Visual Influences Series:
Tommy Kha

I like to look. There’s something intrinsically attractive in photographs. It makes me sort of a repeat offender.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Pisa, Italy, 1989
Photograph by Tseng Kwong Chi, Pisa, Italy, 1989

There aren’t many Asians in Memphis. I feel there is an open racism I have come to familiarize myself with. As a result, this racism makes me realize how isolated I am because of my body’s genetic inheritances. When I turned the camera on myself while I lived in New York, I couldn’t help but feel that the self-portraits I made were going to inherit this Asianness as well.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s East Meets West are black and white self-portrait photographs made in front of popular tourist attractions. Chi wears a Mao Suit and mirrored sunglasses while holding a shutter release cable. He photographed these primarily in the United States, Europe, and "elsewhere." His glasses hide his slanty eyes and his Mao Suit may be the only sign to inform a Chinese quality to him and his photographs. But I love his obscured face. His almost impassive, expressionless face is why I pay most attention to body language, facial expressions, and manners in my own photographs. This carried over when I began to explore performative-type photographs.

Photograph by Lilly McElroy, I Throw Myself at Men #10, 2007

My understanding of performance art in relation to photography has been the distinctions between documents of a performance and photographs made by a performance.

Lilly McElroy’s I Throw Myself at Men made me understand the dynamics between photographer and subject(s). In extension, after compiling forty-something images of my kissing series (Return to Sender), I realized the difference between staging and hyper-awareness. In her series of photographs, Lilly McElroy makes several aggressive acts towards unsuspecting men. Yet, these images of a repeated action done to several men don’t represent staging to me.

Photograph by Melissa Alfonso, Rising Hunter

These repetitive images remind me the of seriality attached to photography. My favorite body of work has to do with an incompleteness, which in turns, conveys a sort of haunting within the narrative. Melissa Alfonso’s series, Rising Hunter, does this. I heard hauntings have a lot to do with jealousy. The imagery captured by her invokes a jealousy I share with wanting to belong.

Photograph by Mikael Kennedy, Passport to Trespass

In China, curators and historians debate the validity of photography—as do many here—whether or not it can be art or a record. Mikael Kennedy’s Passport to Trespass is a long documentation of his travels. He shoots Polaroids. The portraits are telling, coupled with the Polaroid’s distinct romanticized color—something I desire when photographing people.

Photograph by Amy Stein, Third Street, Memphis, TN

Amy Stein’s Stranded series captures automobile breakdowns. She says, "I’m interested in the idea of a breakdown as a sort of existential failing."

These mechanical breakdowns cause the subjects to become aware of their helplessness. The interruption to the subjects’ planned arrivals puts them in a foreign state in foreign surroundings. The breakdowns also remind me of failures as felt through the history of the South. Amy Stein’s series motivates me to capture a South that is at once familiar and strange to me—as my great-grandparents are from Southern China, as I am from the Southern United States— in order to evade further confirmation of an identity I do not feel I own.

Ownership is a very profound reality for me. It is something I find in each of these photographers. Physically looking at photographs, I feel that I am not allowed or not given the right to do so. But I continue on with my negotiations.

Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Tommy Kha for our Visual Influences Series.
View a selection of Kha’s photography featured on One, One Thousand in April 2011.
You can also view more of Kha’s work at his website:

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one." — John Ruskin

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