I remember a few months ago, I was out in LA for a Beloved photographers conference that my man, Jesh de Rox was leading. It was a chance for all of us to meet, learn and grow as artists. It was an amazing experience and I met so many talented, kind human beings who I’m so happy to still keep in touch with from time to time.
There was one point during a q&a session where one photographer stood up, bearing her soul to the rest of us, and contemplated how an artist who’s never been in love such as herself, can be a photographer who captures and documents love for a living. How can one capture something one has never felt. In other words, she felt like she was a fraud.
By this time, half of the attendees were in tears. Why, because we felt sorry for her? No, because I think as artists, we all have inner demons we battle every single day. That is why we ARE artists. Because somewhere in life, we realized creativity was the only medicine for whatever illness we were suffering from whether it be from depression, loneliness, abuse, what have you. And I think in every artist’s journey, we come across a moment where we feel like the biggest fraud. And that’s why we were all able to relate.
I don’t have a functional relationship with my dad. Never had. He’s the typical Korean dad in many ways – workaholic, doesn’t talk much, hardly ever present. But he’s an extreme case. In fact, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had a heart to heart discussion with him about life or his past or his dreams as a younger man. Quite frankly, I know nothing of the man.
The one thing I do know of him though, is that he loves photography. I know this because when I was growing up, his pride and joy was his Contax IIIa rangefinder. And I came across a shoebox full of old photos he took while he was in the Korean army once. He also owned a one hour photo lab while I was in high school and college (which killed my summers because as a child of immigrants, it’s mandatory the kids help out whenever they’re not in school!).
I remember even on slow days, we never talked. He would listen to his Korean talk radio and I would read a book or write. Yeah, I got a lot of writing done during those down times. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, I don’t think. At this point, I was already mildly curious about photography so I would ask my dad about it, but he never really had much to say about it oddly enough.
You know, at one point, I was resigned to the fact that I will never really know my father. Which is crazy because it’s not like I didn’t grow up with him. He wasn’t a thousand miles away or anything. But sometime last year, I decided to try to change that. You don’t have to be a trained psychotherapist to know there’s a connection between my decision to be a photographer and knowing the only thing about my dad is his love for photography. Unconsciously, I suppose I was attempting to get closer to my dad. To maybe understand him better.
So I was at my parents place in Westchester one day last year and I worked up enough courage to just flat out ask him about photography and running a business. I mean, this was a HUGE step for me, to have a conversation with my dad. And to break the ice, I asked him about his Contax IIIa. Immediately he perked up and ran to get the camera.
He talked on and on about the technical aspects of the camera, the Zeiss lens, the ridiculously near mint condition it was in, it’s unique light meter and bla bla bla bla bla. In my 32 years of living, he had never said so much to me. So I started fiddling around with it and I asked him if it still works. “OF COURSE!! But I haven’t used it in years,” he responded.
So I asked him since he never uses it, and because I wanted to get back into film photography at the time, if I could borrow it every once in a while and play around with it. We’d be able to talk about the photos and about film and the glory days lol. This could be the tipping point in our relationship.
But my dad said no. He was saving it for something later. It sounded slightly less harsh in Korean. But the impact was still the same.
I flashbacked immediately to when I was seven or eight. My brother and I had the Sega Master System and there was this driving video game called “Action Fighter” (kind of like Spy Hunter) that I super-duper-absolutely-had-to-have-and-I-wouldn’t-be-able-to-live-without-and-I-knew-that-if-I-didn’t-have-it-I’d-end-up-having-to-pay-thousands-and-thousands-of-dollars-in-therapy-as-an-adult-because-of-the-trauma-it-would’ve-caused-had-I-not-owned-it (this was before I discovered Jordan’s). And one day my dad brought it home after work.
So I did what every kid that I saw on TV did when they got an awesome gift (kid rips open the packaging, puts down the gift, runs over to the dad, gives him a bear hug almost knocking the father over, the camera pans out and the closing credits begin to roll… Everyone lives happily ever after until the next episode). So I ran over and gave my dad a great big hug but rather than a nice smooth fade to black, he basically peeled me off of him and shrugged me off. I don’t quite remember how I reacted to that, but I remember the video game wasn’t quite as awesome as I had once thought. And that was the last time I ever attempted to hug my dad ever again.
Fast forward 25ish years and there I was, in the very same house, in the very same living room, feeling the very same way. Our conversation trailed off after that. I asked him for advice about opening a small business but he went back to not having much to say. I asked him about my career, and got pretty much the same thing.
“Um, I guess I’ll see you later,” was the only thing I could think of saying at one point. The growing silence in the room hurt my ears. I left and found my mom eavesdropping (what else is new?) with tears in her eyes in the next room. She knew what I was trying to do. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t.
That was the last time I tried to talk with my dad. To this day, it’s back to a “Hi, bye” type of conversation that we have when I visit every so often.
That being said… oftentimes I expound on the importance of capturing images because they serve as a catalyst for your memories. You don’t necessarily need a photo to remember something, but when do you ever look at a photo and aren’t instantly warped back to that moment in time.
I talk and talk and talk about the importance of capturing the moment… that life is fleeting… that even though you don’t want to take this photo right now, you’ll appreciate it in a few years.
But I’ve never taken a photo of my dad. It’s impossible not to feel hypocritical telling my friends and clients of the value of photography with that fact gnawing away at me always. But I just can’t get myself to do it. Maybe one day. Which is a stupid thing to say, always. Does that make me a fraud? I don’t know. Do I wish things were different? Yes. It’s just… life isn’t as clean cut and it doesn’t always work out like they do on TV, obviously. I learned that lesson a long time ago.