February 7, 2014

Spotlight: Vivian Fu

Girl interrupting.

Photography captures the essence of self in the most direct way possible, by snapping a photo and inviting visibility onto a subject. Memories are created, bodies are exposed and people and objects come into full view as they are in the moment. Creating such work is a unique and individualistic process; truly becoming a part of your work is even more so.

Vivian Fu explores her life through a lens capturing moments that provoke both emotion and thought. By bringing light onto her world, and onto the world around her, she has created a unique space that captures the essence of being. Through self-portraiture, an intimate glimpse into her life, both romantic and lighthearted, she interrupts preconceived notions, reclaims ownership of self and ultimately challenges what it means to be both an Asian American and a female artist.

One of the things I love about Vivian's work is her ability to bring so much through a photograph, even if unintentionally. Her playfulness is showcased through her use of things around her, from goofy glasses to guns. She's able to both challenge and express love and vulnerability through a photograph, demanding visibility either way. I got the chance to interview Vivian about her work, herself as an Asian American and female artist, what inspires and provokes her and so much more.

THE LE SIGH: Where did it all begin?

Vivian Fu: To be honest, probably through being on social media. I had a LiveJournal when I was in middle school and whenever I'd meet up with friends, we would all take pictures of ourselves together and what we were doing. Then Myspace got popular, and of course Myspace is all about pictures of you versus pictures you take in general. So I guess that's maybe when I started taking a lot of selfies.

I wouldn't say I really felt very interested in photography until maybe I was fourteen and went on this roadtrip with my dad to Death Valley and he'd just gotten a new camera so I got his old one. I just took lots of pictures during that trip to keep from being bored. I ended up really liking the pictures and I guess it's somewhere among, like, LiveJournal, Myspace and that trip to Death Valley that catalyzed my interest in photography.

TLS: Many of your photographs evoke, if not demand, visibility. What inspires that sort of emotion in your artwork?

VF: Oh wow, that's a really powerful thing to hear somebody say about my work. It makes me feel really good that you read the images that way! I think I've always wanted to represent myself and have always wanted to document my life. Growing up and using Myspace and LiveJournal, I never felt like doing that would be considered particularly political. I was documenting myself and my life like a lot of other people my age were, but I think as I got older, I started to realize the reason why it was different for me to do it versus my (mostly white) friends, is specifically that I'm an Asian American. Kids in middle and high school really suck, you know? So I started hearing more stuff about "hot Asian girls" or "yellow fever."

I think once I got to college, I was pretty angry about a lot of that type of stuff. And when I started going to school I learned words I could use to describe that anger and why it upset me. I think on the one hand, when I'm taking photographs I'm not actively thinking about how I'm giving myself visibility. I think I'm just documenting myself the way anybody else does, but the reason why it's different and has a different meaning and why it ends up being somewhat of a quiet rebellion or political statement is because my body is yellow. I'm Asian. I look Asian, and for a lot of shitty reasons, people have placed certain kinds of meaning onto the bodies of Asian women. So for me to image myself as the way I see myself is giving visibility to myself as I really am. 

TLS: As a woman of color, specifically an Asian American woman, what's the importance of visibility in your work?

VF: Imaging myself the way I am interrupts the image of Asian women that's projected by the media. I think the importance of visibility is just showing that multitude of people that exist. Not just for women of color, but for trans people or people with disabilities. I think television shows and movies only show really, really select archetypes of people who might fall under these categories. It's really nice, because since people are talking about these issues, I can see there are more (for example) women of color who are in leading roles in television. But I think personally, the importance of visibility in my work for me is just feeling good over simply representing myself.

TLS: You've mentioned ownership of body being a huge catapult for what you do. How is ownership of your body such a huge influence behind your photography?

VF: I think it's partially part of the representation thing as well. I think the bodies of Asian women are super loaded. There are all these physical traits we're supposed to meet somehow, and on top of that, Asian women are supposedly these docile little creatures, or something. Those are the ideas that are hammered into you, either through television shows and movies or just from microaggressions from people you know or strangers at parties.

I can't really separate my body from my Asian-ness, if that makes sense. So it's hard to talk about my body without talking about external project ideas about what my body means since I'm an Asian woman. But there's this reminder that my body is for the pleasure of other people. Specifically, when people reference the supposed hairlessness of Asian women or the supposed tightness of Asian pussy (sorry to get crass). It just reads as "yes, you are a desirable fuck thing." But my body doesn't exist for other people's pleasure. It exists for me.

TLS: Your artwork often becomes an up close and personal reflection of self - something often scrutinized of young women. What do you believe is the importance of self-reflection in your photography?

VF: That I'm a person and I'm growing and changing and feeling different kinds of things, experiencing different kinds of things. People aren't static, you know? At least ideally, we aren't static. I think self-reflection and representation are just means of saying "I'm a person" (among other things).

TLS: How do your relationships with people affect your work?

VF: I think depending on how comfortable I am with the people in my life affects the types of pictures they let me take of them. But that's also not necessarily always true, because I have friends that are some of my closest friends and they're in very few of my images because even though they're perhaps 100% comfortable with me, they aren't super comfortable in front of the camera.

Some of my relationships are more focused on, for example, my relationship with Tim. When I started imaging Tim, I never really intended for it to turn into a project. I just happen to document a lot of things in my life, and photographing Tim happened very naturally and I ended up having a lot of images of him and of us together.

TLS: Why is photography your favorite medium to work with?

VF: Probably because it's just a medium that feels most relatable to me. I appreciate other mediums a lot, but I personally don't resonate that much with using those mediums for myself in my own work. I think there are some reasons why photography is the medium I like the most, and it's because I'm interested in representing myself and the easiest way to do that is to represent myself the way most other people do: through photography.

Photography also lends this level of truthfulness (even though photography can lie, which is a different discussion) to what's being depicted, and I guess that's another reason why photography works for what I'm trying to do. I think the reason why other mediums I tried out when I was taking art classes in high school or when I was taking studio courses in other mediums at university is just that the other mediums I was trying out didn't really suit the way I think about things. Maybe later on I'll be interested in working with mediums outside of photography, though.

TLS: A recurring theme in your work is the use of your camera phone to snap photos of your life in the moment. Has "selfie" culture influenced you and your work?

VF: I really like taking pictures on my phone. It's an easy way to take pictures of things I want to have pictures of but don't necessarily want to have to deal with having to pay for in terms of film and film processing and the time it takes to scan and edit the images later on.

I'm not sure if selfie culture is a thing that has had an influence on me because I've always been taking pictures of myself and pictures of me have always been part of my work, before I knew the world "selfie." In a way, I guess it has influenced my work and work process because there's more of a dialogue about selfies (and self-portraiture, if there's a difference between the two), which is great, because the conversation about selfies is usually surrounding topics we were talking about earlier, such as self-representation and ownership of your body, different ideas and iterations of beauty, documentation of self and perhaps the changes the self goes through. Even more so now than I've seen before, the discussion is including why those types of things are particularly important for underrepresented peoples, and I think that's amazing.

TLS: I recently saw a mini-series of your work titled "Belong/Longing." What was the inspiration behind that?

VF: I just really haven't been able to get the words "belong" and "longing" out of my head. Specifically the word "belonging." On the one hand, the idea of belonging to somebody or to a group is an incredibly nice sentiment, but then the idea of physically being a belonging, an item, seems incredibly weird. Then I was also thinking about culturally belonging to groups, then I was thinking longing to belong. They're both just incredibly loaded words and how they're both in some way applicable to things I'm sort of thinking about. I'm not sure if I'm happy with those pictures, but I think it was definitely a good exercise and jumping off point for me.

TLS: If you could dream up the most amazing day of your life, what would it look like?

VF: On a really personal and small scale, probably just being able to sleep in and cuddle, eat good food, scan film and find that all my pictures were perfect. And have the bus be on time.

TLS: What have you been listening to lately?

VF: I've recently been listening to the new Beyonce album since I just bought it last week. Actually, listening to the song "Mine" sort of inspired the "Belong/Longing" stuff. For some reason, the lyrics "I just want to say you're mine you're mine" and "as long as you know who you belong to," stuck with me.

TLS: Name five things that inspire you and why.

VF: 1. Thoughts and feelings - for obvious reasons.
2. Light - I'm always really attracted to light and feel like I'm always noticing light wherever I go. Since I'm always noticing light, it sometimes prompts me to take a picture in a specific moment.
3. Music - Music makes me feel vulnerable or empowered or rowdy or any other feeling, and the way I'm feeling influences the pictures I end up taking.
4. Conversations with other artists (or other people in general) - Talking to other people is a really big inspiration/influence. From conversations I'm having with people, sometimes they'll ask me a question or they'll say something I'd just sincerely never thought of, which prompts me to sometimes try my hand at other things. For example, my friend Elle Perez recently asked me why I'm so interested in photobooths, and nobody had ever asked me that before. After that, I thought about it more and decided I wanted to be a little more focused and intentional with photobooth work.
5. Lived experiences - Experience, both positive and negative (and I guess also neutral), are a part of the work as well. I want to document everything and have the pictures as reminders.

Check out more of Vivian's work here.

Paula Cooke is a writer and art enthusiast with a love for wanderlust and girl groups of the 90s. She can be found lost in a zine, art museum or a barrel of salt water taffy at any moment in time. Her interest in art and writing fuel her passions in all things in her life, and although she is exploring many different outlets of expression along the way, she is never totally lost.