On Thursday, October 8, world-renowned photographer Wing Young Huie visited the
UW-Superior campus for an important presentation.
His presentation was called, “Chalk Talk: More Than a Conversion about race.“
Huie explained that a great deal of his work reflects the lives of a diverse handful of people, or as he said it, “I will mirror them, and sometimes they mirror me.”
Huie was born and raised in Duluth. When he was a young boy, he didn’t realize that he was different, even though he was Chinese and most of the kids in his grade were white. “Inside,” He said, “I felt like everyone else.” It took him a while to find out that he was different.
He told the crowd, “As a young man, I started to ask myself questions like, ‘What are my own cultural filters? What if I grew up in China, or the deep South? How would I have turned out?”
He related to the audience of approximately fifty people that he worked in his father’s restaurant, started studying business at the University of Minnesota, changed his major to English and then to Journalism, “That’s practical,” he said.
Then he moved back to Duluth where he became interested in photography. He soon took a class at St. Scholastica that allowed him to go on a trip and take a lot of pictures.
At about that time he found out that his father, John Gee was an illegal immigrant. Gee went to court and was accused under suspicion of his citizenship status. However, there was a fire at the immigration office and it burned any evidence the court could have used against him. He won the case.
Gee then changed the family name to Huie, and opened the family restaurant. Huie recalled that when he moved back to Duluth, he wondered how many more secrets his father was carrying, and about secrets that other immigrants kept from their families.
“It was important to me,” Huie said, “to ask my father questions, not as a son, but as a reporter.”
Shortly, John Huie ended up on the 1980 cover of Contexts, a sociology journal from the U of M. The shot was in black and white with Huie sitting in sharp in trousers, suspenders and a crisp white shirt. His stern look and long, gnarled hands reflected all the years of hard work he had been through.
The next photo he showed to his audience was something he called “culturally loaded,” or having many interpretations; it was a picture of a middle-aged white couple and a black lawn ornament. The ceramic black boy was very dark, he was sitting down fishing, and he had exaggerated lips.
Huie asked his audience for a show of hands whether they did not know what to think of this picture. About half of them obliged. He asked them if this image was offensive, and about half the audience raised their hands. Only a few did not think there was anything wrong with it.
“The couple,” he said, “told me they got this statue because they adopted a black son and they wanted him to experience a little black culture.”
Huie explained that although the couple’s intentions might have been innocent, this was in fact a piece of memorablilia that represents black people through a white lens, much like Aunt Jemima syrup bottles, darkie shows, and Gone With theWind perpetuated black stereotypes.
Next, he showed his series from Frogtown: Photographs and Conversations in an Urban Neighborhood. Frogtown is a racially diverse neighborhood in Minneapolis. There was a photo of a black family of about six or seven posing on their porch, one of a black boy and a white boy sitting together by a tree, and one of an old man in a wheel-chair and a baby in a stroller.
In another display, Huie detailed an experience he had during his Looking for Asian America tour in which he met two Asian women. He asked himself, “Which is American-born, and which is fresh-off-the-boat?” One of the women pictured was older, in her thirties, had curly hair, fair skin, and she was casually dressed. The other woman was younger, tanner, had long strait hair and wore a black turtleneck. He guessed the older woman was the immigrant, and the younger one was American-born. Once he talked to them, however, they turned out to be the opposite of who he thought they were.
Huie demonstrated how someone who is of the same race as the person they see in front of them can still make incorrect judgments based on assumptions. He introduced the Chalk Talk exercise next. Huie asked members of the audience to find someone in the room whom they did not know and ask them a few questions, and then write your answer on a chalk-board. Huie would then take your photo with you holding the message.
The questions were somewhat personal, as follows: What are you? What advice would you give to someone you don’t know well? How do others see you? What don’t they see? Describe an incident that changed you. When do you feel you are different than the people around you? When do you feel the same? What matters?
All in all, Huie demonstrated that he wants people to get a reaction to his photography; he wants to get people thinking about how we perceive and judge other people or judge ourselves. He leaves the viewer with an image that is open to interpretation—one that you can choose to dissect or to enjoy. I was very impressed with this show, and glad to be a participant as well.