Jarod Lew, Gracie, 2019
In 2012, Jarod Lew unearthed a piece of his personal family history that set the groundwork for an exploration of what it means to be Asian American: his mother was the fiancé of Vincent Chin—a Chinese American draftsman whose murder in 1982, just days before their wedding, would respark the Asian American Civil Rights movement. Lew’s series Please Take Off Your Shoes, set in his hometown of Detroit—the geographical backdrop to Chin’s life and murder—takes an intimate but emboldened look at what remains in Chin’s legacy and the long history of survival and erasure in displacement.
Enveloped in the American suburban interior, Lew’s photographs capture a particular cross section of “Asian” and “American” visual artifacts. Ornate golden lovebirds hover above silken living-room pillows featuring the Chinese character for prosperity. A turtle shell stuffed with American dollars appears beside a framed five-yuan bill featuring Mao Zedong. A Korean adoptee adorns a white Korean face mask and a Japanese T-shirt of Homer Simpson. Through a paradoxical landscape of assimilation, a singular aesthetic begins to register.
Often emerging in stark contrast against the blank backdrops of their bedrooms, the young Asian American individuals in Lew’s solitary portraits inhabit the same nebulous space. Lew’s gravitation toward photographing people in the safest and most private areas of their homes reveals the shared alienation and complex tensions of a younger generation and their experiences with identity and belonging. Their own safe spaces are visually absent of Asian ornaments and objects; we are left unable to access them through the spectacle of any “Asian” aesthetic. “You can leave a room being the most Asian thing in the room and go into a public space of the house and be the least Asian thing in the room,” Lew explains. “I used underrepresentation as a freedom to play, and I think the people I photographed had that same feeling of wanting to play with our experience.” Vincent Chin may have been the access point into how Lew wanted to understand his Asian American experience in the aftermath of a hate crime, but the resulting body of work in Please Take Off Your Shoes moves far beyond the racial violence Chin endured. In the subverted visual language of the hyper-visible (and invisible), the resilient reflection of a community comes into focus.
Jarod Lew (born in Detroit, 1987) is a Chinese American photographer based in Detroit. His photographs explore themes of identity, place, community, and displacement. In 2012, Lew discovered that his mother was the fiancé of Vincent Chin, who was murdered by two autoworkers in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1982, resparking the Asian American Civil Rights movement. Since this discovery, Lew has focused his attention on his own identity as a Chinese American, trying to visually understand “Asian-ness” in the American landscape. His photographs have been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC; Center for Photography at Woodstock, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Design Museum, London; and Philharmonie de Paris. His clients include the New Yorker, New York Times, Financial Times Weekend, GQ, and NPR.
The Aperture Portfolio Prize is an annual international competition to discover, exhibit, and publish new talents in photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.