Nikki S. Lee
Nikki S. Lee’s work, The Hispanic Project (25), depicts a woman of somewhat ambiguous decent, definitely East Asian, possibly also Hispanic, sitting on a step outside, in an urban setting. She appears to gaze off beyond the camera; is she unaware of the photographer? The date stamp on the image suggests that the person responsible for it is likely using a consumer-grade film camera, a “point-and-shoot”. Maybe the photographer, probably an amateur, snapped this while on vacation, or else the photographer could be this woman’s friend/boyfriend. In 1998, before digital cameras became popular, film cameras were ubiquitous among almost all classes of people in the United States. This picture may even have resulted from a disposable camera, sold almost everywhere, at the time. The woman in the image wears a necklace with the word “Genie” taking the place of a traditional pendant. It is probable that this is her name, although it might also represent a lover, a friend, or even her mother. It could even commemorate any of these. The woman appears to have a rose tattooed upon her left breast. It’s impossible to know the personal iconography of the rose to this woman, but given her tough exterior, it would be reasonable to suspect that she might appreciate something beautiful and dangerous, a flower with thorns. This might even be the context she assumes for herself; a context derived from upbringing or/and necessity.
Looking beyond the subject, the clothing of everyone in the photo suggests that the weather is warm, possibly summer. The trees in the far background are deciduous suggesting a climate that changes seasonally. This realization belies my first assumption that this was a scene in Southern California. Given the urban setting and the distribution of Hispanic peoples in the United States, it seems apparent that this exposure was made in either New York City or Chicago. Since she is definitely (also) East Asian, New York City is a likelier scenario. If this is New York City, then the trees, lamppost and trash receptacle in the background, and the open setting, imply a city park. Just beyond the subject, it appears that there are two portable, foldout chairs (for sun-bathing?); one is quite smaller, for a child. There is a beach towel draped across the larger chair. It’s possible that this woman is near the public pool in Sunset Park (a park within a predominantly Hispanic community in NYC). Has she come to watch her daughter, Genie, swim?
Of course, very little of this is true in reality. The person depicted in the image is the photographer herself, Nikki S. Lee. Born in 1970 in South Korea, Lee is not Hispanic in the least. However, for her ongoing series entitled Projects, she infiltrates various subcultures, mostly in the United States, and embodies their appearances and behavior. She does this so convincingly, that oftentimes she is accepted completely within these groups, to the extent that she lives among the people that she is imitating for months at a time. Given her degree of immersion, the decision to use consumer grade film and digital cameras lowers the guard of her newfound “communities” allowing her to be photographed among them in a naturalistic way. Her process of inserting herself into her images means that she must depend upon the people around her to take the pictures. This has raised suspicion for some photographers who argue over the authorship of her work. She refutes this contention by claiming her work to be more performative than photographic.*
Lee’s decision to photograph herself as the subject owes a great deal to both Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin. However, her work is more of a mash-up of them both than it is a natural progression from either. She borrows Sherman’s costuming, but eschews her control over the image. She borrows Goldin’s immersive approach, but does away with her familiarity with the cast of characters. This is not to say that Nikki S. Lee is creating an imitation or a pastiche. Lee’s approach inarguably explores interesting new territories that are beyond the scope of her (older) contemporaries. Specifically, this image, and all of the Projects series in general, deals with her experiences as an Asian-American, and the loss of cultural identity that this brings. Westerners possess very fixed notions about people from East Asia, especially women. They are thought to be either overly studious (nerds/geeks/techies) or overly sexualized (geishas/schoolgirls). Even in Asia (especially in South Korea and Japan), there is a strong push to separate oneself from tradition and to instead embrace Western Pop Culture. This complicates ontology. For Nikki S. Lee, putting on a disguise and adopting a new tribe is an already ingrained behavior. “Westerners, as [Lee] sees it, think of their identity as a unitary thing, ideally expressed through the manifestation of a single, authentic persona no matter the context. Lee, however, thinks of her own identity, both in and out of her work, as defined by a constantly fluctuating set of relationships with other people: ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. In that sense, she says, ‘My life and my work are not separate. I just have more roles than other people. And I have photographs.’”**
And her photographs are transportive. The Hispanic Project (25), takes us to the place depicted and to the people. Even though we know that the female subject is a construct, we are allowed to forget it (something complicated to explain), and to experience the image as something of a truth. This is because Lee is not acting as auteur, nor protagonist, but more exemplar. These moments existed, as real as any in any of our lives. The people mulling about in the image above thought Nikki S. Lee, as Genie or mother/sister/daughter/friend/lover of Genie, to be essentially one of their own, and I am convinced that Lee thought herself to be one also, at least to the degree that she regards herself as “Asian-American” or “New Yorker”. This is due to the fact that Nikke S. Lee understands what it means to be both insider and outsider simultaneously; a condition acute to anyone living in the purported “melting pot” of the United States who does not owe their ancestral history to Western Europe. An easy example of this is the Hispanics depicted in her series. The whole lot of who are generally reduced by the American super-ego*** to the image of the Mexican immigrant, illegally transcending the border separating this country from his own. This is despite the fact that the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” represent an exceptionally broad cultural milieu. In New York City, for instance, the Latino population is the largest non-white ethnicity, and represents persons from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, and more.^
Writing at the dawn of the Modern Age, Georges Clemenceau offered this observation: “We mean to live in society, while preserving as much as possible of our personality from constraint- which implies a group of contrary qualities associated in a variety of ways.”^^ How interesting that today, under rapid globalization, the prime “constraints” should be cultural rather than political.
* Russell Ferguson; Nikki S. Lee: Projects; 2001.
** Russell Ferguson; Nikki S. Lee: Projects; 2001, page 17.
*** Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930.
^ Center for Latin American, Caribbean & Latino Studies, The Latino Population of New York City, 1990-2010,
^^ Georges Clemenceau, Claude Monet: les nympheas, 1928, page 5.