Artists-in-Residence Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn: Shining Light Through Stories
What places in the U.S. do you think of when you think of Asian Americans? San Francisco? Los Angeles? New York? How about the Mississippi Delta?
That’s the question Brooklyn-based photographers Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn explored as they embarked on their audiovisual project, The Mississippi Delta Chinese. Their goal was to shine light on a lesser known community — Chinese Americans in the rural South, from a retired librarian [Frieda Quon, pictured above with the artists] to a former NASA scientist to a grocery store owner.
We’re so excited to be exhibiting Kung and Hahn’s work in our TriBeCa gallery, and to have had the chance to speak with them about transitioning from the tech world to photography, the unexpected challenges in traversing a new industry, as well as the surprising lessons.
Where did each of you grow up? Were you always interested in photography?
EMANUEL HAHN: My parents are from South Korea. I was born on Saipan, an island next to Guam that’s a Commonwealth of the U.S. So that’s how I’m a citizen. I grew up in South Korea, Cambodia, and Singapore. After high school in Singapore, I moved to New York for college and studied finance at NYU.
At that time I got very involved in the tech sector. Right after college, my first job was at a Bitcoin startup, acting as chief of staff and doing product management. But photography was always on the side as a hobby. I’d shoot when I had time on the weekends, and I gradually became more interested. Finally, two and a half years ago I left my job to freelance full time as a photographer. I met Andrew early last year and we’ve worked together on a bunch of things. Then we thought of this project in June of last year. It took about 10 months, and we finally released it in March of this year.
ANDREW KUNG: I was born and raised in San Francisco. My parents had originally met in North Carolina. My dad was in the army and my mom was in music school. They met in a restaurant. They moved to San Francisco, and eventually I went to UC Berkeley for business and worked at LinkedIn for about three and a half years.
I had started to get interested in photography right before starting at LinkedIn. I was kind of a late bloomer. I didn’t know about the possibility of doing photography full time until meeting friends who encouraged me. I decided I needed to move to NYC, and within six or seven months I had. I met Emanuel through mutual friends. We had similar paths. We did a couple of personal projects together, and this idea popped up.
So did you move to New York specifically for the photography?
ANDREW: Partly, but I also wanted a bigger change of scenery. I wanted to live in a creative world with more diversity. San Francisco is now very strongly focused on tech. If you’re not in tech, there’s not much else.
How about you, Emanuel? What made you pick New York?
EMANUEL: I’ve always had a fascination with New York, even in high school in Singapore. Maybe it was the influence of the movies. And I was drawn to the diversity of the city with people from all over the world.
Was there a specific moment that helped you decide to quit your jobs and pursue photography full time?
EMANUEL: I think it was a couple of things. I had been shooting on the side, putting my work out there, getting recognition. People started saying I could do this full time. I never thought I could. Photography as a hobby versus a job are two completely different things.
It was when I started to feel like I was constantly improving that I started to believe photography as a full-time pursuit could become a thing. Plus the culture at the company where I worked was getting really bad. It’s kind of the nature of a startup, but being in a position of constant pressure was taking a toll on me. When I was working, all I could think about was doing photography full time.
Some friends challenged me to go for it. They said, Do it for a year, see if it works and if you enjoy it. I figured I could always fall back on the tech world. By the end of my second year of doing photography full time, I felt like I had the confirmation that I could do it. Now I can’t imagine going back.
ANDREW: For me it was two big things. One was a big life milestone: my grandma passed away. I went on a path of introspection and rediscovery about what actually makes me happy. If I’m 55 years old, how am I going to look back at something I did at LinkedIn? It might sound cool and prestigious, but it wouldn’t bring me happiness. I wanted to reflect and dig deeper, and create a more meaningful legacy.
Another turning point had to do with timing. Q4 is the most difficult time of the year for the business I was in. I knew I needed to get out before then. That was the jumping off point. Let’s make a plunge now. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back. Now over a year later, I can’t imagine going back to a corporate environment.
How did your respective parents react to your decisions?
ANDREW: My parents have been supportive of whatever I wanted to do. They were never a tiger mom or dad, and aren’t really controlling or demanding. They’ve always given me that freedom. I think it’s partly because from an early age, I’ve shown a responsibility to get stuff done. So there was a level of trust when I got into college. When I decided to quit my job, they helped me think through a game plan and strategy, a thoughtful and responsible exit. They’ve been hugely supportive. I’m very blessed and fortunate.
EMANUEL: My parents have also been very supportive of what I want to do. Given that they’re missionaries and have chosen an untraditional life for themselves, that justifies what I’ve chosen to do. Of course they had some apprehension, but they’re the kind of people who follow their hearts.
What were some challenges you faced while pursuing photography in general?
EMANUEL: There are so many aspects of running of photography business that I wasn’t aware of it. As a freelancer, you’re taking care of all aspects of the business. Marketing, the client base, etc. Since my network was business people, it was hard to get information versus people who have been in the photography industry. How to price, contract, deal with expenses, file for taxes.
Another big challenge is when you’re starting from scratch and don’t have good network to market yourself to. But the more you work, the more recognition you get. The more inquiries. It’s a great way to grow the business. But you do have to deal with the irregularity of work. You don’t know when work will come in. It’s up and down, and can affect you mentally. It’s a challenge learning how to deal with that.
ANDREW: Some challenges I’ve faced are how unstructured and nonlinear the industry is. Everyone has their own path — there is no paved path like there is in the corporate world. In the corporate world, there’s a very tangible way to measure success and progress. But in photography, progression isn’t obvious. You may have to put in a lot of work and you don’t know if will contribute in a tangible way. It’s almost a fallacy: I was in business before so I should be able to manage a photography business. But that’s not true.
Another challenge is with creative identity. With so many photographers in NYC, there’s a lot of noise and layers in the market. Eventually if you produce good work, your work will cut through the noise. But that takes time. It won’t happen overnight.
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
EMANUEL: We were hanging out one day, both of us feeling a little stuck with our commercial work. We wanted to do something more personal, something that spoke to us in a more meaningful way. That’s how the project idea came about.
ANDREW: Yeah, I remember we were just sitting in his apartment talking about documentary work. I mentioned something about North Carolina and the rural landscape. Then Emanuel said what about Asians in the deep rural South? We started digging into the history of it, and stumbled on an NPR article about it. We also stumbled upon a contact. With that momentum, the cohesion and themes made so much sense. That was our foray into documentary work.
What were some challenges you faced regarding the project?
EMANUEL: Trying to get access to the community and earning their trust. Getting access was relatively easier. We connected with one of the most prominent members in the Delta Chinese community. But after that we had to call everyone and convince them we weren’t being manipulative or taking advantage. We got a lot of pushback at first. Why are you doing this? Will you be making money off this? How are you going to portray us? Like backward provincial Chinese people? We had to be very clear that we weren’t funded by anyone, that we didn’t have agenda, and we were only doing this because we cared.
Another challenge were the time constraints with having to go from one place to another. We wished we had more time to spend with each person. As far as the shooting itself, that was the least challenging part.
After we came back, we had to figure out the best way to lay out all the material. That fell into place pretty easily, and we laid it all out on a website. Initially we thought we would publish the material ourselves, but we decided to reach out to publications. We Googled and LinkedIn photo editors and ended up with 30 contacts, including the New York Times, Time, Vice, and other publications.
We didn’t hear back in the first week and followed up the week after. In a matter of a day, we had gotten two or three responses from those interested. The New York Times was the only one who followed through. The photo editor had a personal affinity for work from the Mississippi Delta area.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while pursuing this project?
EMANUEL: For me personally, working on a story like this was super meaningful and fulfilling. Photography drew me in. I met people I wouldn’t have normally met, and those we met on this project were some of the most hospitable, generous, hard-working, and humble people I’ve ever met in my life.
I was struck by how successful everyone was despite being in a region we associate with poverty. In terms of discrimination, they were actually well integrated in and respected by the community.
ANDREW: One surprising thing to me was the amount of work and time it takes to produce a documentary piece. You have unexpected delays, people not responding. You have to figure out what the driving route is. You have to figure out addresses and a schedule.
As photographers, it was a really great experience. We got to experience a full life cycle of a documentary piece. From inception to publication with no other writers or producers. It was just us. The amount of organization, discipline, and rigor to execute a large piece like this — that was a surprise.
So what’s next?
ANDREW: We’re thinking through a few different ideas. We have one that we’re more excited about: Asian American identity, related to context and environment. We’ve had so much great feedback from Asians in the South, friends, random people reaching out. People have said the project mirrors their childhood in Alabama or Tennessee. We don’t see enough of that kind of Asian American representation. Our second project will go on with this theme with slight differences and more layers.
What do you find inspiring in general? Is there anything specific that’s inspiring you right now?
EMANUEL: What’s inspiring to me is the idea of telling underrepresented stories accurately, and shining light on a community there might not be as much focus on. As Asian Americans, we want to tell that narrative through our work. To show how these communities really are and not necessarily how people think they are.
Asian Americans might seem like a homogeneous group when they’re really not. Asians who immigrated 100 to 200 years ago versus 10 years ago are so different. I’m interested in getting deep on all the elements and not just what successful Asian Americans have done. The idea of telling those stories motivates me.
I’m also really inspired by a bunch of novels I’ve been reading. Three I really enjoyed are Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. They’ve been good for creativity in a different way. I’ve been trying to apply that to my photography. Trying to take those concepts and visualizing them.
ANDREW: On the documentary side, I’ve been inspired by Magnum photographers, and there are so many to name. Browsing through some of their work encourages me to elevate a documentary style photography. Not to be shooting in a literal sense but with symbolism and abstraction in the imagery. To pick up more details. They offer so much inspiration — a different way of shooting, looking, and documenting.
Also, reading more poetry has been inspiring in terms of building out my personal work. Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and Her Flowers has been a big source of inspiration.
What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing photography or art full-time?
ANDREW: For a photographer going into this industry, it’s very much a mental game. In this industry you have to be very patient. It’s a process of refining your craft and building your business, and it’s going to take years. You have to make a lot sacrifices. For the first two years, you won’t be shooting everything you want to shoot. You have to work toward or refine through relationships, body of works, personal projects. Be prepared for long battle.
EMANUEL: Shoot as much as possible, even while you’re at work. Build up a body of work that you feel confident about going out to the world with. People have this mentality that they can only start something after they’ve left their job. But I think you should start sooner. While you’re still at your job, start creating the work you want to be hired for.
Also, photography as a career is not for everyone. You need to be okay with instability in your life. You’re going to go through a lot of stress and volatility, financially and emotionally. Save as much as money as possible before you leave your job. The first few months will be tough. They were for me. I thought about going back to work every single day. Of course I’m glad I didn’t.
The Mississippi Delta Chinese: An Audiovisual Narrative will be on view in our TriBeCa mezzanine gallery from May 18 through through July 15, 2018. To learn more about Andrew Kung and Emanuel Hahn, visit their website.