David Rosenberg 「Growing Up Gay and Asian in Memphis」

Posted on June 15, 2016
「Signal Fire」, Memphis, Tennessee, 2014.

While studying photography for an MFA at Yale, Tommy Kha began to explore his upbringing and what it was like to grow up gay and Asian in Memphis, Tennessee, where he often felt like an outsider. Although he crafted those images into 「A Real Imitation」, which was recently published by Ain’t-Bad, his intention wasn’t to base the project solely on his ethnicity or sexuality.

“I’d rather make a body of work that is about complexity and not knowing,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty I try to bring into [the book] that works really well with the way I’ve experienced reality.”

Kha’s work, including 「A Real Imitation」 and the intimacy-focused series 「Return to Sender」, tends to be autobiographical. The images in the book – a mix of self-portraits and images of Kha’s friends and family – have as much to do with Kha’s background and feelings of otherness as it does with his experimentation with the idea of what exactly self-portraiture is.

“I started really examining the different languages of self-portraits,” he said. “It almost always has to do with the artist’s identity, and I didn’t want to spell that out. ... I wanted to make something very diaristic, very biographical. ... Some work hand-in-hand, and some don’t; they shouldn’t go together, but they do because of my existence.”

「Home」, Memphis, Tennessee, 2015. 「Us」, Brooklyn, New York, 2012.
「Tuxedo」, Memphis, Tennessee, 2013. 「Midsummer Garland」, Covington, Tennessee, 2012.

In addition to struggling to find his place in Memphis as a gay and Asian man, Kha said a lot of his family didn’t understand his pursuit of an arts career. Kha said this began to change once he was accepted into Yale. Since then, photography has turned into a way that the family finds connection. “Anytime I come home and see them, they always want to make pictures because in a way that translates to them getting to know me,” he said. “It’s the only time we get to interact in a real manner. They don’t mind being photographed, and they know I have to do this; it’s something I have to do but they don’t have to know the reasons why.”

Kha said although he often tried to hide while growing up, being different wasn’t something a lot of people were willing to let him forget.

“Being a minority is one thing but when there’s something so different about you that either has to do with your race or sexuality. ... People find a way to tell you.”

「Iceland」, Thjodvegur 1 (Route 1), Iceland, 2014.
「Rice Island」, Memphis, Tennessee, 2012.
「Titan」, Hernando, Mississippi, 2011. 「Unity」, Memphis, Tennessee, 2013.

David Rosenberg is the editor of『Slate』’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.