Growing up in the 2000s, I loved Frankie magazine. It was, and still is, a beautiful publication. Yet if you looked at the first few dozen covers, a trend emerges — every single front cover was of a white woman. For a teenager, the message was clear: Asian girls, black girls, brown girls — any girls who weren’t white, were not cover girls. While our work may be found within the pages of the magazine, we weren’t quite chosen to be the face of it. And still — we bought Frankie.
Model and actor Chervil Tan was one of the first Asian girls to make it on a Frankie cover. When I mention Chervil’s cover to my high school friends, they remember it, remember feeling seen for the first time. A feeling of possibility, of hope appeared: maybe this could be me, we thought. In a world that had subliminally rejected us for so long, in Chervil’s visibility we too were made visible.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” author and playwright Michelle Law says in her interview with Liminal, an online magazine featuring artists of colour which I edit. Yet it’s exhausting for people of colour to bear the burden of creating the world they want to see. At the same time, we must do the work — because it’s good work: we’re in an era where the advent of easily accessible photography and journalism has created game changing opportunities. We may not be what we can’t see — but we can now create what we’ve never seen.
I started the Liminal project because I saw a gap within Australian discourse around race. There is writing about representation, but our writers of colour remain largely faceless. Their voices, disconnected from the very bodies they were writing about, meant the battle was already half lost.
As an Asian-Australian, I exist in a strange tension, at once feeling invisible, yet constantly observed. I rarely see representations of myself in the media; at both university and in my workplace I have felt like an anomaly. For decades, the making of visual meaning within the West has been monopolised by those in power. For people of colour in Australia, this has meant a rejection or erasure of self, in a white-washed media and film industry.
Living with this sense of difference often makes me feel singled out, nervous, unsettled. To be aware of one’s body — constantly obvious and watched — is an uncomfortable experience. But as photographer, I have found a means to reshape and reframe this relationship in my own terms.
At the end of last year, I took pictures of Haneen Martin, an emerging creative from Adelaide. We had barely spoken beforehand except to organise a location. On the day of the shoot, however, there was an unmistakeable sense of solidarity: I know what you’ve been through, if only because I’ve been through it, too. Afterward, Haneen told me it was the first time she’s ever had her portrait taken by another person of colour. She said that it came as a surprise how comfortable she was, that could be herself; and she didn’t have to conform to pre-conceived notions of her as an ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ model. This moment was powerful for both of us. I wasn’t looking at her as the Other; we were creating together.
In my photographic practice, I shoot from below in an attempt to capture the subject from a position of deference. I look up to these artists of colour from the same position I have spent my entire life looking up at the busts and paintings of dead white European men. And I position my viewers to do the same. The act of capturing our lives through photos allows us to (re-)write our own narratives and engage others in our stories. We can choose to look up to those we deem worthy, not merely those deemed worthy for us. By ignoring the visual clutter around us, we can create our own worlds.
In conversation at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne in March, photographer Teju Cole noted that when you photograph, you are “going around the world, looking for what’s yours.” Here’s to people of colour behind the camera, deciding what’s theirs. Creating new narratives, and making their world ours, too.
Leah McIntosh is the Founding Editor of Liminal magazine, where she curates a long form interview series featuring artists of colour. Follow Leah on @_leahleahleah.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_ .