Wing Young Huie Q&A

January 25, 2021
Wing Young Huie is a master at capturing American community.

“If we as a society redefined what a stranger is, perhaps we would have more of a society. One conversation at a time. We are the strangers.”

 

You started out in journalism. How did that training help shape your aesthetic?

All of my projects, in a sense, are a form of artistic reportage. I started out as a freelance reporter, armed with a bachelor’s in journalism and some meager self-taught photography skills. It was tough to make a living as publications didn’t pay a lot (10¢ per word was typical) and I was a pretty slow writer. Slowly I focused more on photography, taking on all kinds of gigs to make a living, such as weddings, graduation photos, band portraits, sporting events, and editorial work, before becoming an artist and doing my own projects. However, with my seventh book, Chinese-ness: The Meanings of Identity and the Nature of Belonging, which has as much writing as photographs, I’ve come full circle. Gratifying to have people tell me that they enjoyed reading my book!

You’ve said that you make your living talking about your art more than grants and sales. Do you enjoy talking about your art?

I do sell photos, although much of my income is from doing residencies in schools, showing students the various ways I’ve photographically engaged the world around me, so that they can do it. I feel that of all the things I do as an artist, my greatest impact is in the classroom. I’ve been fortunate to receive many grants over the years that have been instrumental in funding my projects. Art projects, however, seldom generate income. Lake Street USA put me in a lot of debt, and I declared personal bankruptcy the following year. Making a living solely on selling your art, no matter your art form, has always been a precarious business. You have to be as creative in making a living as you do in making the art. I feel lucky to be able to support myself and my projects with my many presentations. As much as I feel I was meant to be a photographer, I was meant to talk about it.

You’re renowned for your stunning works documenting neighborhoods and thoroughfares, such as Frogtown and Lake Street. What appeals to you about such work?

In a sense not much has changed over the years since my first project, photographing everyday life in Frogtown (1995). Back then I felt that the gamut of human experience could be encountered on any city block, if you looked closely enough. I still feel the same way. All of those interactions have become part of my human experience, normalizing who we are. I’m not that friendly. I’m not unfriendly, I’m just like anybody. Having a camera around my neck gets me out of my own bubble and makes me feel more alive.

You’ve talked about not wanting to exoticize or objectify the subjects of your images, which would turn them into metaphors and dehumanize them.

The constant challenge is: How can you translate the complexities of reality into this set of two-dimensional facts that we call a photograph, and not impose your perspective onto that framed reality? Over the years I’ve tried to make my photographic process as collaborative as possible. For my University Avenue Project (2007 – 2010), I gave people chalkboards to write their personal statements, so you get a glimpse of what is below the photographic surface. One activity I do with students is “Chalk Talk” where they discuss and reveal their perspectives. We take photographs of each other every day, in our minds. If we knew each other’s back-stories, how much would that affect how we see each other?

Do you think of  yourself as an activist?

There are many ways that others, and myself, have described the variety of activities that have comprised my 40-year career: journalist, documentary photographer, educator, mentor, visual anthropologist, curator, public artist, activist, Third Place maker, and ping pong player. Just as I don’t prescribe specific meanings to my photographs, I accept whatever perceptions people have of what I do. I guess I think of it as all part of the same thing.

You’ve said that the constituency of much of your work is educators and community leaders, who focus on impacts. Does this influence your future works?

It used to be that what I photographed drove what I talked about. At some point what I talked about started to drive what I photographed. My focus, for quite a while, has been to figure out the ways I can use ongoing and future projects, as well as my extensive archive, to serve as educational resources. The best comment I’ve ever received was from a sixth grader, who came up to me after a class presentation and said, “I really like your photos.” Thanks, I said. What do you like about them? “They’re real,” he said. Don’t you ever see photographs that are real? He replied, “No.” In the age of digital, virtual, and filtered reality, what indeed is real and how much are we shaped by those countless images?

I loved your ping-pong work. Where did that idea come from?

I grew up playing ping pong with my brothers in the basement. When I was asked to be a part of the first Northern Spark event in 2011, I came up with this idea: “Re-imagine an old-fashioned slide show in the living room coupled with basement-style ping-pong, except the living room and basement is an outdoor lot on the West Bank by the University of Minnesota.” Throughout the night, 1500 photos from my archive were projected from the Nomad World Pub onto the wall of a Somali grocery store across the lot, where I installed 10 ping pong tables for friends and strangers to play each other, using glow-in-the-dark balls. I called it a “Ping Pong Retrospective.”

What’s next for you?

To keep doing what I’m doing, chipping away at projects and work in schools. I have lots of projects in mind. In these historic times of racial reckoning, societal polarization and isolation, one of my ideas is to build on Chinese-ness and photograph throughout the state to explore Minnesota-ness, American-ness, and our complex, shared humanness. When I tell students that I have photographed thousands of strangers, their usual reaction is a chorus: “That’s creepy!” Then I ask, “How many of you feel you are a stranger to many if not most of the people in your own neighborhood and school?” Almost all raise their hands. If we as a society redefined what a stranger is, perhaps we would have more of a society. One conversation at a time. We are the strangers.

— Sketch portrait by Tom (Swifty) Snyder