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The Perpetual Foreigner

Inside the world of Chinese-American photographer An Rong Xu.

Photographer and director An Rong Xu is interested in the “potential of moments.” Born in China and raised in New York, Xu often focuses his work on the Asian American community — one that, he says, has rarely been portrayed as part of an American landscape. Whether it’s an image of an old woman sleeping in her car or of beauty pageant contestants on stage, his work offers an intimate look at its subjects and the spaces that surround them. Xu’s work has appeared in publications such as TIME Magazine, GQ Taiwan, the New York Times and Rolling Stone. His work will also be featured in the next issue of our magazine.

We caught up with Xu to talk about his work and the inspiration behind some of his photos.

You describe yourself as a photographer and director who explores the world with a unique cultural perspective. How would you describe that perspective?

I see the world from how I identify myself, a Chinese American, Male, Artist. These three titles define who I am, my identity is informed by my cultural upbringing, my gender, and my work. Because of how i identify myself, and how my view of the world is informed by my identity, it is my ability to travel through different worlds and see them and photograph them.

What inspired “My Americans”?

My Americans is a project born out of necessity and love. There has never been a significant body of work that has captured the Chinese American people, and presented them as part of the American social landscape. In a country where still today, after over 150 years of immigration, the Chinese American community and the Asian American community as a whole, still face the preconceptions and stereotypes of being the perpetual foreigner, I realized, no one is going to tell our story, unless we do. It is from these insecurities, desires to celebrate our lives, and just simply state we are here, that My Americans was created.

What was it like to do this project? Did you ever feel like you faced the stereotypes you mention?

As with any form of self expression or art, it was a cathartic experience to be able to create work that addressed my own experiences, fears, insecurities, hopes and dreams. My whole life has been made for me to always feel like the perpetual foreigner, I’m neither here nor there, and through this work, I have come to accept it: I am who I am, labels do not define me, I do.

You do a lot of portraiture of celebrities, how did that start? How do you put your subjects at ease?

My work with celebrities started mostly out of luck. I began doing assignments in New York City, and one of my editors wanted me to hang out with someone and just be a fly on the wall and capture them being them. I often like photographing the mundaneness of everyday life, and so, I approached photographing notable people in that manner.

For the most part, I’m nice and don’t try to rub people the wrong way, and always approach my subjects with respect. Also often celebrities are just very comfortable in front of cameras, or they’ll ham it up and really give you something extra.

Who are some of your favorite photographers? What’s something that’s inspired you recently?

I like to think of my favorite photographers sort of like a weird family tree. The premise would be if I had two photographers give birth to a photographer and I was that photographer child, then my photo father would be Chien-Chi Chang, and my photo mother would be Helen Levitt. However, Helen was actually cheating on Chien-Chi and my actual biological photographic father is Nobuyoshi Araki. Chien-Chi’s documentary work raised me, Helen’s use of color and her street work inspired me, but it is Araki’s romanticism and eroticism that runs in my photographic DNA.

I’ve also been watching a lot of films, so I think cinematographers are very inspiring to me as well, such as Christopher Doyle and Mark Ping Bin Lee. I also really enjoy poetry, what’s been really inspiring and a great read has been Bao Phi’s, “Thousand Star Hotel.” On my radar is EJ Koh’s “A Lesser Love.”

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