Tommy Kha got interested in photography as a child, using a disposable camera on family vacations. He graduated to more sophisticated equipment, pursuing a BFA at the Memphis College of Art and an MFA in photography from Yale School of Art and receiving a fellowship from En Foco, a nonprofit nurturing contemporary, fine-art and documentary photography by diverse artists. Kha’s work has appeared in Vice, Modern Painters and Hyperallergic as well as being included in Miranda July’s ”We Think Alone” project. His solo show, Return to Sender, runs through October 20 at LMAK Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
To capture NYC’s Pride celebration on the last Sunday in June, Kha used his experience as a queer Asian as a filter, chronicling the day from the perspective of his friends and newcomers at the Queer Liberation March and elsewhere in the City. We talked with Kha about how his background impacts his work and how his experience with Pride was a microcosm of how he views the world.
What was your approach to covering Pride for this assignment? TK: I got up at 6am and started shooting by 7:30am. I met up with [my friends] Drew and David in Bushwick and then went right over to Stonewall, where everyone was lining up [for the Queer Liberation March]. Then I went back to Brooklyn. It was really right up my alley to experience little bits and pieces of events—my kind of slice-of-life, mumblecore work. I’m really anxious and preoccupied as a person, and always stimulated by different things. I don’t see the big picture; I see lots of different aspects.
How would you describe your process for these photos? TK: I shot it with a new camera, a Pentax 645Z medium format. [The subject matter] is across the board, though primarily it focuses on queer Asian figures. Half were friends of mine, some in Brooklyn and others in Manhattan. Some were strangers I just saw through the day or that I met at a party.
You chose not to be in any of your Pride portraits. TK: I know—and that’s funny because I’m known for my self-portraits. It was refreshing, actually! Part of it was practicality: I was running all over town and I didn’t have an assistant, so it would have been really hard to be in them and shoot them. But I think a lot of Pride is experiencing other people, and I wanted to convey that.
I love the play of light in the portraits of the gay Asian couple. TK: That’s my friends David and Drew—they’re just friends. I somehow luck out with people who aren’t all that familiar with photography but who manage to hold still for a long time. I shoot with long exposure, which heightens gestures, and I like to use available light. The effect is this great, kind of unintended collaboration.
Where did you find that garden wall you photographed? TK: I came across these flowers all covered in plastic bags—it reminded me of when people put plastic on their couches to preserve them. It kind of reminded me of a funeral. I didn’t realize at first that it was this commercial, sponsored thing—I was just seduced by the flowers.
Tell me about photos of the people you had just met during Pride. TK: The unplanned stuff is so delightful. There was a woman who was very political—she wanted to show me her tattoos about the abortion ban. The different stories I had to glean, they’re just very beautiful and I wanted to capture that. Some people were there to protest, others to celebrate and some were just taking in the pleasure of being with other bodies.
Had you been to New York Pride before? TK: This was my first! Well, technically my second. But the last time I couldn’t see anything. I’m really too short to see the parade unless I camp out and get a spot right up front. So this was my real first time getting to see it from so many different perspectives, like people lining up in the morning, and the Stonewall Inn before it was overrun with people. It was liberating.
When you were growing up in Memphis, how was Pride different down there? TK: I think it’s more my experience of it was different: I went to Memphis Pride back in 2006. We had conversion therapy camps down there. I was young and not completely out, maybe more cautious.
Is Memphis still home for you? TK: Yeah, in a way it always will be. I grew up in Memphis for 22 years. I feel most comfortable there. But I’m always learning new things and meeting new people there, too—I’m interviewing others who lost people in the AIDS crisis. I’ve been hanging out with this Mississippi Delta Asian group that I knew nothing about. I still go back and forth to Memphis periodically. I photograph my mom as much as I can when I’m there.