Andrew Kung Redefines ‘All-American’ Masculinity
What does it mean to be American? Milk spoke with Andrew Kung, the Chinese-American photographer, who fleshed out the complexities behind this question through his work. Preluding Kung’s new photo book, The All-American, reads an excerpt from Alex Tizon, “It was hard work, becoming an American, and I felt I’d succeeded for the most part. Yet I was not ‘all-American.’ I could never be that. Most of us, when imagining an all-American, wouldn’t picture a man who looked like me. Not even I would.”
Quoted from a larger text, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, Tizon’s words became the foundation for Kung’s photo series. The book is split into the A-Side and B-Side, reflecting the intermixed narrative of the collective Asian experience in the US. The first chapter delves into the physical spaces that commonly alienate Asian Americans – “from lunch box moments where we’re shamed for the food we eat to the absence of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in school.” In the B-Side, Kung explored the poetic and tender nature of Asian American men; together the two chapters work to create a nuanced look at masculinity and national identity.
Surrounded by polaroids of friends, and movie posters, we met Kung in his New York apartment to get an inside look at the inspiration behind his most recent body of work. Throughout our conversation Kung highlighted the importance of including Asian talent in his process, and what other resources people can utilize to learn more about this topic.
What was the transition like from working in tech and at LinkedIn, to now working in photo?
I grew up in San Francisco and went to business school at UC Berkeley. All my friends were like, “there are only four ways to make it out — accounting, banking, consulting or tech.” Being in that environment, you want to naturally do what everyone else is doing. So my metrics for success were getting into one of those big companies.
I had gotten into photography during the last semester of college by taking landscape photos on my iPhone and exploring parts of SF that I had no idea existed. I started following a lot of landscape photographers and felt like I finally started appreciating the city that I grew up in.
After coming out of school, I joined LinkedIn in a strategy and analytics rotational program that was pretty intense. I met my best friend at the company and he mentioned, “I know you’re really into photos – have you ever considered doing this full time?” Coming out of business school, I didn’t think that career path was ever possible.
His girlfriend was a commercial model and did a lot of lifestyle work, so I talked to her and she became my first model. I kept shooting with her and she introduced me to a bunch of photographers and the more I’d talk to people, the more I wanted to pursue this path. I had LinkedIn move me to New York with the intention of doing photography full time. They paid for all my relocation costs – flights, boxes, everything. In my 6 months where I was still at LinkedIn, I met a bunch of people in the creative community, built my body of work, and started developing my voice as an artist. I started to get some commercial clients and I thought to myself, “Okay, I can make this work. Let me jump into the deep end and figure it out.” Now it’s been two and a half years and I haven’t looked back.
How would you describe your artistic voice?
It took me a while to be comfortable with my own identity and figure out what I wanted to talk about with my work. The first year of full-time photography was filled with a lot of brand name chasing. Trying to shoot for recognizable brands I admired served as a form of validation; but after striking that milestone, I wanted to go deeper and figure out my “why”. I went to the Mississippi Delta and photographed a small Chinese population and after my piece came out, I realized that I had the power as an Asian American artist to uplift invisible communities and represent different Asian American experiences. The most rewarding part of the process was having 20 Asian Americans from the deep south reach out to me saying that they had never seen someone like themselves on a platform like The New York Times.
They thanked me for representing them because they had not seen someone on a national platform who looked like them, talked like them, or dressed like them. So, when I received those emails I said, “Wow, this is really why I want to make images.” I realized that I had the ability as an artist to do that.
Growing up, there is a certain kinship among the Asian American population in the Bay Area; but when I went to rural Mississippi and explored different parts of the US, there was a polar opposite experience where you felt like you didn’t belong and that you weren’t never American enough. No matter what American city you’re born in or how good your English is, certain people will always ask you where you’re really from, almost to insinuate that you’ll never belong because of how you look.
I began to realize that I had a collection of stories from my friends and from these microaggressions I felt back in the Bay Area, and that’s when I realized what I wanted to say in my new body of work.
What is your voice on set? What’s your key to making someone feel comfortable?
When it comes to being on set, I’m a very collaborative photographer. I like having a general idea of what message I want to convey with the set design and what atmosphere I want to create with the series. For particular poses, I have certain references images pulled up, but I like to ask the model and the team for any feedback that I might be missing. I like getting everyone involved in the shoot because if they’re excited and passionate, they’re willing to go the extra mile for you.
Do you want to talk about your most recent book, All-American?
The first question I asked myself was, “how can I tell these narratives photographically?”. I got a lot of inspiration from early narrative photographers like Larry Sultan. Each photo is a story by itself and everything in the frame is intentional, whether it be the mood, atmosphere, colors, or the props that he had in certain places. Then when you look at the larger body of work and how he sequences his images, it all comes together like a cohesive masterpiece.
I wanted to take a carefully composed approach to my work and also shoot it through a fashion lens because we’re not used to seeing Asian American men in fashion editorials or magazines such as Vogue. I split the book into two sides — the A-side and B-side. I thought about how every musician has a larger message they want their listeners to take away on each album. Each track has its own individual meaning, but it’s sequenced in a way where it’s very intentional and curated; I took this same approach and knew how I wanted the visual and narrative elements to complement each other.
I had so many different things I wanted to showcase in this book; The A-Side is about the spaces in which Asian American men have felt invisible and felt like the “other.” I really wanted to make a play on certain environments like the classroom, the corporate office, school, and investigate and comment on specific scenes that made me and other Asian Americans uncomfortable. For example, the lunchbox experience was one of the first places where I felt like I didn’t belong. A lot of Asian kids are shamed for the food that they eat because of what it looks and smells like. Or even being in a corporate environment with a “bamboo ceiling,” where Asian people or Asian American men aren’t in leadership positions because they’re seen as passive, not outspoken, and not having the traditional qualities of what leaders are supposed to look like. The B side is about tenderness and intimacy, and it showcases the beauty of Asian American men that we are not used to seeing. One of my favorite spreads is the desexualization/fetishism spread that takes place in the bedroom of an Asian American man and drag artist. He said when he’s an Asian American man, a lot of people see him as this desexualized, emasculated being. But when he puts on his drag persona, he all of a sudden feels exoticized and fetishized as an Asian American woman. He said, “I have to take on both stereotypes as both an Asian American man and as an Asian American woman.”
How did you choose the different people that you featured?
These were mostly friends of mine because I really wanted to showcase everyday people. They weren’t necessarily fashion models or runway models, but just your average Asian American man. My stylist, Carolyn Son, and I were also very intentional about what they wore and styling them in Asian designer clothing. I really wanted to celebrate our culture and heritage through different mediums and art forms. I also wanted to make sure there wasn’t just one type of Asian being represented, but of all ethnicities; and in terms of sexuality, I wanted to include and showcase the queer community. It was a fun process because we’re all friends and would have very natural conversations about our own experiences as Asian American men.
For people to become more educated on the Asian American experience, what are some other resources and voices you’ve found to be helpful?
A book that really inspired me was Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self by Alex Tizon. It’s about the author’s experience of being a Filipino American man living in the United States, and that’s where the opening quote from my book came from: “It was hard work, becoming an American, and I felt I’d succeeded for the most part. Yet I was not ‘all-American.’ I could never be that. Most of us, when imagining an all-American, wouldn’t picture a man who looked like me. Not even I would.”
When I read that book I was like, “Wow…that’s going to be the foundation for my photo series.” I think reading similar books that talk about the nuances in these communities would be the best place to start – that’s how I got into it. Stepping outside of our comfort zone to consume content that we typically wouldn’t consume (these types of books, articles, etc.) and to have open conversations with friends and folks outside of our own lived experiences have been very instrumental to my own growth.
What are the most important things and takeaways you learned about yourself through this project?
I think I’ve lived a very privileged life so far. Hearing about how other kids were the only Asian kid in their school and were called different names every day helped me gain a lot of empathy. I began to see a much wider range of personal experiences that showcased the magnitude of what other Asian Americans have had to face across the US.
Additionally, in the media, there were so many Asian actors that are type-cast into specific roles, and now we are finally seeing more accurate stories depicting what it’s like to be an Asian American. One of the actors in Insecure, Alex Hodge, that I photographed on the A-Side (“Times are Changing”), told me his optimistic view of how Asian actors are finally escaping typecast roles like those rooted in Kung fu/martial arts. There is a long way to go, but my photo book was definitely one way for me to have another avenue of representation of fine art and fashion photography. It’s been a rewarding experience for me because I have learned about many other experiences in the spectrum of what it means to be an Asian American man.
Check out the full book here.
Images Courtesy of Andrew Kung, styled by Carolyn Son.
Portraits of Andrew Kung courtesy of Harshvardhan Shah.
Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.