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Behind the camera, Zun Lee reaches untold stories of black fathers
Photographer's exhibit at Gantt Center
Published Thursday, May 4, 2017 7:25 am
by Ashley Mahoney

Canadian photographer Zun Le’s exhibit “Zun Lee: Father Figure” is on display at the Gantt Center.

Zun Lee finds peace behind the camera.

The internationally known photographer shared his journey with students at Northwest School of the Arts in an open discussion last week. His exhibit, “Zun Lee: Father Figure” is on view at the Harvey Gantt Center.

Lee, who grew up in Germany and lived in Philadelphia, Toronto, and countless other cities across the globe, jumped from corporate medicine executive to photography as a way to relieve stress.

“I was really stressed out, and a coworker said ‘look, here’s a camera,’” Lee said.

Starting out as a street photographer in 2011, Lee is best known for capturing images of people at their most honest situations.

“I let the camera do all my work,” Lee said. “Catch people in the moment, and kind of find out what that moment means.”

When students asked if people rejected having their picture taken, Lee laughed.

“Nine out of 10 times, it’s a no,” he said. “When they say no five times, it’s probably time to move on, but sometimes you can turn a no into a maybe and a maybe into a yes.”

Lee noted the irony of his position as a photographer, as he prefers not to be the subject of photographs.

“I hate having my picture taken,” he said, explaining that photographers have the unique ability to manipulate a subject by engaging them.

“If you play to people’s ego, it helps a lot,” Lee said.

However, he also advised students to always offer to share the work of a given subject with him or her.

“Always offer to send people pictures,” Lee said.

While participating in a Magnum Foundation workshop, an instructor challenged Lee to break out of his shell as a photographer.

“‘There’s something else there,’” Lee recalled the instructor saying. “‘I want you to shoot something that tells us who you are.’”

Lee explained his desire to connect with the students, and how that translated into the pursuit of the exhibit currently at the Gantt.

“I had a need for connection,” Lee said.

For a time, Lee believed his biological father was Korean, but later discovered his father was in fact African-American. When he discovered the truth about his parentage, he found it hard to swallow.

“I’m part of the statistic about the [absent] African-American father,” Lee said. “How can you be angry at someone you don’t know?”

While his birth father did not play a role in raising him, Lee reexamined the role his parents played. They had little aspiration for him to attend medical school or pursue anything that could set him apart from the crowd.

“My parents never had any ambition for me,” Lee said.

Growing up on a military base in Germany, Lee recalled the soldiers who mentored him and how most of them were African-American. They kept him safe, made sure he did homework and other acts that would constitute parenting.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for them,” Lee said.

It led to “Zun Lee: Father Figure.” Over several years he spent time photographing 400 fathers and families exploring, “how does society look at black men and black fathers, and why?”

“Why is it that black fathers have a bad reputation?” Lee asked the students.

He shared the following contrasting statistics: “over 70 percent of black kids are raised out of wedlock” versus “black fathers are as present as or more present than other fathers.”

During his time photographing families, Lee lived with some for a time. He explained to the students the importance of immersing oneself in a situation to really tell the story.

“How do you get a sense of who somebody is?” Lee asked. “You can’t get that from a moment or two. Let people know that you’re there. Don’t be a fly on the wall.”

Lee challenged the students to study not only the photographic elements of his work, but the story it told, as well as the questions it raised. “I want people to think beyond what they see,” Lee said. “It’s not marriage or living at home that’s important—it’s how do you guys parent and why? Every father has their thing.”


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