A son’s fractured view of the immigrant experience

Tommy Kha’s mother is a recurring subject in his photography, but he didn’t realize until five years into their collaboration that she was an imagemaker herself. In 2016, she gifted Kha a photo album of pictures she made when she first arrived in Canada from Vietnam in the 1980s, before she eventually settled in Memphis, where Kha was born. In his debut monograph, Half, Full, Quarter (Aperture), and accompanying solo exhibition—“Ghost Bites,” at Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York through March 22—Kha’s layered portraits, still lifes, and landscapes exist alongside his mother’s own photographs. The collaborative world between mother and son expands.

MY MOM’S IMMIGRATION EXPERIENCES and my own upbringing are so different, and the way we treat the camera is so different. My mom’s work came out of celebration and an extension of survival. Her photographs are the kind of thing that most people have in their family’s archives, pictures of birthdays and get-togethers that are markers of their existence. They made it this far and it’s worthy of commemoration and remembrance.

Nevertheless, when putting our photos together in Half, Full, Quarter, I realized that the things my mom photographed, even in incidental snapshots, also appear in my work: obscured faces in self-portraits, flowers, bodies of water, funny facial expressions. We’re also still haunted by our family history and generational trauma. The past echoes into the present. Maybe the poltergeist, that disturbance in the room, is how much my mom and I want to stand apart from each other and form our own identities. We’re not just mother and child, but two people who are interconnected because of things like war, displacement, and citizenship—things my mom refuses to talk about.

I can’t trace my family history past the 1930s. It’s even hard to obtain information on grandma’s age and the reasons we left China for Vietnam. My family stayed after the fall of Saigon, which I only found out later by filling in the blanks on why my grandmother would have breakdowns. It was PTSD. I saw it with my mom and my aunts in how they never dealt with the trauma of events like a window exploding in front of them in the kitchen. I don’t have all the pieces, and there are things that I can’t even put words to.

I used to describe photography as a way to arrive at my own representation, which is one of fragmentation. How much of my identity is my home? In 2019, I started photographing the interiors and exteriors of Chinese restaurants in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis region, not just because my family is in Memphis, but because they’re the remaining spaces of what was once a huge population that I never knew about. Growing up, I didn’t see another Asian person who wasn’t related to me for a very long time. How do these spaces hold onto their culture and background? Those pictures show what remains, and are connections to the past. I’m choosing to map, archive, and retell histories.

And how much of my identity is my mom? What is really my own making? One of my first “puzzle portraits” is of me and my mom. I took two pictures roughly a year apart and aligned the compositions so that I could swap out some of the puzzle pieces where our bodies met. I was like, “Oh god, I look like my mom.” And I started laughing, but then I realized, “Oh shit, I have my mom’s laugh too.”

I wanted to represent and honor the matriarchy of women who raised me—my grandmother, mom, aunts, and sister. The first piece in “Ghost Bites,” on your immediate right when you enter, was supposed to be of my grandmother. She’s losing her sense of self to dementia, and I wanted to represent her as my new subject and collaborator. Due to the size and configuration of the exhibition space, we had to move the work to the middle, which both derailed and reinforced the thinking behind the show. Now, the exhibition starts and ends with my mom. In a way, it’s my mom’s immigration experience as told by a child of immigrants.

There’s a line of small photos of shrines across the walls that are like vanitas to represent my late aunt. I plan to do a project about her murder, but I also wanted to honor her now. There are two photographs in the book that are very quiet, and they’re the first pictures I made of her last known address according to her autopsy report.

I don’t mention my aunt’s murder explicitly, but it’s connected to what’s happening in this country. I was making those photographs and thinking about Half, Full, Quarter when the Atlanta spa shootings happened, when Michelle Go was pushed in front of an oncoming subway car, and when Christina Yuna Lee was killed in her home. It’s not in the monograph, but there’s a secret photo album in the gallery of pictures I made visiting Christina’s memorial shrine in New York’s Chinatown every Sunday. I wanted those images to be present, but I didn’t want to hang them—it’s not my place, and it didn’t feel right.

It felt so much like how my aunt was killed. While the circumstances are a bit different, it comes from the same place that these anti-AAPI sentiments come from. I can’t believe that these things are still happening. That’s the kind of violence that I don’t particularly want to explicitly represent when I think about haunting. But it’s present.

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