As an Asian American artist, I have experienced firsthand the harm of inaccurate representation in US media. I therefore take great responsibility in accurate storytelling of POC and women leadership, creativity, and humanity. Here I share some of my personal career highlights.
The idea of creating a painting with the press of a button was fascinating to me as a child, especially as someone who wasn’t very good at drawing or painting. I eventually learned it takes far more than just pressing a button and began to love the creative challenges and rewards of photography.
I grew up knowing how frustrating it is to have Asian and Asian American stories told inaccurately, in a dehumanizing manner, by a media and entertainment industry that is white male dominated. Experiencing this motivated me to tell these stories more responsibly, and I used it as an opportunity to develop more empathy for other misrepresented groups of people.
Even the ethnically Asian written stories that were accepted by a white audience, and characterized as “mainstream,” exhibited narratives that fit the long history of Asian dehumanization in a US history filled with a foundation of ubiquitous dehumanization of all people of color.
As an Asian American artist, I have experienced firsthand the harm of inaccurate representation in US media. I therefore take great responsibility in accurate storytelling of POC and women leadership, creativity, and humanity. Some of my personal career highlights include being hired to photograph some of the Asian American public media figures who helped inspire me to pursue a creative path. I am also proud of inspiring younger POC and women storytellers to take control of their own narrative. Because of my background, I am meticulous about what narratives are told in images, even in my event photography work.
I will share some of my meaningful shoots here, along with the captions I wrote that barely scratch the surface of their impact on me.
George Takei: activist, actor
I grew up loving the philosophies discussed in Star Trek, so this was obviously cool. His activism wasn’t very well known until recently, partially because the internet has given opportunities for people to tell their own stories in their own channels.
When I took this photo last year, Takei discussed his personal experiences growing up in the "camp," and bringing the musical, Allegiance, to Broadway. The way he spoke about it so passionately and candidly made me want to go see it. I like this photo because it shows a different side to George compared to his typical comical smiling public persona. (He provides a lot of comic relief in Allegiance though).
The musical covers a lot, including dreams deferred by imprisonment, the protagonist joining the 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up of mostly Japanese-American soldiers who fought in many of the most dangerous missions in Europe, and the aftermath of life after war.
Steve Terada: dancer, co-founder of Quest Crew
Quest Crew were winners of America’s Best Dance Crew season 3, and Season 8’s All Star Champions. Because of the (US) history of seeing horribly inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans on TV, including those involving only being technically good at things and lacking emotion, passion, and creativity, seeing Asian Americans like Terada being creative, and talking about pursuing creative paths was revolutionary and highly impactful in my own personal development and decision to do photography as a career.
Needless to say, this was a cool and meaningful shoot. Receiving compliments from younger artists, especially Asian Americans and other people of color who've been historically misrepresented, about how I've inspired them to pursue something creative has been among the most flattering things I've heard.
Paul Sun-Hyung Kim: actor, comedian
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays Appa on Kim’s Convenience, a show I highly recommend. Lee is immensely talented and has such an empowering presence. I'm impressed with how he was able to so succinctly describe the importance of seeing yourself reflected on screen in interviews and when he won Best Actor in a Comedy Series at the Canadian Screen Awards two years in a row. I'd certainly be curious to see Paul get more and more roles where he gets to flex his acting chops.
Michelle Kwan: figure skater, activist
My portrait of Michelle Kwan has special significance for me. Growing up Asian American in the US, I've heard inaccurate "Asians can be technically proficient but lack artistry and creativity" stereotypes all my life, which is partially why I'm in this career. Additionally, it was even more rare than today to see Asian Americans on TV at all.
Michelle Kwan was one of the first Asian people in my memory who was widely praised among white US media for her artistry and gracefulness, instead of “only technical ability.” Not to mention, she was incredibly dominant in her sport for a decade. She's now on the career path to having a bigger impact on the world too.
Mirai Nagasu: figure skater, podcaster
Nagasu grew up inspired by Michelle Kwan, among others, and continues to inspire others. Sheis an all around cool, charismatic, and hilarious person, not to mention two-time Olympian, bronze medalist, and the 1st US woman and 3rd woman in the world to land a triple axel in the Olympics. Her artistry, spins, elegance, and gracefulness have always been impressive, especially the layback spin, going into the side variation layback, haircutter, and Biellman spin.
Being left off the 2014 Olympic team despite earning bronze at Nationals was awful, but it allowed Mirai to showcase her resiliency. Although it didn't matter for competition, she displayed incredible grit performing beautifully in tears at the Nationals exhibition after hearing that decision. It motivated her to add the triple axel to her repertoire to not allow the Olympic selection committee to leave her off again.
Her drive is largely inspired by her Japanese immigrant parents. She woke up at 5a to train, balancing school, ballet, and homework, sleeping in her parent's restaurant's storage closet before her parents transferred her back to her own bed. Her triple axel inspired so many skaters to add it to their routines that it's now common.
Figure skating is a brutal sport, both physically and psychologically, but Mirai has been resilient and elite for 10 years in the senior circuit. She has a podcast in the works where we’ll get to see some of her other talents of storytelling. She has also been active with The Power of 10 Initiative which has been helping restaurants stay open and feed frontline healthcare workers and community members in need.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley: U.S. Representative for MA 7th congressional district
In 2018, Ayanna Pressley ran unopposed for Congress after defeating favorite Mike Capuano in the primary. She's a visionary and fights for equity. She brings her exemplary leadership skills, with empathy being a major strength, something many male politicians lack. Check out her full speech here.
Pressley's leadership and the imagery of a Black woman with Senegalese twists being a leader is so important. Her being public with alopecia and hair loss recently is also powerful and validating. All people should seek to learn how racism intersects with all aspects of society. For example, Black folks and Asian American folks are dehumanized in various ways in the US, but it’s all part of white attempts to perpetuate white delusions of supremacy. Learning about each other’s humanity is an ongoing process.
I started learning about the importance of Black and Asian solidarity early, as so many of my inspirations were Black. Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” was the piece of writing that resonated with me the most. None of my literature or English classes taught any works by Asian Americans. Although I’ll never understand what it’s like to be Black, that closing line
“Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed. I, too, am America”
has been engrained in me since I read it.
Norman Mineta: activist, former United States Secretary of Transportation
Norman Mineta, among many things, is a reminder that we have a responsibility to keep pushing for higher standards to honor those who have started fighting for humanity earlier than us.
Mineta is a man with many titles: activist, inspiration, Councilman, Mayor, Congressman, Secretary of Commerce, the first Asian American to hold a presidential cabinet position, Secretary of Transportation, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, and he and his Japanese American family were imprisoned in "internment" concentration camps too.
It's important to continue to fight against the legacy of anti-Asian racism in the US (and all anti-POC racism). I'd suggest looking him up to find more about his life and watching the documentary on him.
Hudson Yang: actor
Yang plays Eddie Huang on the ABC show Fresh Off The Boat, about an immigrant family from Taiwan with 2nd gen (US born) children. FOTB told very American and universally human stories but also includes stories specific to the Asian immigrant family experience. White≠American. American has a far broader definition than that. It showed good representations of masculinity: caring parents who are complex and have different problem solving strategies. It showed parents talking with children about disappointment, overcoming problems.
The season finale resonated with me. In my high school days, I used to apologize for things when I did nothing wrong. For example, walking on the sidewalk on the right side and someone with the unjustified entitlement to walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk and act like I’m in the wrong. It took a lot of internal work for me to realize I belong and shouldn’t apologize for walking in my own space. It’s symbolic of other things: how much I react to being dehumanized too (racist Asian jokes, for example). A hesitancy to stand in the face of dehumanization is also caused and reinforced by other societal factors: for example, the legal system: white men murdering Vincent Chin (thinking he was Japanese) in 1982 and facing almost 0 consequences for it.
FOTB also led to a palpable increase in the % of non-Asian people who pronounce my surname correctly. It is one of the most common surnames in the world, and is a very American name—one that everyone should learn how to pronounce. If I'm expected to learn 8 different spellings of Caitlin, others should be expected to learn how to pronounce such a common surname name as Huang. No, it's not spelled with a W. If you actually listened, there's an H sound. And it's a short A sound.
Simu Liu: actor, orator, renaissance man
During our photo shoot, Simu Liu burst with creative energy. He simultaneously fits into traditional physical expectations of “masculinity,” while advocating for vulnerability, communicating emotions, and overall far more complex humanity.
He's most known for playing Jung on Kim's Convenience, but also writes, produces, sings (he has a smooth/soulful voice), plays guitar, is insanely athletic, does martial arts, dances, and is a very inspiring speaker.
As a speaker, he so eloquently explains the harm of dehumanizing media portrayals, inspires people to own their greatness, and gets candid about his own personal struggle with the history of dehumanization of Asian men in North America. I'm looking forward to his upcoming creative projects. Shang Chi’s white-written story/origin has issues, but his casting is only the beginning.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: U.S. Representative for NY 14th congressional district
AOC has, what Hasan Minhaj calls, the audacity of equality, and is fired up about it. Each successive generation should demand and work for a better country to raise the standards of living for all. For example, there’s dehumanizing and unjust behavior older immigrants and the previous generations might be ok with, but I was born here, taught about American ideals, and learned and continually learn (sometimes on my own since much of it isn’t discussed in US History classes) about how our history and current realities don’t match up with those ideals.
I was mostly impressed by AOC's exceptional leadership ability in listening, a quality many male politicians lack. That lack of empathy is something I often see in person both in speaking and body language.
This was such a beautiful quote/clip from Knock Down the House on Netflix:
“When I was a little girl, my dad wanted to go on a road trip with his buddies. I wanted to go so badly. And I begged and I begged and I begged, and he relented. And so it was like four grown men and a 5-year-old girl went on this road trip from New York. And we stopped—we stopped here. And it was a really beautiful day, and he leaned down next to me, and he pointed at the Washington Monument, and he pointed at the reflecting pool, and he pointed at everything, and he said, ‘You know, this all belongs to us.’ He said, ‘This is our government. It belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.’”
Sarina Huang: COO and co-founder of PeakAdmit, dancer, painter, martial artist
Sarina is the COO and Co-Founder of PeakAdmit. She’s a graduate of Harvard Business School, and now has a career in management consulting. Before pursuing an MBA, Sarina graduated with a BA in Economics from Princeton University, and worked in technology strategy. In her free time, she loves to paint, dance, and practice Wushu and Kung Fu with a specialty in swords. She was president of Beyond Dance, a dance group at HBS.
Being able to create stunning art is a reward in itself. It is important to remember that not everyone who is creative has to pursue a career in the arts.
Also, I am not related to Sarina. Huang is a very common surname in the US, and as I mentioned before in my caption with Hudson Yang, it’s important to normalize the idea that people should be learning how to pronounce common American surnames.
All of my shoots are meaningful and all POC stories are compelling and valuable. Having any person of color represent their entire race is unfair. Every human should be allowed to be the complex humans they are, flaws included, and photography is the medium I have dedicated toward showing that.
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