In Conversation with Queer Photographer Tommy Kha

Photographer Tommy Kha became drawn towards the lens while searching for his identity as a teenager.

During these years, the camera became his way of expressing rebellion and celebrating difference. After realising that he was queer, Kha’s work has explored masculinity and Asian identity. Currently splitting his time between Brooklyn and Memphis, he honed his grasp of image making at Yale, where he gained an MFA in photography.

Kha has continued his exploration of queer Asian identity in his latest photography series, I’m Only Here To Leave. The series sees Tommy and others wearing and holding cardboard cut out images in real-world surroundings, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. At its core, his work interacts with the basic queer experience of standing out, while trying not to, in a heteronormative world. We caught up with Kha to hear more about his work and artistic vision.

Your work reads as a quest for acceptance. How did your experience of growing up gay motivate you to start taking photographs?

Being a Queer person of colour, I’ve always felt an out-of-placeness in regards to my Asian body and sexuality. They’re in cahoots with one another yet operate independently from each other. I distinctly remember that when I first picked up the camera was also when I discovered I was gay—from watching a Dentyne Ice commercial. Many of my relationships with my family are in a constant series of negotiations. For example, my mother doesn’t know that I’m gay. There’s suspicion but the need to understand each other after years of antagonism outweighs having that conversation anytime soon.

How has photography allowed you to become more comfortable with your queer identity?

While photography validates many of my experiences, I don’t think having validation equates to comfortability or resolve. The camera and the act of photographing creates a neutral ground between me as the operator and who/what I’m photographing. At the same time, much of my process is maintaining a level of uncertainty in order to be constantly unsettled, there has to be room to be surprised. It’s a song and dance.

Where did the idea for I’m Only Here To Leave come from?

While I’ve been working with non-photographic prints of myself (cutouts and masks), there were times when people trying to “place” or categorise my work. Because I didn’t photograph other queer people exclusively, I wasn’t a ‘Queer photographer’. Because I was born in the States, I wasn’t a ‘Chinese photographer’ either. This body of work is specifically reactionary towards those attitudes.

I wanted to “ruin” photography by putting my face on other bodies, which later became me wanting to see if it was possible to be seen more queer, more Asian or more desired. Inadvertently, when these cut outs or masks of me are photographed, they resemble a terrible Photoshop job. Echoing that my body doesn’t belong.

Why is it important for queer people, and artists, to tell their stories on their own terms?

Our stories are perceived to be abnormal when reflected in society, and because it’s been seen as unusual, there’s a belief that accurate, or rather respectful, portrayal is not important in visual media. Often those stories are written and created by voices who never experienced being othered, they’re always looking at the world through only one lens.

Is there such a thing as a queer aesthetic? If so, how would you describe it?

Yes. I wouldn’t think anything I say is definitive, queerness and queer aesthetics have been around for a long time, mostly in parts related to post-colonialism, feminism and gender studies. Anything that goes against a system from the perspective of difference is queer.

Do you see creating art as a form of activism, or an effective way to bring about social change?

Much of my work deals with self-portraiture, and by extension, the body. The body is always an area of conflict, anything I make can be read in that regard. However, I don’t think I’m overtly political, nor is it important for me to measure in such a way. I know artists whose work are more vocal and who experience way more injustice and inequality. It is my responsibility to be aware, though my work is personal, biographical, I hope I can elevate their voices.

What’s next for you?

I’m sequencing a few other photographic projects, one involving Elvis Tribute artists. Trying to solve the lack of diversity in Hollywood, my friend, Jonathan Meyers, and I have been greenscreening my body into film narratives called “Awkward Film Series.” I’m planning to do some acting and a few performances as well. I’ve been penning a semi-autobiographical comic, which I’ve been thinking about as my paternal grandma just passed away. Because I never owned a picture of her, I drew her.

Discover more of Tommy Kha’s photographs below or visit his website.

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