Personal statement by photographer Zun LEE
"The absence of a black father is a controversial social issue in the U.S. and other countries. Too many black men, it is said, are absent, irresponsible, selfish, not stepping up to the plate. There are many images of dead, absent black fathers in the mainstream media, often intended to sensitize and ridicule rather than raise awareness. These stereotypes did not come out of nowhere. Married couples with children make up less than one-fifth of African-American households. Over 60 percent of African-American children are being raised As Americans struggle with the social and economic consequences of the worst recession since the Great Depression, this is likely to become a reality not only for black children, but for many children of all racial groups Complex factors play a role in this phenomenon, but the numbers suggest that many black fathers are simply absent The root cause of this problem is a decline in morality and personal responsibility. If we encouraged a return to 'traditional family values' and only black men stopped acting like boys and pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, we could reverse these trends and make our communities more vibrant again. The realities are not that simple. Studies show that individual circumstances are complex for many fathers, making the context of father 'absence' and father 'presence' rather fluid: while many men deserve the label 'deadbeat,' many others simply don't fit traditional notions of fatherhood. These men are often forced to define parenting in their own way and struggle to be present despite adverse circumstances: they may not live at home with their partner or children, they may not be legally married to their children's mothers, and they may struggle to provide for anything on a consistent basis, but this does not automatically mean they are irresponsible. And I began to wonder why these examples of fatherhood remain so invisible among black men. In fact, judging only from media coverage, the term 'black fatherhood' could easily be called an oxymoron. It wasn't too long ago when a family secret was exposed: My own biological father was a black man who supposedly disappeared when he learned my mother was pregnant with me. For a long time, it was easier to hold on to the pain of this discovery than to confront it: As long as I could project my concerns onto a negative stereotype, I could justify my anger and pain. But I also realized that a big part of me was curious to know more about my black father, to understand and come to a place of forgiveness. And that longing had informed my creative process all along. Without any information about my father's identity or whereabouts, the only way to deal with my feelings was to explore them through photography. Over the past two and a half years, I have developed relationships with several black fathers from different walks of life and in different cities across the United States and Canada. Each father I met spoke in his own voice. They expressed their swagger, their pace of life, and their relationships with their children and partners in unique ways. And perhaps more importantly, as I observed these families, another truth manifested itself loud and clear: contrary to the prevailing media caricature of black men as aggressive, violent, and irresponsible, the fathers I met were loving, caring, and dependable. They willingly shared their feelings and emotions, their concerns and fears. They were vulnerable enough for me to photograph them in joyful and frustrated moments. They were by no means perfect, but nonetheless unsung heroes of everyday life who made it their business to always play a fatherly act. Working directly with fathers was actually the last thing I wanted to do. Many of the encounters were full of situations that I had not yet experienced as a child. They were therefore difficult to see, difficult to understand, and often difficult to photograph. But I knew I had to overcome my resistance and spend time with these families - sometimes even live with them for a while. This was the only way to establish the level of connection needed to create the images I wanted. The work led to an ongoing project I called 'Father Figure.' By focusing on quiet moments that are not considered current, I hope this work can inspire people to question assumptions and become sensitive to the broader context of black fatherhood. Perhaps it can also serve as a counterweight to the dominant visual narrative. Black Fathers." (© Zun LEE)
The monograph 'Father Figure. Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood' by US photographer Zun LEE has been hailed as a groundbreaking project that is both documentary photography and personal visual storytelling. Through intimate black-and-white frames, the out-of-print volume offers insight into often overlooked aspects of African ancestry family life.
"If you still believe that black men are largely absent from the lives of their children and families, you clearly haven't seen Zun Lee's photographs. Lee's photographs not only give the lie to that belief, they do so with profound passion and a fine and shrewd eye. Zun Lee's photographs are proof of how photography, in the right hands, can change our sense of the world we live in for the better." (freely translated, © Dawoud BEY, photographer as well as professor of art at Columbia College Chicago)
Content, Book Reviews
"The photo volume 'Father Figure. Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood' by Zun LEE is an incredible and necessary visual narrative. The images in this series offer balance and insight into a growing issue facing African American communities today. Zun's critical eye has a deeply rooted connection to this story, allowing the viewer to see the often invisible fathers struggling to be providers and protectors for their children. Too often, these types of images never make the local news or mainstream media; however, his work serves as visual medicine to aid in the healing process of so many in today's society who are searching for answers to an ever-growing problem." (freely translated, © Jamel SHABAZZ, photographer)
"The work by Zun LEE explores very interesting questions of identity and representation, particularly how African-American men and fathers are represented in popular culture." (freely translated, © David Gonzalez, Associate Editor, New York Times Lens Blog)
- HC (no dust jacket, as issued), 30,5 x 21 x 2 cm., 124 pp., 61 ills., text language: English, Ltd. to 1,000 copies