Looking for Asian America — A conversation with photographer Wing Young Huie


In August of 2001, award-winning, Seward-based photographer Wing Young Huie embarked upon a 9-month cross-country road trip with his wife, Tara Simpson Huie. The idea: to document Asian America and “explore the changing cultural landscape,” he writes in the preface of his new book, Looking for Asian America — an Ethnocentric Tour, published in November by the University of Minnesota Press.

The book highlights some of the 7,000 images Huie captured on the newlyweds’ trip, with 15 accompanying narratives by Wing and excerpts from Tara’s travelogue.

Wing spoke with The Bridge’s Liz Riggs while driving home from a more recent road trip, on which he photographed a migrant community near Sonoma, California. He talked about the nine-month trip and resulting book, film versus digital photography, and about his next project — a Lake Street USA-like public art project focusing on St. Paul’s University Avenue, from the State Capitol to the Bridgeland border.

Wing also talked about what he learned about himself on the journey, which revealed not only his subjects, but what Wing called in the preface his “personal ethnic personae.

“Before the trip the word ‘ethnocentric’ rarely passed my lips,” writes the 52-year-old Wing, who was born and raised in Duluth, the youngest and only American-born child of Chinese immigrants. “Now I believe that ethnocentrism affects everything, societal and personal — the whole enchilada, as they say.”

TB: How would you contrast this project with some of your other work, including Lake Street USA and Frogtown? Is it fair to say Looking for Asian America: An Ethnocentric Tour has been a more personal journey for you?

WYH: Yeah. A lot more personal. Absolutely. My other projects, I didn’t really [focus] on Chinese people and Asians specifically. But even with this project I would say probably one-third of the book at least doesn’t have any Asian references, photographs.

It is more personal. I mean, part of the idea was growing up in Duluth, I always wondered, ‘What would it have been like, how would I have turned out if I had grown up in Chinatown or the remote South?’ So that was a driving reason for going.

And also, my work is about other people. So it kind of took me awhile to come around to thinking about my own history and my cultural history. It’s something I didn’t really think about growing up. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I started thinking about those things. This trip, I really thought about it a lot. And I still think about it.

But on the other hand, they’re all part of a continuum, all the projects. I think there are more similarities than differences. But you know, traveling around the country is, in a way, kind of like walking around Frogtown, because the process is the same. You walk up to people you don’t know. You go down a block you’ve never been to. You walk into someone’s house you’ve never been to.

TB: How did you choose the photos to put in the book from more than 7,000 photographs?

WYH: You know, I think there are really two parts to being a photographer, and they’re both equally important. One is you take the picture. And the second is you decide which one you show the world. I think photographs are organic: they change as you change. And so I’ll look at something one day and then a year later I’ll think completely differently.

When we’re on the road, I shoot film and not digital. And so we went to have the film processed at custom labs every time we got to a major city, so that we could see what it is that we’re doing. We’d sit in a coffee shop and it was just fun to sit there and see if you got anything. Tara and I would both make our selections. I rely on Tara’s eye quite a bit. For one thing, sometimes it’s hard to look at your own photographs. You don’t have much objectivity. The problem is, the experience of taking the picture is still in your head. So you’re not really looking at the pictures. You’re looking at the experience of it.

I’m sure even if I had to select again next year, I’d probably come up with a different selection. So it’s quite a process. It’s not like it’s ever definitive. It’s just what you think at the time. And it sort of becomes a group process.

You have a different animal when you have this exhibit on all these multiple walls and then you have to put them in a book and have a different flow.

TB: Why have you chosen to stick with film?

WYH: I think that it’s probably the main question I get. I give a lot of lectures and people are always surprised; ‘Oh you’re not digital yet?,’ like digital is the norm. I think a part of me always likes to go against the norm. My cameras that I’ve used for a long time, they’re not that great. Because for me it’s not about equipment.

Also, people look at film differently now than they did even five or 10 years ago. When you say film, people think, ‘Oh, it’s more authentic.’ I think with digital, I grew up in a generation that believed that what they saw in a photograph really happened. Whether it was on the cover of TIME magazine or their own personal photos. The current generation automatically assumes that that photograph has been manipulated because of Photoshop. Everyone has Photoshop. Everyone can order photographic reality to what suits them. So I think that’s another reason. People believe that when they see my photographs that this really happened. And if they had any suspicions that it’s been manipulated, then I think the work would be less powerful.

TB: What’s it like spending so much time on the road?

WYH: Well, actually it’s just been this year. Since the nine month road trip — which was wow, like 5 years ago — I really haven’t traveled that much. But this year, I [spent] three months in Milwaukee doing another residency with the Center on Age and Community, photographing people with dementia. I don’t like being gone from home, being gone from the comforts of home — my wife and all my friends. You know, living on the road when you’re young, that’s one thing. But at my age, [laughs] I’m not really crazy about it. But it is a fascinating project, so I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

TB: What’s next for Wing Young Huie?

WYH: Well, the next thing is I’m going to do a project on University Avenue. After doing Lake Street I thought that was it, I’m not going to do this again because it took too much time and effort and I wanted to do something different. I think enough time has passed that I started thinking about it and, if I did something on University Avenue, how would it be different?

So the idea is this: I’m going to photograph for two years on University Avenue from the state capitol to wherever it starts in St. Paul, which is just west of [Highway] 280 — roughly six miles, pretty much like Lake Street.

In 2010 we’ll have a combination of big photographs in windows like Lake Street but the major part of the exhibit will be projections. We’ll project photographs on to store windows using LCD projections from the inside of the store. And the plan right now is for 12 sites, [one] every half mile, and maybe about 30 images each. The show will start at twilight.

Wing Young Huie is hosting two book talks and signings over the next week. Both events feature a slideshow and are free and open to the public. For more information about the book, visit the U of M Press’ webpage.

To see a sample of photos from this and others of Wing’s projects, visit Wing Young Huie’s website.

Friday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m.
Minnesota Center for Photography
165 13th Ave. NE

Tuesday Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.
Magers and Quinn Booksellers
3038 Hennepin Ave. S.