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Kris© Andrew Kung, styling by Carolyn Son

Andrew Kung is taking beautiful, intimate portraits of Asian-American men

The photographer on how his new book flips what the ‘All-American’ male is

The “American Dream” is a myth packaged, peddled, and sold to those who prefer appearance to truth. Scratch the surface of the fantasy, and the horrors of systemic oppression emerge. No one is truly safe from the nightmare, despite how much they may choose to assimilate into a culture that is not their own. In the words of African-American writer and activist Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.”

First-generation Chinese-American photographer Andrew Kung is speaking out with The All-American, a limited edition book that features portraits, made in NYC and LA in 2018 and 2019, of his friends, like Alexander Hodge from HBO's Insecure, wearing clothing made exclusively Asian fashion brands like sundae schoolPrabal GurungPRIVATE POLICY.

“When you think about an ‘All-American,’ you think about a prototypical white man who is an attractive, built, outspoken, confident man who plays sports and is admired by all women – the model American citizen representing what ‘success’ looks like,” Kung tells Dazed. 

“Asian-American men, on the other hand, have always been classified as ‘other’ - desexualised, emasculated, perceived as passive or weak, and most of all, invisible. No matter how hard we try to fit in, we are never ‘American’ enough — reinforced with questions and statements from everyday people like ‘Where are you really from?’ ‘Your English is actually really good,’ and, "You’re really good looking for an Asian guy.’”

Kung has had enough. Inspired by photographers like Larry Sultan, Kung began to create narrative images exploring universal themes of the human condition. He added a fashion component to the project as a reminder of how rare it is to see Asian-American men modelling ideals of beauty and style in our image-driven world. Here, Kung reflects on the importance of controlling the narrative to create images the offer a new space for exploration of Asian-American identity today.

“The question, ‘Where are you really from?’ suggests that you don’t look like the average American and never will be considered an American because of how you look” – Andrew Kung

What was the inspiration for this body of work?

Andrew Kung: Growing up in San Francisco and during my time at UC Berkeley, I was never forced to think critically about my Asian-American identity. I was surrounded by a large Asian American community and felt a sort of kinship. It wasn’t until I photographed a small Chinese population in the Mississippi Delta that I started to fully understand the severity and magnitude of the discrimination and micro-aggressions that other Asian Americans experienced as both teens and adults.

I then became a lot more curious about my own Asian American identity; I read more books by Asian American literary authors and asked my friends about their experiences growing up. I started recalling certain racial slights and spaces where I felt invisible and like an ‘other.’ As a result, I started mapping out all of these anecdotes and realized that I had a larger commentary that would resonate fellow Asian Americans.

The question: ‘Where are you really from?’, can you speak about what it means when you hear it? 

Andrew Kung: The question, ‘Where are you really from?’ suggests that you don’t look like the average American and never will be considered an American because of how you look. This micro-aggression implies that no matter how American we are —how perfect our English is, if we were born in an American city, how hard you work towards achieving the American dream — we will always be seen as a foreigner.

You speak of this idea of Asians as the ‘model minority’ in America, can you talk more about that and how it impacts your sense of identity? 

Andrew Kung: Asian Americans have historically been labelled as the ‘model minority’: a group that puts their heads down, works extremely hard, and eventually goes to a great school and finds a great job. This perception that Asian-Americans are higher achievers socioeconomically clouds any nuances or challenges of the Asian-American experience.

There are different struggles and hardships in each Asian-American community that are overlooked because of this singular narrative that surrounds the Asian-American community. Case in point: Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rate in New York City, but only receive ~1 per cent of public and private funding for issues that are plaguing the community.

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of this spectrum of Asian-American experiences because everyone had always considered every Asian to be of East Asian descent. This lack of awareness, perpetuated by non-Asian communities, fueled a shortage of empathy and understanding in my own world view of the Asian-American community.

Can you speak about the tensions between assimilation and tradition as an Asian-American? 

Andrew Kung: Culturally, there are a lot of tensions between Asian culture and American culture. Here are a few examples that I’ve personally experienced: first, collectivism is a staple of Asian culture. It emphasises the needs and goals of the community/family – working as a group and doing what’s best for everyone. This unity and selflessness is contrasted with American culture because Americans live in a more individualistic culture, where personal identity, independence, and doing what makes them happy are often the priority. 

Second, in Asian culture, people will often avoid confrontation to save face whereas in American culture people tend to be very direct and literal. Lastly, intimacy is largely considered taboo in Asian culture. Most Asian parents will express love through acts of service: driving their kids to school, art lessons, etc., while many American parents will shower their children with words of affirmation (‘I love you’) and physical touch (hugs, kisses).

All of these dimensions of American culture and Asian culture have been areas that I’ve personally struggled with – from leaving Silicon Valley to pursue photography because that was my passion to sometimes wanting to avoid confrontation by being less direct, and even being confused as a kid when I saw white families openly express love to one another.

How has being a first-generation Chinese-American impacted your relationship between two cultures? 

Andrew Kung: I’m still largely attached to both cultures; I grew up going back to Beijing, China every winter and spending time with family and friends abroad. I still speak Mandarin with my mom all the time but at the same time, I can’t read and write in Chinese. Because I’m curious and open to learning about my Asian heritage, it is much easier for me to have a harmonious blend of my Asian and American cultures. Without this curiosity and guidance from our parents, however, it becomes much harder for the next generations to retain their Asian roots.

Can you speak about the impact of stereotypes, invisibility, erasure, fetishisation, and desexualisation of Asian-American men in white America?

Andrew Kung: When Asian men first started coming to the US, many white Americans felt threatened and feared that Asian men would steal their jobs, women, and pollute their Western values. To counter this, Asian men were portrayed as immoral, undesirable, and asexual. These stereotypes of Asian men carried over to the big screens, where early movies either refused to cast Asian men or when they did, painted them as desexualised caricatures.

A lot of these stereotypes follow Asian-American men in the present day. There are many environments and spaces where Asian American men feel invisible and undesirable. The momentum and greater representation, however, is slowly changing the tide of how Asian-American men are being perceived. We still have a very long way to go, but we are now finally opening up these topics for discussion.

What was your process for casting the photographs and collaborating with your subjects?

Andrew Kung: Ninety per cent of the models in my book are all friends of mine. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the average Asian-American man, and not necessarily have a photo book full of runway models. I made sure that all ethnicities and sexualities were represented so I could fully capture the Asian-American male experience.

As I was mapping out each scene, I spoke with my friends who either resonated with or experienced the sentiment that I was trying to convey. Because a lot of the narratives were so relatable, it made for a productive exercise where we would trade stories on how we felt like the ‘other’ in that specific scenario.

How is photography an ideal medium to challenge these tiresome archetypes? 

Andrew Kung: The photograph – in addition to film – is the ideal medium because a photographer has the ability to compose a visually rich frame that captures the mood and atmosphere of a scene or environment. That environment, representing a lived experience of Asian-American men, attempts to bring the viewer into the layered and nuanced experience of how it feels like to be ‘othered.’ 

Over the course of a physical book, photographers can sequence images and formulate a narrative that aims to capture some of the nuance that’s hard for the average person to grasp. It’s almost like reading a visual novel or listening to a visual music album that was carefully and intentionally curated.