As I continue my thesis work, I've found that my concepts are becoming increasingly more complex and they are allowing me to explore new avenues stemming from the main route. One key issue that I've come to cultivate within my work is the idea of cultural genre. And perhaps that is the most dignified way to say that I am creating oriental stereotypes. Could I have chosen to create my imagery beyond the historical reference of Korean culture? Surely. Yes. Definitely.
But I didn't. I did choose this key defining element of Korean culture, created the historical garment, stylized myself in hair and costume. I took those photographs. Much of my defense in this choice delves from aesthetic formalities. An observer might see this historical figure and assume a narrative that is from an oriental past. They understand that this figure is not from current reality but rather historical imagination. These kinds of assumptions are underlying ideas that I want to convey with the series.
Yet, the choice in wearing the Korean Hanbok also comes from a personal fear of mine that I hope to explore more by creating this work and others like it. Openly visualizing myself in a stereotypical historic Korean role makes me feel judged. And that fear of judgement has followed me throughout my childhood. In the past, people have looked at me and assumed that I was someone that I am not. They think that my parents are Asian. They think I can speak some oriental language. I'm good at math. I can't drive. I must love anime. So on and so forth. As a child, these small judgements felt very crippling and unfair. Why must I be perceived so differently just because of the way I look? And so I learned to fear key elements that would differentiate myself from any other Western person.
But with this thesis, I've come to accept many things with myself personally. I've also learned to accept other peoples judgements better. And as I said before, this kind of acceptance, opens up for new explorations. So, I am now working on a side project called, The Tourist.
This idea came to me long before thesis, but I never had the courage and gall to take it on. Initially I was inspired by Tseng Kwong Chi and his body of self-portraits. Chi would dress himself in what he called his "Mao" suit and pose himself in front of iconic and sometimes plain Americana environments. I've mentioned him before a few times on this blog and I believe that his work has always been a forerunner for my thesis. I just couldn't believe that someone would create such an odd paring of place and person.
But I never created anything like what he did. I couldn't get into the idea of posing in front of random places without a solid reason why. I did like the idea of utilizing a stereotype to create a new kind of narrative. But I didn't like how out of place the character was that he created.
Sometimes life needs to create a kind of order for you to take on projects like this. Cue my Christmas holiday cruise.
This recent Christmas, I went on a four day cruise from Long Beach, CA to Ensenada, Mexico. Cruises are a love/hate relationship for me. Before I ever get on a boat, I think that it's the best idea in the world. You buy this ticket and everything is taken care of. No need to transport, rooms are cleaned twice a day, abundant amounts of free food, lots of booze and plenty of entertainment and gambling. What more could you ask when on a vacation?!
But then I get on the boat and I'm reminded of my periodic sea sickness, hidden costs placed everywhere, how utterly gluttonous people can be and my eventual loss of faith in humanity.
Perhaps I'm just not a "team" player. Because I can't help but role my eyes at the sheer madness that ensues when on a cruise. If you ever want to see human dignity abandoned in a snap of a finger, attend a cruise art auction. If you ever want to watch people lose all sense of civility, have a meal in the ships dining hall. Being overly indulgent is a simple understatement for places like this.
And somehow all of that made sense for my newest project. This project embraces the ideas of excess, indulgence, and ignorance. Instead of trying to create a disconnection between person and place, the cruise would compliment the kind of character I wanted to photograph. She would be the typical tourist that thrives so well in places like this. She wouldn't have to be an outsider but one that belongs with others like her on this crazy cruise ship. It is her home away from home. She does not need to try and be anything else but what she already is. And in many sappy and heartwarming ways, it made me feel that I could gain a kind of acceptance in this Western society.
So, before my cruise, I bought a few key props: A red vinyl visor, large black sunglasses, a blue fanny-pack, and a cheap tourist t-shirt. A snapshot look gives an unintentional feel and improvised aspect to the work. So I loaded a crappy old Canon camera with color film and went to town on my four day cruise.
Ultimately, I still ask myself what the hell was I thinking? Am I being too judgmental? Am I further grounding this kind of racist stereotype? I don't know. I really don't. But I took a chance, investigated and created a new kind of work that I know shows this certain kind of character, time, and place that fit so well together, you would swear she is real.
I present to you, The Tourist.
All photographs are directed self-portraits taken with Kodak Portra 160 film.
Many thanks to Thom.