When I want to embrace my blackness, I immerse myself in artworks that depict the beauty in the normality of black life. The warmth they convey touches my chord and makes my “feelings feel” again. No matter where they hail from, across the diaspora, the works speak a language that I understand, as they present Black people who remind me of my American cousin, my Jamaican friend and my Ghanaian grandmother. It is a codified language, audible in those moments of silence when I linger on the pictures. A code that is present in Zun Lee’s works too.
Canadian photographer Zun Lee places emphasis on the ordinary, on quotidian moments of Black life, and shows the fullness of Black humanity. Lee does not engage in photography only to reaffirm the richness in our stories – “of who am I” –, but it is a practice through which he also tells the story of “whose am I” – his belonging. A place, within the people he belongs to, well reflected in his works.
Fade Resistance, his latest project, is an archive of orphaned Polaroids that Lee has collected since 2012. Buying the photos at yard sales and on eBay, Lee has prevented them from ending up in the waste bin of visual history. “Fade Resistance” reminds us that in those ordinary jovial moments – captured in the photos – our life mattered, and it still matters.
GRIOT: The Polaroids in your project depict different Black families. However, each photo can be read and thought of in relation not only to the ones in the archive but also, implicitly introducing their presence to the ones yet to be discovered. In addition, they mirror the photos kept in family albums and on the walls of Black homes. How are these Polaroids related to your own albums and your story?
Zun Lee: It is interesting what happens when one looks at these images not in isolation but as an archival body of work. Granted, the image have a specificity of meaning that remains tied to the individuals and their family relationships, and that should never be overlooked. But in analyzing the collection as a whole, certain themes emerge that speak to the ways in which Black families codified their own existence and that go beyond individual context. It provides for enduring meta-narratives that span across time and geographies and survive the ephemeral nature of these snapshots.
Insofar as these scenes speak to the notion of what life moments these families deemed worthwhile preserving, and what curatorial choices, if you will, these families made to self-represent, it makes this archive to be much more than a nostalgic “trip down memory lane”. The images prompt us to ask specific questions regarding how Black families used images to bear witness to their own existence and how they passed these stories on.
The practice of “storying” is what drew me to these images in the first place. I don’t have access to any photos that document my own upbringing, and the Polaroids are a direct and visceral reminder of the moments and people that shaped my Black identity and experience. The people that raised me, the stories I was told, and the experiences and insights that helped me make sense of the world I grew up in.
Family photos, more than any other photographs, are repositories of intimacy, not conceived to be made public and circulated among strangers. What does it feel like to touch, hold and interact with these photos? Is there ever a sense of fear of breaking the intimate sphere that the subjects wanted to create?
I’m constantly reminded that these Polaroids are orphaned and found images. The fact that you and I can hold them now means that some event of dislocation or dispossession occurred that made the photos available to us in the first place. That event could be a drastic one or people could have voluntarily left these pictures behind.
Either way, I often speculate about what life forces make someone abandon visual artifacts that could have been precious keepsakes for someone at some point in their lives, especially if they depict intimate, joyful moments and important milestones, or if someone took great care to caption the Polaroid with detailed information (names, dates, location, etc.).
The “objectness” of these Polaroids and the experience of touching them and waiting for them to develop created a haptic and social experience reminding us of how folks used to socialize the images back in the day – literally passing them around the kitchen table and sharing stories.
For me, it is also that haptic quality of the Polaroid experience that reminds me not only of who and what was depicted, but the situational context – who else was present, who took the picture, what we were doing at the time, who said what to whom – which creates a memory of not just the moment, but the before and after.
A heightened awareness of intruding into a deeply personal and intimate situation is therefore always there, and it makes me appreciate that intimacy even more. By default, we assume a voyeuristic role because these pictures are not our own and they weren’t meant to be in conversation with us, but it is that awareness of what goes into the making of a Polaroid that also prevents me from randomly speculating about the visual content and the story behind it.
Though they are not under the ‘fine-art photography’ category, the Polaroids of your project require a critical reading too, as if they were works of art. What have the photos revealed to you while reading them?
I find the artificial distinction between ‘fine art’ and ‘vernacular’ photography somewhat problematic, as we rarely examine the positionality of whose consideration that is, and whom we indirectly empower by accepting that distinction. It’s perhaps more helpful to think about how Black visual art has functioned beyond conveying aesthetic possibilities as a vehicle for meaning-making, asserting notions of Black subjectivity outside of and beyond the Western canon in ways that tell us who we are to ourselves, as we move through life and through history.
In his foreword to “Reflections in Black” by Deborah Willis, Robin D.G. Kelley remarked about Black vernacular photography: “Study these photographs and you’ll discover in the gaze and gestures of ordinary African Americans a complex and diverse community too busy loving, marrying, dancing, worshipping, dreaming, laughing, arguing, playing, working, dressing up, looking cool, raising children, organizing, performing magic, making poetry to be worried about what white folks thought about them.”
I find that these observations apply in striking fashion to the archive. Yet these particular photographs are also removed from their original authorship, which makes Kelley’s observations reflective of an aspirational ideal – not necessarily of how these specific Black families saw themselves, but how we as Black people would like to see them, and in turn, ourselves.
In addition of being visual text, photographs represent objects of memory. What type of memory can we excavate and/or reframe from these Polaroids whose stories, beyond what was captured, are unknown to us?
With respect to the object-memory relationship, what makes me hang on to Kelley’s notion of how we “read” our own desire for Black self-representation is how this archive resonates in very specific ways with Black audiences when I show them the proverbial “shoebox” of family Polaroids. It tells me there is a “code” at work. A code that allows for shared meaning, yet also remains opaque without obliterating the original context of a given image.
The inference I’m making is that such codes – while not universal – may still serve the purpose of broad reimagination based on a perceived common understanding or common lived experience. It doesn’t mean that we all interpret a given image the exact same way, but if several folks in a room nod affirmatively at the same time about a certain image, then that’s a nice starting point for unpacking “the code” at play.
I often belabor the visuality of “Black Twitter” and Black meme culture to illustrate this codification. If you examine popular hashtag campaigns like #growingupblack of #iftheygunnedmedown, it wasn’t so much that the visual content in individual images made them “Black”. Most commenters would have difficulty explaining what makes them so.
But despite the lack of specificity, the code functions in the aggregate, because many people across the diaspora draw upon shared cultural references to access the meaning of certain hashtags or memes, which accelerates their virality in our current zeitgeist. And that phenomenon doesn’t require explicit decoding or even consistency in meaning to work. The code functions as a way to link individual histories to a collective consciousness.
I guess, I’m making an argument for “Fade Resistance” as fairly contemporary evidence of the internal production of Black subjectivity which at the same time challenged its relationship to (and dependency on) White mainstream representation.
The Polaroids are orphaned works that had, and probably still have, a family that treasured them. Have you ever had the chance to get in touch or meet the owners of some of the pictures?
That’s probably the most haunting aspect of this collection – these Polaroids were taken in the 1970s all the way to the early 2000s, so there’s a high probability that the families they belonged to are still around. Many of them have names and other identifying information on them and I’ve managed to find a few families using use social media and Google and get in touch. The vast majority have not been very responsive thus far.
Many of these photographs hail from the Greater Los Angeles area, and I plan on traveling to LA for a prolonged period of time to visit the individuals and hopefully document their stories. As of now, I have not yet met anyone in person but I intend to make this happen soon.
The photographs of “Fade Resistance” offer a counter narrative to the representation of Black bodies and Black lives in the media. In this regard, a quote by bell hooks comes to my mind: “The field of representation (how we see ourselves, how other see us) is a site of ongoing struggle”. On the backdrop of recent events – “from Ferguson to Flint and beyond” – what role does the Black artist have in this struggle?
The emancipatory project is, and has always been, advanced with visuals and through modes of visual representation. Mainstream erasure and dehumanization work twofold in that regard.
Firstly, Black bodies and Black life are not centered in the dominant narrative and continue to be excluded from the Western canon. That does not mean that images of quotidian Black sociality don’t circulate in mainstream cultural production – they do, and increasingly so – but visual representation is not about quotas. The question is, do we recognize ourselves in these depictions, and does the narrative speak to us or someone else?
Secondly, erasure occurs not just in the present but also functions in the historic realm; meaning, the canonical meta-narrative provides only limited information about who we are now, but in addition also obliterates our historic cultural production that visually describes alternate ways of imagining Blackness and Black bodies. It’s as if we didn’t exist before and outside of the colonial paradigm, so anything we now imagine in terms of Black visuality seems brand-new to us and the normative center because our past knowledge is rarely documented, archived and indexed in readily available and accessible ways.
It would be presumptuous for me to offer any advice regarding what role “the Black artist” should play in this dynamic, except that I know what it took for me to arrive at this point in my own journey, what I’ve encountered first-hand in terms of erasure, distortion and silencing, and how to express narratives that were passed down to me in ways that reflect my story but also honor my kinfolk.
For me, photography isn’t something I “do”, it’s a practice that is intimately tied into my daily life; so what matters most to me isn’t the photograph as the end result, it’s the sense of connection and belonging this practice brings about. In other words, my photographs are not so much about “explaining” but about reaffirming the presence of Blackness and Black people, and my place within that presence. You’ll be able to see my place in these images as much as the people I commune with.
James Baldwin said, “When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” Because our mere existence is enough to give us the right to be here and be seen, I don’t want to create images that requires a reference to any other context than the quotidian lives we already move through. This notion of “enoughness” is central to my work.
The question I constantly ask myself is: What does it mean to make sense of the world through the lens of everyday Black life and specifically, my own lived Black experience? Who and what becomes important in such a narrative and why? I know I’ll never arrive at a fully satisfactory answer in terms of my own work, but I aim to structure my own process and practice along three considerations:
Audience: Who am I making this work for? Who am I not making it for? I strive to make my work very specific to my own realm of lived experience and that means being purposefully opaque (not vague), because I don’t have the need to explain my work to people that are not my intended audience, nor seek their feedback or approval. Usually, I strive to create a set of entry points in each image, but if you are my intended audience, my work will easily reveal additional “codes” to help decipher it.
Authorship: One of my mentors (alas, I can’t remember who) told me “merely taking an image of Black people doesn’t make it Black”. Your perspective and positionality as a Black storyteller matters. That means knowing what you’re shooting and why, and what you’re omitting. It also means you have to let people in on who you are, let them see you in your story. In my case, my lived experience guides me both in terms of what I know and what I don’t know.
Agency: For me it’s important to show Black people as fully embodied and empowered in their own lives. That means to present choices that people can act upon (whether right or wrong), to reveal specific and nuanced aspects about their lives that make them fully present, and to avoid explaining their “worthiness”. Black people don’t have to be heroes, noble, or respectable, to be at the center of my narrative. We don’t need to be “saved”, or falsely exceptionalized. For me, there is more than enough richness in our ordinary quotidian moments to build my work on.
Out of the photographs in the project, the pictures which affected me the most are the ones taken in prison. More than in the other pictures, the people there were aware of participating in a form of resistance. Would you agree with this observation? Moreover, are there any pictures which touch and move you more than others?
I would agree that the prison photographs are probably among the ones that are the most endearing in this archive and they resonate deeply with the objective of Fade Resistance. Given the pervasive impact of the prison-industrial complex on Black and Brown lives in the US, these images are quite common and play a pivotal role in the documentation of Black sociality.
We spoke about “codes” above and nowhere is this codification more obvious (to those that know the code) than in prison photos. There is a purposefulness in terms of how inmates aim to minimize the carcerality in these images and instead present themselves as members of a “family unit”, whether it is with other inmates, or with actual visiting family. They downplay the prison dress code when possible.
There is a defined “ritual” of standing in front of a painted backdrop, often with deliberate poses that communicate affection, hope, belonging and intimacy. There often is a desire to portray a degree of normalcy and intactness of family bonds that can be quite heartbreaking. As such, these photos offer a concrete self-representational counterbalance to the “mugshot”, the well-trodden cliché of indexed and criminalized visuality.
Among the dozens of prison Polaroids, I have an entire series featuring a couple photographed together over many years, and you can see them maturing, and changing as time progresses. The images depict a man named Everett during his period of incarceration in the 1980s at San Quentin, California. No last names or other context is available, other than from some of the notes and captions scribbled on each image.
There are shots of him alone, with friends and family, and most often with his female life partner, who remains nameless. The same painted background forms the backdrop for every single shot, which adds a haunting quality to this series.
In this image, there is a certain intentionality behind it that is very endearing. The caption “To A Very Special Woman – From The Prince – Bright Days Ahead” conveys a sense of futurity, of optimism and belief in a life of togetherness and possibility. It is an image that was clearly meant to be cherished by his partner as a message of love and encouragement.
Here is a particularly intimate one, with the woman sitting in her partner’s lap, and both looking rather happy and hopeful. Only the back of the image reminds us of the carceral nature of this image, with a number that I believe could represent Everett’s inmate ID written twice.
A beautiful high point in this series – Everett with a little girl that I assume is his daughter. His pride and joy are so obvious and she is the epitome of “daddy’s little princess”. It’s so evident how much it means for Everett to portray himself as a present and loving father, and how much emotional labor surrounds these images as this family’s life relentlessly circulates inside and outside the carceral system.
This is the image that haunts me the most in this series: It is still full of love and affection, but it also shows the wear and tear of this relationship. Both have matured. The woman’s wedding band is clearly visible, but her expression is pensive, weary, almost doubtful. We of course don’t know what the real context of this image is or what happened to the two overall, but just thinking of the implications is really heartbreaking especially given that all these photos ended up discarded and orphaned.
What I find most compelling about these images is how they exist within the context of relationships, love, belonging, and familial attachments. Yet these images equally tell a story of disruption, dreams deferred, of an uncertain future while facing the inevitability of incarceration. It is not only the prisoners that are regulated – it is the friends, family members and loved ones that are likewise held in a state of captivity.
You have collected more than 3500 orphaned Polaroids, creating a new space for them – both a digital and physical one – and bringing out of the images, meanings which had always been present but had long been concealed. What does the future hold for this project?
I think this idea of “holding space” for these artifacts is central to this collection, and I hope I can continue to do so in many different ways. I don’t “own” these photographs – I see myself more as a custodian for these discarded images to prevent them from further decay and from falling into oblivion (hence the name Fade Resistance). I welcome opportunities to showcase and exhibit the collection itself.
What I enjoy the most, however, is when these images can serve as vehicles for people to come together, touch them, share stories and create a space for meaning-making that isn’t just about how we read our past, but how we can reimagine our present and future possibilities.
For 2017, I’m planning to travel to some of the sites from which these Polaroids originated. Hopefully, I’ll be able to connect with the families I have been fortunate to get in touch with. I will also continue my search for an institution that can properly house and take care of the Polaroids themselves – currently I store these images at home, and that’s neither optimal nor sustainable.
My publisher CeibaFoto and I also are working on a print publication for this project – we are calling this a “photobook” for now, but aim to get really creative with the form and design.
Zun Lee’s works are currently on view at two exhibitions: “No Justice, No Peace: from Ferguson to Toronto” until February 26, at Gladstone Hotel (Toronto); and “Zun Lee: Father Figure” until July 8, at Harvey B. Gantt Center (Charlotte, NC).
Featured Image | “11-18-78 Nuchie & Daddy“. Oct 18, 1978. Location unknown. Item obtained on eBay | All Images | Courtesy of Zun Lee
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Theophilus Kwesi Imani
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