In the media “Asian Americans are rarely depicted. If we are, we are often forced into these clichéd tropes: the nerdy Asian, the submissive Asian, the exotic Asian. I am looking to create a genuine representation”
In September 2018, photographers Clément Chapillon, Francesca Allen, Brant Slomovic, and Ricardo Nagaoka spent 10 days travelling across California. Commissioned by British Journal of Photography in partnership with Visit California, the resulting bodies of work shed light on the lesser-known sides of the state.
For photographer Ricardo Nagaoka, growing up was not always carefree. “There is a decent Japanese community in Paraguay,” he says, “but I was the minority and I could feel it.” Nagaoka is third-generation Japanese. Born in Paraguay, when the photographer was 12 years old, he and his family moved to Ontario, Canada. “I grew up with a lot of racism,” he says, reflecting on his childhood. “You get to a point when you begin to hide your Asianness; you are almost forced to assimilate to the dominant culture.”
Throughout his schooling, Nagaoka would adopt certain “survival tactics”. It was a case of two extremes. Often he would find himself subconsciously assimilating to whichever culture was dominant; on other occasions he would embrace Asian stereotypes. “It was all I had to grasp onto,” he says of the latter. “There was not anything else so you start to accept that being Asian, and the stereotypes that come with it, begin to define you.” With a lack of Asian American role models, both within his community and popular culture, throughout his childhood Nagaoka’s identity was in constant flux.
Now in his mid-twenties, and increasingly reflective on his experiences growing up, the Portland-based photographer is looking to explore what it means to be Asian American. “I am interested in that in between place,” he says. “Sometimes you identify more with your American culture, sometimes you find solace in your heritage.” Commissioned by British Journal of Photography, in partnership with Visit California, Gold Mountain seeks to provide “an honest and genuine representation” of Asian Americans living in California, something Nagaoka says is currently lacking. “We are rarely depicted,” he reflects, “and, if we are, our portrayal is often superficial.”
California is a natural focus for the series. Home to one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in the US, second only to Hawaii, the state has a long and rich history of Asian American culture. It was the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century – when a sizeable group of Chinese immigrants travelled to the state in search of the riches that supposedly lined Gold Mountain, a peak in north-eastern California – that marked the beginning of the state’s rapidly growing Asian American population. Chinatown was subsequently established in San Francisco in 1853 and remains the oldest of its kind in the US, and the largest outside of Asia. “Being Asian American is different in California,” says Nagaoka, speaking of his interest in photographing Asian Americans living in the state. “There are so many more of us here. Subcultures have grown and flourished out of that.”
The opportunities afforded by California’s large and diverse Asian American population are undoubtedly a draw for those not originally from the state. Binh, a skater in her twenties, moved to Los Angeles from Georgia at the beginning of 2018. “At home, the Vietnamese community is generally very conservative; being queer I didn’t identify with that,” she says. “My mum has told me about her life in California so I moved here to get closer to that community and to also connect with other queer Asians.” Binh is a member of Unity, a California-based skate group that arranges meet-ups for queer people living in the state. It was through its Instagram pages that she began to connect with other LA-based Asian Americans.
Tracy, a Vietnamese-American photographer, also moved to Los Angeles in early-2018. “In high school [where she grew up in Pennsylvania] my friends were mostly white – I didn’t have any Asian friends,” she says. “I guess because I was born in the US and only had American friends I didn’t feel Asian American. I was always hanging around American people so I saw them, I didn’t see myself. As you grow older and you start making your own decisions you begin to realise things. Am I the only Asian American? Am I the only brown person? I never thought about it until I finished high school. When I was living on my own – making my own work and own decisions – I suddenly realised that there was a lot I didn’t know about myself.”
Gold Mountain is a project of great personal importance for Nagaoka. His approach was therefore naturally inquisitive. “I am asking lots of questions about what it means to be Asian American,” he says. “I have met people that are ashamed to be Asian – is this an effect of not seeing ourselves in positions of power? I am a photographer and yet I don’t see images of Asians – does that have an effect on someone growing up, on a conscious or a subconscious level? I don’t have the answers to these questions and that is why I started this project.”
For many of the subjects that Nagaoka photographed, the lack of Asian role models in US popular culture had a significant effect on their identity as a child and young adult. Dylan, a Filipino graphic designer, moved to Los Angeles with his childhood friend John just several months ago. “At school you get told that you are the Asian kid so you kind of accept that you are the Asian kid,” he says. “You begin to make all the stereotypes and jokes part of your identity but, once you reflect, you realise how messed up that is. We all go through that stage of not truly identifying as Asian because it somehow, at the end of the day, hinders us.”
In his job as a graphic designer, Dylan specialises in film and television. While his workplace is diverse, a reflection of the city he lives in, this is not mirrored in the media he engages with. “Unless it is anime or a foreign film coming to America, Asians are never depicted in mainstream media,” he says.
Myriad reports reflect Dylan’s grievances. A study by the University of Southern California, published in July 2018, found that of the top 1,100 films released between 2007 and 2017, Asian actors made up just 6.3 per cent of all roles. It is a similar story in television. A study of US prime-time shows, carried out by a group of California-based scholars, found that 155 of the 242 programmes studied did not have AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) series regulars. The researchers reached an overall conclusion that although the last 10 years have seen an increase in the opportunities for AAPI actors in US television, their characters “remain marginalised and tokenised.”
Tracy spoke at length about the lack of Asian representation in mainstream media. “I always geek out when I see Asian Americans, especially Vietnamese women, get cast in American media,” she says. “I definitely see a lack of representation – I can’t really name any films right now that have Asian leads.”
It is not solely the lack of media representation that for many Asian Americans prompts questions about their identity. Through Nagoaka’s various conversations with his subjects, it becomes clear that upbringing also has a part to play. With Gold Mountain, Nagoaka chose to focus on second, third and fourth-generation Asian Americans because, like him, they grew up experiencing “a middle ground” between their heritage and American upbringing. “You have this Asian heritage – your parents or grandparents grew up in Asia – and yet you were born and raised in the US,” says Nagoaka. “A lot of people have never been to their home country and if they have, they feel like a foreigner because the US has become their home.”
Binh, the skater who recently moved to LA, is first generation Vietnamese. “The stories I grew up with were told by the people who experienced them,” she says. “Not everyone can connect with their heritage on such an intimate level.” She still however struggled with her identity growing up. “When my parents came to the US their main priority was me being able to achieve the American Dream. That led to them thinking I had to sacrifice a lot of things from my culture, like my language,” she says. “They were so concerned about me not being able to excel at English, and being singled out at school for not being American enough. Because of that they only allowed me to learn English. That is how I lost a lot of my culture.
“They wanted me to pursue very American things: American sports, American language, American media. It makes it really hard for me to identify with being Vietnamese because from a very young age – for my safety and because my parents were scared – I assimilated to this American ideal.” Now based in LA and connecting with Asian Americans from a variety of backgrounds, Binh is beginning to explore and reconnect with her heritage.
Many of Nagaoka’s most striking shots are taken outside. If there is even a glimmer of sunlight or shadow, Nagaoka finds a way for it to fall curiously upon his subject. Yet it is telling of the photographer’s approach that the majority of his time in California is spent perched on sofas in darkened rooms. He had no intention of taking photographs here but these were the spaces where his subjects felt most comfortable speaking candidly and sharing their personal experiences. These conversations were intimate and unhurried; in Nagaoka’s mind, they bear an equal importance to the photographs he took.
Gold Mountain is the beginning of an ongoing project. While the physical outcome is a series of intimate portraits, Nagoaka’s eventual goal is far greater. “I know that each Asian culture has its unique power and intricacies but I am interested in seeing if there is something that can unify us all,” he says. “Is there something that can rally Asian Americans and bring us together so more people can feel proud to be Asian?” It is an ambition that the individuals Nagoaka photographed in California welcome. “Hopefully your project will make people realise the bigger picture and what it means to have Asian representation,” say Binh. “I do understand when people question why we need Hollywood to validate us. While we criticise Hollywood for not representing us we also need to validate ourselves. You are making space for us; you are literally representing us right now. We need to make our own spaces, we need to validate ourselves if the people in power do not.”
Nagoaka remains optimistic: “Change can happen,” he says. “For me, it is especially important for those who grew up being the token Asian kid. I want those people to wake up in the morning and think: ‘I have people to look up to. I am proud of being Asian.’”
Words: Anya Lawrence
Meet California is a British Journal of Photography commission made in partnership with Visit California. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.