Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity
Emerson graduate Alex Lau's documentary-based shots touch on an eclectic mix of US-centric subjects – from gang rehabilitation to immigrant communities to the humble peanut butter jelly sandwich stack. Initially drawn to photography as a teenager when he got his hands on a Canon Rebel, his primary focus was sport but since studying on Emerson's photojournalism course, the Boston photographer has been expanding his ouvre. He's only just graduated but Alex is already pursuing photogaphy full-time so we caught up with him to talk shooting the juvenile delinquents of Boston and the push and pull of documentary photography.
What made you opt for Emerson and what have you got out of the course?
Alex Lau: It wasn’t necessarily the program that drew me in, but rather the personality of the student body. Emerson students know what they want to do from the get go, and will do whatever it takes to make that happen. While their photography program is still in its developmental stages, there are a few faculty members that I truly believe have helped me get better at photography. Maria Stenzel, a former photojournalist at National Geographic, was one of my biggest influences during my time at Emerson. Not only was she the driving force behind my From The Ashes project, she opened my eyes on what makes a great photograph. She also taught me that the realms of photojournalism and fine art photography don’t necessarily have to be kept separate, and often the best photographers are the ones that blend them together.
You focus on immigrant cultures a lot in your photos. What drew you to the Cambodian Khmer community in your From The Ashes series?
Alex Lau: My main interest when it comes to documentary photography is to focus on marginalised communities. Lynn, Massachusetts is a small blue-collar town just north of Boston, and is also home to the third largest Khmer population outside of Cambodia. I myself knew nothing about the Cambodian culture prior to starting From The Ashes. What I did know was that they are rarely represented in American mainstream media, and I felt that From The Ashes would be a great opportunity to showcase an immigrant culture that's still trying to develop its own identity.
How did you go about getting these shots? Were there any particularly interesting stories you came across while shooting the community?
Alex Lau: I'm a firm believer in getting to know a person before I photograph them. The camera is a very imposing thing to point in the face of a person, especially to those who you don’t know. I would often hang out and interact with them for weeks before bringing out my camera. Once we had established a relationship, only then would I think about photographing them. This led to photographing a Cambodian gang member showing me his gang tattoos and bullet scars, a funeral in the middle of a three-day blizzard, and a spontaneous wedding ceremony. It was incredibly overwhelming meeting all of these people and hearing their stories on the Khmer Rogue and how it affected their family. Each of them had a sad tale, but what was remarkable was how they all managed to transcend that and become amazing people in the community.
“Gang rehabilitation has always interested me – to be able to pick the brains of kids that have spent more than half their lives in prison was an incredibly mind opening experience.” – Alex Lau
If you could shoot anywhere in the US in terms of immigrant communities where would you go?
Alex Lau: Well, right now I live in Brooklyn, which has a huge Orthodox Jewish community. Their culture seems to be so self-contained, which is odd in a melting-pot city like New York. I think my greatest challenge for that project would be simply figure out how to get my foot in the door. Another immigrant community that I would like to cover is the Mexican population of Los Angeles. The Mexican demographic is often overshadowed by the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, despite being the backbone of the city.
Which photographers from the social activism sphere have inspired you the most?
Alex Lau: I find Eugene Richards’s project Dorchester Days and Joe Penney’s work on uranium mining in Niger fantastic. Both of them have honed this talent of capturing a moment that transcends a single second.
How does your inner-city weightlifting series tie into your social activism-focus? What drew you to this environment?
Alex Lau: Innercity Weightlfting is a project that focuses on a nonprofit organization in Boston that takes in the city’s worst juvenile offenders and trains them in the sport of Olympic Weightlifting as a means of staying out of trouble. Gang rehabilitation is a topic that has always interested me, and to be able to see a foundation to use such an intriguing method of helping troubled youth made me want to see this for myself. To be able to pick the brains of kids that have spent more than half their lives in prison was an incredibly mind opening experience.
What are your plans for future projects? Are you planning to pursue a full-on photograph career now you've graduated?
Alex Lau: I'm currently the staff photographer for Bon Appetit magazine in New York City. It still feels surreal to be able to call myself a professional photographer, and the fact that I get to make a living doing this is amazing. Shooting food is definitely a different animal from documentary work though, but I would like to somehow merge the two worlds together. While this is far from being a solid idea, I’m conceptualizing a project that focuses on the flawed meal program in New York City public schools.