Tommy Kha is the latest photographer to be featured on OneOneThousand, the webzine about Southern photography. He is also one of the youngest --he will receive his BFA in Photography from Memphis College of Art in a matter of weeks and will go on to further glory as a student in the MFA program at Yale.
Kha's portfolio for OneOneThousand is called What's My Line, a title taken from the old TV show about incongruities between the way one looks and the job one does. Kha is 'way too young to remember this show, but he uses its title effectively for this body of work.
The images deal with issues of cultural and intergenerational expectations and aspirations. Each image shows Kha playing the role of one or another stereotypical career path for a person with his background, some of which are cultural (working in a Chinese restaurant or open-air market) while others embody parental aspirations (doctor, teacher, businessman, musician).
All these images show Kha playing the role of someone who fulfills someone else's dreams. But all the while Kha is in fact playing the role of the photographer he, presumably, really wants to be by making these images of himself playing other roles.
Kha deals with questions of identity in much of his work, doing the Cindy Sherman thing of changing costumes to signal changes in self, as he says in his Artist's Statement, surveying "experiential topographies—a mapping of experiences—in order to confirm and undermine his interchanging identities as a Southern, Chinese America."
"Experimental topographies," that's MFA School talk, making a metaphor out of the language of geography and map making for the external appearances we use as visual cues to understanding the roles people play.
As a person of Chinese background who grew up in the American South, Kha brings to the question of Southern photography a new set of agendas, but retains a focus on some perennial concerns about personal identity and the complexities of cross-cultural awareness. Southerners are always both/and people, regardless of the angle of vision that reveals our simultaneous multiplicity of roles and histories.
Interesting the body of work that OneOneThousand chose to feature. Kha's website contains another portfolio that addresses directly the kinds of issues posed indirectly by Kha's What's My Line portfolio. Its his Meridiana -- Finding South portfolio, here, which sets out to"survey" Kha's "so-called “Southern” cultural heritage by rendering iconologies of a South."
Kha goes on, "These photographs determine to defy and redirect the timeless stereotype embedded within the American South. However, with the inclusion of photographs taken outside the Southern United States, the series looks to undermine the construction and reconstruction of the Old South and New South."
I'm not quite sure what that means, either, but clearly it has to do with exploring Southern identity, perhaps the relationship between stereotypes and individual instances, of whether stereotypes thought of by Southerners as "Southern" really are all that unique, etc. And only three of these photographs were not made in the South, the two made in Brooklyn and the one made in Shanghai (and Brooklyn is often described as the South in relationship to Manhattan, so that's a link).
In any case, Kha does good work and I hope when he gets to Yale he continues to draw on his distinctive heritage, in all its complexity, as he continues to develop his artistic career. We expect great things in his future.