Our mobile devices turn us all into obsessive portraitists: we churn out countless selfies chronicling all the minutiae of our lives, from Sunday brunch to illicit liaisons. But does a media culture that turns each of us into the subject, all the time, make the portrait a more accessible art form? Or is there something about the intimate craft of rendering the individual that can’t be captured in our mass-produced digital ephemera? Some young artists recast photographic portraiture through a contemporary lens, not as an exercise in narcissism but as a framework for reconciling multiple selves. When your life is refracted across multiple communities and borders, framing your image can help you locate yourself in a disoriented world.
At a recent forum at Brooklyn’s Photoville, part of the Visionaries series, two “second generation” photographers talked about recasting one of the oldest forms of studio photography into a platform for communities to present, and see themselves, in a new light.
Adama Delphine Fawundu, a Sierra Leonean-American, Brooklyn-born and raised, always thought of herself as a child of the diaspora, but her portrait project “Deconstructing SHE” inverts the contemporary self-portrait as a mirror on society. In a series of images displaying different visions of the black woman, she poses as various characters representing different tropes of blackness: a bleach-blond vixen, a tough in a wife-beater, or a series depicting phases of self-realization, from a bleached perm to a luscious Afro.
The shape-shifting between positive and negative imagery explores the gaps between perception and reality, and how black youth are taught to see themselves. “People really do not identify with them[selves]. They look at themselves and think that “I’m not worthy,’” she says. “But this comes from a system that told you that you are not worthy. Not you directly, but your ancestors. So these ideas have never been resolved.”
Fuwundu does not resolve them but she does flirt with their contradictions. The “Deconstructing SHE” project probes both the malleability of identity and the persistence of ugly historical constants. In one portrait, you only see her back scrawled in glowing white paint with the words “Freedom Fighter,” “Single Mother,” “Mammy” and “Corporate Slave.” It’s a reference to Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” The archetypes imprinted on her naked back are thrown back in the eyes of her watchers, to let them, for once, to wrestle with their contradictions.
Fawundu’s own immigrant experience has taught her how to inhabit more than one culture and combine the two. Her artist’s statement asks, “What impact do post Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and postcolonial societies have on the development of social constructs such as “race,” “gender,” and “class?”’ Many of the pieces place her in “Continental Africa,” against nondescript post-colonial backdrops, pursuing the question of Pan-Africa and the looming specter of nationalism.
Another self-portrait literally splices her African and American sides. Two frames of herself are merged into one: a woman in an Afropunk t-shirt and slim black skirt stares into the face of another version of the Deconstructed She: a woman cloaked in a traditional cloth draped indulgently over the same body. The accompanying caption reads. “Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, Rwandan, African, Colored, Negro, African-American, Black… What conflicts arise when cultural values are submerged for nationalistic ideals?” The two selves seem to be asking each other, further infusing the question with troubling possible answers, and no solution in sight.
The same tensions of identity, conflict and diaspora color the works of Cambodian American photographer Pete Pin, whose portrait series, “Cambodian Diaspora: Memory” revives archived photographs as a community education tool. Culled from families’ personal collections or identity documents, the project frames the ephemera next to a present-day portrait, using visual contrast to depict the distance of the family’s journey. Some subjects are refugees whose first days of postwar life were crystallized in a cold mugshot. A family holds up a blackboard scrawled with a stark transit number, their only official identifying mark. Or personhood is documented with a crude ID card splotched with stamps. In one diptych, a middle-aged man’s square-jawed contemporary portrait is paired with faded an airplane ticket, marked only with his destination, Oakland, and an indelible date: September 11, 1981. A slip of paper demarcates past and present and the geopolitical gateway they must traverse.
Even the happy family photographs bear the taint of trauma—they invite the question of whether the image memorializes reunification, or encapsulates the final moment before war tore them apart.
Their faces are sometimes proud, sometimes aloof, betraying, to varying degrees the scars of the Killing Fields. The erasure of hundreds of thousands of lives under the Khmer Rouge regime remains one of the heaviest silences in the Cambodian American community, and the trauma of genocide still reverberates today in the prevalence of poverty, physical and mental health problems, and low education levels. The before-and-after format is typically American, but when grafted over the memories of torture and mass death, it’s a portal to a history of survival.
Pin, who was born in a refugee camp and grew up in California, has used the photographs as a touchstone for family conversations, encouraging younger and older relatives to start a process of collective healing. In many cases this dialogue, however painful, can be healing for second generation youth, he says. After living for decades with an uneasy historical silence, an old, faded photograph can fill critical narrative gaps. The participating youth first ask their relatives to help gather photographs and artifacts, to start a group composition process. “And then we review all the ephemera, collectively, together. And so out of that process, I’ve learned that this ephemera is really a powerful bridge generationally, that can initiate this rare dialogue,” he says.
The project’s next phase is to expand the workshop’s storytelling model through partnerships with Cambodian American community groups. The focus, Pin says, has now moved from the craft of photography itself, to interactive discussions between the elder refugee generation and youth, who are perhaps for the first time daring to exhume a distant past.
“The idea of this is to empower young one-and-a-half- to second-generation Cambodian Americans to have a sense of ownership of their families’ story, a sense of discovery,” Pin says, “and then also to give them the tools to be able to share that in a way that is meaningful and powerful to them, and also to the audience.”
Pin is cautious about exposing too much too fast, however: “It’s very difficult to think about how to create that space that will not necessarily be traumatic… And there’s a very fine line with that. So that’s one of the challenges of this work.”
For the wider public, the photographs serve a different role: illuminating the ambivalence in the Cambodian American community’s connection to the brutal legacy of the Cold War and America’s imperial hubris. At the same time, their stories also challenge the narrative of America as a place of sanctuary for other peoples. As refugees, their sanctuary isn’t granted by the government so much as reconstructed, by salvaging family bonds from a blood-stained landscape and grafting them onto an unfamiliar adopted land.
Fawundu and Pin represent a different take on portraiture than today’s compulsive self-image-making, but they share the same fixation on looking within from outside. By representing diasporas that have long been erased from mainstream histories, they capture a moment, then emancipate it.
“We have to tell our own stories,” Fawundu says. “Because if we have to constantly look at someone else to tell our stories, that’s when you’re lost in the puzzle.”