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Interview with Photographer Jessica Chou

Jessica Chou is a Taiwanese-American photographer located between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Jessica is a photographer, born in Taipei, Taiwan, raised in San Gabriel Valley, and based in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in Middle East History. After graduation, Jessica moves first to New York and then to Taiwan to pursue her photography career. In Asia, she worked on a special book project called “Da Jiang Da Hai 1949” [Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949].” From a job as a behind-the-scenes photographer, for a L’Oréal commercial shoot, she gets noticed for her approach with the subjects. The mix of intention and intuition in her portraits brings depth and mystery to her photographs, suggesting life beyond the frame. Since then, her projects have included portraits of people who are changing the world and high-profile celebrities. Jessica strives for honesty and to look at things as they are, without artifice or judgment. The result is something that is at once observant and intimate. From photographing high-profile public figures to exploring changes in the cultural landscape or reporting at the U.S. and Mexico border, what unites her work is her curiosity, empathy, and her ease in shifting between disparate worlds and finding the naturalness in things that do not necessarily belong together.

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How did you get into photography and when did you decide to choose it as a profession?

As a kid, I used to spend my weekends pouring through my parent’s old family photographs. I also loved flipping through magazines such as Sassy and InStyle. I would study these pictures for hours, trying to understand the spirit in the images that were capturing my attention. It wasn’t until my senior year in high school did it occur to me that there was someone who was paid to make these images. When I learned there was such a thing as photojournalism, it became very clear to me then what I was going to do with my life. I was very curious about the world and wanted to find a way to engage with it. I wouldn’t call myself a photojournalist now, but it opened up a path that’s led me here.

Jessica was raised in San Gabriel Valley which is home to the largest concentration of Asian-American communities in the United States, primarily Chinese-Americans

Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013
Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013

Who has been your biggest influence or source of inspiration as a person and as a creative?

My late grandmother has been one of the biggest influences in my life. Not just because cared for me and my sister when my parents were at work, but she very much her own person in her own right. She grew up in China in the early 1920s and thanks to her mother’s pleading, my grandmother was one of the very few girls who got to have an education. She ended up going on to finish her education at a teacher college and held a stint working as a reporter at a local newspaper in Beijing before getting married. Again, this was quite uncommon during the time. She was a modern woman born at the wrong time.

George Takei Actor AARP
George Takei, Actor, AARP

What do you love the most about your job? What are the greatest rewards and satisfactions?

I’m grateful every day that I get to wake up and do what I do. I’ve always longed to live an interesting and meaningful life – to understand people and to learn what springs their action. I’m never been satisfied until I find an honest, emotional understanding of why we do what we do and photography gives me the chance to explore and express that.

Suburban Chinatown – a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013. This montage takes on a visual meaning for the first Asian settlements that boomed in the 70s and 80s in the U.S. “It’s seeing how the immigrant community has grounded its way into this type of landscape. So it’s seeing assimilation as a two-way street.”

Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013
Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013

Can you share with us any meaningful story from backstage of one of your photo sets?

I think portrait sittings in general, have a very empowering effect. It’s an act of seeing and being seen. I think we tend to lose track of who we are as we go through the motions of daily life. Taking a moment to be present and to be noticed gives us the boost that we need to go on. I love that I get to offer and receive this through my work.

Yves Saint Laurent, Airbnb, UNESCO, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, L’Oréal Paris are some of the many clients of Jessica Chou

Nimo Omar Labor Organizer WIRED
Nimo Omar, Labor Organizer, WIRED

How has your Asian American identity influenced your work?

I think this what my project Suburban Chinatown is trying to uncover. I grew up in a very typical suburban experience, but I was also aware that I lived in a bubble – that most places in the US did not have a majority Asian population. I always had this feeling of “same but different” but it was so subtle that it was hard to notice. Suburban Chinatown is my attempt to bring the periphery into focus, to try to see where the mixing of culture, lifestyle, aesthetics, values, and the American dream, California ethos intersect.

Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013
Suburban Chinatown is a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013

The recent anti-Asian sentiment seems to have been stoked by Covid-19’s response, but it existed long before it. What do you think are the real causes behind these attacks?

Simply put, Asians have been seen in a dehumanized light for a very long time. There’s an aspect where we’ve been flying under the radar, hoping to get by without being noticed, except that also means we become invisible. Our acceptance has been dictated by the conditions and environment of a given moment. While we’ve been able to open opportunities and fight for recognition for ourselves, it’s painfully clear how unwilling people are to see Asians as full human beings. Covid-19 just became a convenient scapegoat for people to take out their aggression.

During Jessica’s first time back to Taipei, since her birth, she captured photos and went along with the writer, Lung Yingtai, who was interviewing Chinese people (from the mainland) who had escaped to Taiwan during China’s civil war, that ended in the Kuomintang’s defeat in 1949.

Trixie Mattel Comedian, Drag Queen New York Times Magazine
Trixie Mattel Comedian, Drag Queen, New York Times Magazine

Words matter, microaggressions are a starting point that could climax in violent acts. Do you feel unsafe during this period?

Absolutely. The insidious and unpredictable nature of it is what makes it unsettling. I worry about myself and my loved ones.

Suburban Chinatown is a personal project
that Jessica has been working on since 2013

The most vulnerable people were attacked: the elderly and women. Were you surprised?

Why would anyone attack the most vulnerable in our community? How have people found this as an answer to their aggression? It’s horrific. This is what I mean about just how dehumanized Asians are seen.

What can people do to fight racism and anti-Asian hate? What can people do to show their support to a victim of an anti-Asian attack?

I think uplifting the voices of Asians in various areas in your life – at work, in politics, as creatives – is a key way to support the community. I also think standing with us, especially when attacks happen, makes a big difference in knowing that we are not alone.

Jessica relies on gestures, color, form, and composition to heighten the subtle nuances of people and landscapes in a simple yet revealing fashion. 

Alicia Garza Black Lives Matter Founder Guardian Weekend
Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter Founder, Guardian Weekend

Racism takes a very insidious form against the Asian community, why some Asian families are hesitant to discuss racism at home? What is the hardest part when it comes to communication?

I know this isn’t always the case, but in the environments that I’ve been around, we were taught to never bring attention to ourselves in this manner. It was considered a pointless pursuit and that we had more immediate problems to focus on. For me, trying to talk about this also means untangling a whole other set of family ties/dynamics that breaks the private and public barriers that we’ve so carefully put up. It can feel very uncomfortable and messy – I can’t blame myself for not throwing myself into this endeavor.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Chou

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