Slowly figuring out the how with Tommy Kha

We were first introduced to Tommy Kha’s work in 2016 at Marble Hill Camera Club, which is still run by the indelible Patrice Helmar. As Tommy presented his work, mainly showing portraits of various Elvis impersonators throughout Memphis, we were struck by his ability to capture parts of his own experience through these performers. Since then Tommy has made countless self-portraits, some straight forward, fragmented, and in collaboration with others. The through-line in all his imagery is figuring out his own story while often incorporating and remixing the stories of those closest to him. This past year has been a momentous one for Tommy’s career with his first monograph released in addition to multiple solo shows. In this interview we discuss the  journey to showing that work, his thoughts on how he makes images with his mother & how her own archive of personal photographs has woven into his practice.

Elizabeth Renstrom

As someone who has long incorporated collaboration into their work through various series like Return To Sender and more recently , I’m wondering if you could speak about your process and motivations for incorporating subjects to help tell stories about yourself?

I’m mostly a self-portrait artist; prior to my current practices, I tried to avoid making autobiographical pictures as I thought I’m not that interesting. I mostly made pictures of friends, I looked at a lot of Nan Goldin especially when I spent a semester in New York City—I was exposed to Tino Sehgal and Marina Abramovic. I had never really seen many pictures back then where the photographer and subject shared the frame. The lack of an immediate and obvious protagonist appealed to me, and at the same time, informed the picture. It made sense to me, the beginning of photography is built on collaboration between different scientists, printmakers, and artists, even when they weren’t consciously aware of each other. I like when photography can still surprise us.

In a recent interview you talk through the different inspirations your mom had from you as an image maker. How has her own aesthetic influenced & been embraced in your work despite the distinction?

My mother and I collaborated on and off over the years, she initially agreed to sit for me, working out ideas especially the dumb ones. About five years in, she gifted me a pink photo album of pictures she briefly made in 1980s mostly around London and Ontario, where she found asylum after nine months at sea. Her aesthetic came from the vernacular—photography was mostly documentary and the snapshot, reflecting her immigrant experiences. Immigrants tend to be less concerned with art photography. She photographed herself in groups of other Vietnamese immigrants, celebrations such as birthdays and gatherings over newspapers. Herself as a stand-in then, in other frames, replacing herself with friends in place. The most striking picture for me is her reading a book on pattern drafting. It’s very much a Louise Bourgeois perspective: the mother as creator, the storyteller. While I wasn’t conscious of her work, the shifts in how we approached photography, no matter how disparate, connected us.

May (Mirror, Mother, Mirror), Whitehaven, Memphis by Tommy Kha (2019)

What do you hope your mother gets out of this collaboration with you? What are the conversations you have surrounding the creation of the photos with her & after she has been able to view the final product?

Like most parents and children, we don’t always see eye to eye. Our collaboration serves as our commonality. We don’t talk much about any specific compositions these days, but she would inform me of her schedule and set aside time for these portrait sessions. She almost never really looks at them, she might be disinterested, she’s just more content with helping. Sometimes she has ideas or picks what she wants to wear. Once she made fun of how art is just full of sad people.

What considerations do you make when including archival imagery into the presentation of your own photographs?

I like showcasing my mother’s work alongside my photographs. They’re not for sale, only because it’s not my story. It’s really the contrast between immigrant and first generation, and finding the thin, disparate threads between us. Her work is kept relatively the same size from her photo’ album, sometimes installed behind my work—how much the past is always haunting the present landscape.

As an artist who incorporates themes of identity into their work, how as an educator do you help younger artists find what they’re trying to say about identity in their own projects?

I try not to use the word “identity” mostly because self-portraiture is so synonymous to identity. I’m more interested in the fragmentation, how others’ perception of me is just as unfixed—paralleling the different strategies in making self-portraits.

As an educator, I don’t think I’m particularly a great teacher, but I try to provide the information that I wished I was told back then. I try to encourage students to not compare each others’ trajectories, but rather reinforce the idea of supporting their own communities rather than trying to put other people down through gatekeeping or unnecessary critique. That at the end of the day, they all get to choose the kind of artist they like to be. Our experiences are our own, thus any movement we make is already unique. We don’t need to necessarily make original work all the time, that is such an archaic trope.

Life is not just about what you do, it’s more about how you do it.” -Nai Nai, The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang.

Nikita (2011); Prince, Midtown (2018); Brendan, Frayser (2019) by Tommy Kha

You are someone who I see so present in the photo community of NYC. Your support is so unwavering (seriously, I don’t know how you have this boundless energy!) & I’m curious what community means to you? How does it shape and influence your own practice?

Haha! I feel other folks have more boundless energy than I have. Though, I have considered sending out my cardboard cutouts in my place. I try to show up when I can, though age is becoming more of my reality, I guess I just want to follow “treat people how you want to be treated.” And I want my community to feel supported. It might be small, but that’s how I roll.

After last year’s controversy with the Memphis Airport and Elvis fans, seeing many communities coming to my aid, I want that for other artists who don’t have that.

Who are other artists that inspire you with their own artistic collaborations? (this doesn’t have to be strictly photographic artists!)

I think of Deana Lawson, Quinfford and Scout, Birdhead, Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures. I love early pictures from Photo’ Studios and spiritual photography, the collaboration between camera operator and subject, to make the picture be less fictive.

We talk a lot about mentorship at TTT as we have been profoundly affected and lifted up by our mentor’s advice over the years. You are undoubtedly an inspiration to so many young artists & I was wondering if you could share any meaningful advice that has guided you in your own work at different points of your career?

Your CV or trajectory doesn’t need to be the same as someone else, it’s really about choose your own adventure. How you got there is way more interesting than imitating what others do.

What’s a meaningful goal you’ve reached in your career so far & what are some future ones you’re excited to realize?

When I initially quit teaching to focus on being an artist, I had a slight epiphany: I found that whether I was being supported or making something out of nothing, that being able to still make pictures, to have curiosity, those things are enough for me. Despite the accolades and rejections, I’m still surprised by photography.

What’s a song that you can’t get out of your mind lately?

It’s a weird tie between recently rediscovering “Song of the Sunset” (or “Sunset Melody;” 夕陽之歌) by Anita Mui, September 1989. Though, “Trouble” by the Big Moon slaps.

You can find Tommy on Instagram and learn more about them on their website. This article is part of TAGTAGTAG’s release “Together.” Originally appeared on TAGTAGTAG.