a handwritten message from Michael, and “All For You.”  Suspiciously missing from the room was the infamous “SuperBowl” wardrobe that led to the FCC uproar and the term, “wardrobe malfunction.” I also did a photo op which the Janet team made into a GIF and had it featured on their Twitter page. Fans were in awe and doing their selfie shots as they gathered around her costume displays

image

I walked up 3 flights of stairs to find my seat located at the balcony level. Despite being located in the upper level, the view from the stage was clearly visible, and the venue’s intimate environment ensured that concert-goers would be able to feel emotionally engaged throughout the show.

As I was tweeting live updates about the concert, a young woman wearing a Janet t-shirt and lanyard approached me, told me that they would like to make a change to my seating arrangement. Puzzled, I asked “Why?” To her reply, “So we would like to have you sit in the front row, would that be okay?” Instantly, my mind froze and my conscience reacted like the grown-up Kevin from the Wonder Years. I started to stutter and dropped my jacket. She said, “I think you dropped something.” My instant reply, “That was my heart.” She gave me a new ticket, and suddenly, I was trembling with excitement. The tears started rolling down my cheeks. I grabbed my belongings and ran down several flights of stairs. I couldn’t process what had just happened.  I AM GOING TO BE STANDING IN FRONT OF JANET, MY CHILDHOOD IDOL!!! This was a bit too much for me to take in.

image

I was escorted by the usher to my seat. There, I was warmly greeted with several hardcore Janet fans. I was busy wiping the tears off as a few of the fans were playfully teasing me. I was stoked; I have never been in a VIP section in all my concert-going years. The DJ opened his set and was playing a remix of Janet songs. Folks around me were dancing and taking in the atmosphere. I eagerly posted on my Facebook / Twitter / Instagram almost simultaneously.

image

The legendary Miss Jackson took the stage at about 8:45 am. The speaker to the right of me was on full blast. The floor started vibrating as the bass was infiltrating through the ground. There, she appeared as a dark silhouette until she revealed herself as she sang her new song “BurnItUp” with a video cameo by Missy Elliot. The crowd cheered on wildly as she started working her way through the stage followed by her dance crew and her band. She briefly welcomed the crowd, and went right into her signature hit song, “Nasty”.

image

image

image

image

For the first 45 minutes, Janet took on a furious run at her classic dance songs by giving them shorter abbreviations or short medleys such as “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”, “All For You”, “Love Will Never Do Without You”, “Escapade”, and bringing out the chair dance to “When I Think Of You”. She launched an assault of non-stop choreography reminiscent of her younger days, leaving nearly no time for her to rest in that span. Her charm was present, and her fierceness reminded folks of what made her one of music’s great performers.

image

During the 2nd half, she allowed herself time to breathe as she sang some of her old ballads. She engaged the audience to sing the first verse of “Again” before she tearfully sang through the ballad. She struggled to finish the song as she wiped the tears off and would throw her handkerchief at a lucky fan. She continued to warmly slow down as she sang “Let’s Wait Awhile”, “Come Back to Me” before she got into her groove to sing her new hit song “No Sleep.” Janet paid homage to rapper Kendrick Lamar as he used his Janet-inspired song “Poetic Justice” and intertwined it with her 1993 hit, “Anytime Anyplace.”

image

The tempo picked up as she went into her heavy dance numbers, “Throb”, the rock-driven “Black Cat.”  The steam machine blew up right in front of me, and nearly deafened me during her “IF” performance. She paid tribute to her brother as she sang part of “Scream” before turning into her innovative dance hit, “Rhythm Nation”, and managed to pull off one of her toughest choreograph numbers.

image

In her encore, she focused on her two songs from her “Unbreakable” album proving that she is still focusing on her future, and reminding fans that she’s not restrained by her own past success. “Shoulda Known Better” is her current call to social justice and an answer she found 25 years ago when she heeded that call during “Rhythm Nation”. “Unbreakable” was her way of reminding people of how far she’s come along from the days of a child TV star, to the young adult making a name for herself, to the 90’s sex icon, and emerging from the aftermath of the Super Bowl mishap.

image

In a show that lasted over 90 minutes, and surprisingly with no costume change, Miss Jackson kept the show flowing, keeping her fans mesmerized and moving. Unlike Madonna, Kanye West, and other stars who rely on using visuals, costume changes, and thematic elements, Janet kept it simple without the bells and whistles, and focused on celebrating her past while welcoming her present and future on her own terms.

After celebrating a night that had its unexpected twist and turns for me, I came home feeling honored to have been able to finally see an icon on stage, and gained personal access to her past works that played a soundtrack to my life.

image

All Rights Reserved

Copyright by Randy Kim 2015

All Photo Credits by Randy Kim

Tears of a Rainbow

The LGBTQ community recently secured a victory from the US Supreme Court this past week on its legalization for marriage equality. For many in the LGBTQ community, as well as a growing number of straight allies, this was a historic milestone worth celebrating, just in time for Pride weekend across the nation. However, for others in the LGBTQ community, there are growing concerns on the number of issues that are still left on the table, or have yet to be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and what direction the LGBTQ community will take moving forward.  For some including myself, this historic day has triggered some unhealed wounds from our past during a time when we were in the process of coming to terms with our identity, and the fears that the other LGBTQ issues will not be as supported or advocated now that the marriage equality has come to pass.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, I became visibly emotional, not so much out of joy, but in recalling many of the pain that I endured as I was struggling to come to terms with my Asian-queer identity. I first thought about the countless generations of LGBTQ folks that have passed on having never lived to see the ruling, never having the opportunity to see the stronger queer community spaces that’s become more accessible, and that they have had to endure a lifetime of secrecy, disownment from their family and community, public ridicule, imprisonment, and violence.  There are those whose lives ended prematurely because of the power of the homophobia / transphobia resistance had / still has towards our community, which has led to suicide or hate crime violence. Those are people that we cannot bring back, and that their lives are forever attached to the lifetime of hurt & cruelty of their identity(ies) from a society that believes could not co-exist with the accepted hetero space.

I recall the years of childhood and young adult angst of growing up in a predominantly white suburb, coming from a family of immigrant refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. I remembered the struggles of being socially accepted by my peers as a minority, while at the same time, facing pressures from my family to succeed academically and having to uphold my family culture through that process. As I hit puberty, I remembered feeling mortified when I started to have attraction towards men. I heard the voices of my male peers yelling out the words, “faggot”, “homo”, “you like to suck dick” amongst themselves. I think about the time when my high school English teacher brought up Matthew Sheppard, a gay man that was murdered in a hate crime in the late 90s, and some of my classmates’ responses were downright visceral, “He deserved to die”, “Oh, that’s what he gets for being gay” as they said while others laughed and nodded in unison. I sat quietly in my desk, slowly slumping over knowing that I was already an outcast. I was fearful for my own life for the first time. I could be the next victim. I was so upset with my English teacher for bringing his name up as she stood quietly and did little to interject or disrupt my classmates’ hatefulness. She didn’t realize how much I needed to feel supported, but instead it only validated that my existence was never going to be respected. My parents suspected and raised concerns over my sexuality, and insisted that I should not become that way. I had spent those years into my adult years being forced to “straight-act” and to quiet any suspicions of my own sexual identity. It was for my own survival. Even today, as open as I have become, I still resort to moments of downplaying my identity when I meet with older folks, certain past and present colleagues, and with my own mom whose disability has put me in the position as a caregiver along with my brothers.

I fear the losing of allies and the growing division of the LGBTQ community on issues that are ongoing in the racial, social, gender, economic inequality spectrum. Yes, marriage equality is essentially important as it not only validates same-sex couples’ union, but to receive benefits, to have a family, to have equal rights when their spouse is sick, or facing end-of-life. However, it’s a megabyte among the terabyte of the community’s concerns. We still have hate crime violence issues, especially among transgender folks of color, high LGBTQ homelessness, employment discrimination, immigration, lack of proper healthcare access, gender profiling, hetero / cis-gender sexism towards trans folks, and the list continues to go further. Will any of our other issues hold any weight and momentum on the mainstream level, but more importantly, from within the community whose interests and issues are differed and varied? Will there be a time and space where our community will begin to properly heal from the post-traumatic wounds from the discrimination, violence, shaming, and marginalization that folks have experienced?

My experiences as an Asian-identified queer have made me naturally leery of straight folks that have supported the recent Marriage Equality rights. Were these the same folks that openly shamed LGBTQ folks in my life which have caused me to retreat into an identity that wasn’t me? Would these folks still be there when we need to have another important legislation to pass when we need to once again validate our need for equality? Would they ever take the time to understand and validate the struggles that my queer friends and I still care about? At the same time, I also think about the number of straight allies who became my friends who were the first ones to lovingly support me. They, along with my LGBTQ comrades, were the ones that listened, consoled me, empowered me as I was stammering out the words, “I’m queer,” and reinforced the kind of loving community I have surrounding me.

Within the LGBTQ community is a growing divide. For years in my bisexuality, I remembered hearing ridicule from the gay and lesbian community telling me that there’s no such thing, or it’s just a denial. Having to hear that kept me more in the closet, and contradicted the inclusion and protection that the gay / lesbian community was supposed to bring in. In the mainstream gay circles, we are not recognizing gender pronouns, agender / gender queer, cis / non-cis gender identities. Heck, I learned about gender pronouns only 2 years ago. So the distrust and disconnect is still there in the community, and with it, comes the reality that our current barriers may never be able to change when we are unable to recognize and give light to the severity of these issues, and how we address it on a universal level.

I can’t undo the trauma that I lived through being a queer-identified Asian minority where my queerness, Vietnamese and Cambodian, disabled (left-eye blindness) identities became my barriers, sometimes altogether at the same time. I am mixed in between the eternal optimist who has seen the progressive changes where I can now tell my 14 year old self that it’s okay to come out of hiding, and the eternal pessimist who is still shouting to be heard, and watching his fellow community folks suffer great disappointment. Today, those worlds have collided with the tears of joy and pain rolling off my cheeks.