Wing Young Huie
Interviewed February 5, 2015 | Written and photographed by Ilya Natarius
It’s a sunny February afternoon when I meet with Wing Young Huie, a prolific street and documentary photographer and public speaker. Wing’s decades-long career has covered everything from photographing life in Minneapolis and St. Paul to doing public speaking on various topics, with the two subjects often becoming intertwined. The work that Wing has done — through both working as a photographer and giving talks at universities, nonprofits, and corporations — has received universally positive reviews with attendees saying that his presentations were thought-provoking and enlightening. In all of the different themes that Wing has explored, one is common throughout his work: the constantly changing environment that surrounds us all. Wing strives to capture this environment through the window that is his camera, and turn it around to become a mirror for the viewer — something we later discuss at length during our conversation.
Wing’s demeanor represents that of a photojournalist: direct, brief, and tactful. Despite Wing’s straightforward nature with his responses, his visual work is a departure from that mentality. Many of the photographs he has taken have a sense of ambiguity about them, and can carry different meanings depending on the viewer’s interpretation. This often means studying the photographs to find something beyond the image in the frame to understand why the photo was taken, which results in the photograph becoming much more striking and taking on a quality that is more than the sum of its parts. This combination of conversational brevity and visual complexity serve as an interesting dynamic for our conversation.
Wing and I meet at the Third Place Gallery, which serves as Wing’s office as well as a showcase of his work. The gallery itself is very spacious, with Wing’s work from various project lining its walls. A desk, storage, and some bookshelves are near the back of the gallery that serve as the working area. The desk is adorned with an old-style desk lamp, which suits the nature of Wing’s documentary-style work. As we discuss everything from photographing everyday life to intentional visual ambiguity, I discover that Wing’s impetus for his work is the streets of Minneapolis itself. The Third Place Gallery is a representation of that work enclosed in one space — a concentrated look at what has motivated Wing throughout the years and what has been getting him outside of himself.
Wing Young Huie is a professional photographer and public speaker well known for his work documenting people in the ever-changing urban landscape of Minneapolis. He has created several projects focusing on specific areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul in this style, most notably his Frogtown, Lake Street, and University Avenue projects. Wing’s public speaking has covered a wide variety of topics, and currently he offers several public speaking events. In his “How Do Photographs Form Us?” lecture, Wing shares insights into his process, the challenges he has faced over the years of his career, and an opportunity for the audience to ask questions about how we are impacted by the daily consumption of thousands of images in our modern culture. In his “Chalk Talk” workshop, participants engage each other by asking a series of open-ended questions. Wing then chooses one of the responses and the participant writes it on a chalkboard — the same process Wing uses for his University Avenue project. Wing’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, New York City, Budapest, Rotterdam, and many more locations.
Wing’s approach to taking photos is surprisingly simple, though the subject is complex. Wing’s primary subject is everyday life and the stories that come from it. When Wing found the scope of such a subject was impossible to capture in its entirety through just photographs, he started giving talks and workshops that slowly began to intertwine with his photography work. “What I talked about used to be what I photographed — then it flipped. Eventually I noticed my speaking and photography were the same thing,” Wing says towards the beginning of our conversation, when we speak about the progression of his career. When viewing his photographs and reading about and attending his workshops, that statement rings true throughout, especially when asked about how he got into speaking. “It’s all complicated. There are forces and variables involved. One thing led to another — the progression of my career wasn’t exactly planned,” Wing says.
Despite shifting into speaking and workshops, Wing’s subject matter has not changed. As Wing sums up briefly, “Life is material for me,” and this is what drives him day in and day out in his work — life is his work’s impetus. Wing’s take on life as a subject is a theme shared by all photojournalists, but each one has a style befitting their personality, opinions, past experiences, or their storytelling. As they create more work, their viewers take notice and begin to associate the style with the person. As Wing has built up his own style over the years, his work has taken on a signature look, making his photographs and storytelling stand out amongst others in his field. “I’m attracted to a certain kind of ambiguity,” Wing says about his main body of work. With everyday life being his motivation for his work, it’s clear when viewing his portfolio that Wing takes this seriously. Many of his photographs can carry multiple meanings depending upon the viewer’s interpretation, and Wing prefers it to be that way. Of creating ambiguous work, Wing says: “I believe that the most interesting photographs are the ones that are very suggestive, but what they suggest is open-ended. Life is complex.” This philosophy has led Wing’s work to take on its ambiguous and ever-changing nature, much like life itself.
Wing’s style also focuses on things that are in plain sight but rarely noticed by most people, creating a visual social commentary on the current state of Minneapolis’ social and cultural reality. Combined with Wing’s signature style for ambiguity, his photos encourage the viewer to see, perhaps for the first time, what was not noticed before, and create awareness of where Minneapolis stands from a socioeconomic and cultural standpoint. As Wing mentions, things happen right outside of our doorstep every day, and it simply takes an interested party to take notice. Using his camera, Wing turns his attention to events and people that otherwise might not spark his interest. Looking through the lens allows him to form a narrative and tell a story. Wing’s impetus to take photographs and to speak becomes the very subject of his work in this sense, taking his idea of making the window that is his photography and turning it into a mirror for the viewer, making it a poignant reality.