Dear dads: Photographer Zun Lee sees something different in black fatherhood

Photographer Zun Lee builds a connection with his subjects. “Every time that happens, every time someone on the street trusts you to take their picture, there’s a sense of magic to it,” he said. He appears at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on June 9. Photo: Zun Lee Photographer Zun Lee builds a connection with his subjects. “Every time that happens, every time someone on the street trusts you to take their picture, there’s a sense of magic to it,” he said. He appears at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on June 9. Photo: Zun Lee

When Toronto-based photographer Zun Lee received his first camera, he had “zero passion or desire to do the photography stuff.”

“I was stressed and traveling all the time for work, so a coworker encouraged me to take up photography as a hobby,” Lee said in a recent interview with C-VILLE. “He sent me a camera, so I said I’d try it, but I wasn’t into it.”

Six months later, he was walking down the street when two homeless street kids approached and asked him to take their picture. At first, Lee said, he assumed they wanted money, but all they wanted was a picture—for someone to pay attention to them.

“I found myself in conversation with them for quite some time, and that started my whole practice of street photography,” he said. “The camera became a tool to get closer to strangers in the street, and it became addictive.”

Five years later, Lee still doesn’t like photography. “At least not the technical aspect,” he said. “People approach me about what kind of camera and settings I use and it bores me to tears.”

He’d rather discuss the story behind the lens—the narratives which, in Lee’s case, are widely untold in traditional media.

In his most recent photojournalism project, “Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood,” Lee focuses his lens on African-American men in intimate parenting moments with their children. The scenes reveal a variety of quiet emotions, the spectrum of fatherly love, and stand in direct contrast to the pervasive stereotype of absentee black fathers.

He’s spent the last three and a half years getting to know the father figures who don’t make news headlines—those African-American men who might not be legally married or live with their partner or kids, or “may struggle to provide on a consistent basis, but this does not automatically mean that [they are] irresponsible.”

Lee reveals the humanity of men doing their best, tending to babies and small children in strollers, at bath time, in restaurants, while crossing the street. Some photos are posed; others are candid. A girl in a striped shirt and rain boots sits in her father’s lap as he sits astride a motorcycle. A young man grins, running alongside his dad as they cross a city street. A shirtless father holds his daughter with his back to the camera, her hands grasped around his neck and smiling, eyes peeking over his broad shoulders, the thick muscle looped with tattoos.

Lee spends months getting to know his subjects, building rapport and deep connections during dinners, hanging and housework. “I’ve talked to 400 families over the last four years, and only 40 or 50 were interested enough to allow a session,” he said.

In “Father Figure,” Lee seeks to capture what he never had—the answers to deeply personal questions in his own life. In 2004, he learned that his own father was not the man his Korean mother married but an African-American man with whom she had a very brief relationship.

“I grew up in the black community anyway,” he said, “with the stereotypes of absentee black fathers. Then I became part of that narrative, which is what made it so hard for me.” He said his mother doesn’t remember his father’s name, so his work has become the only way to make sense of a complicated past.

“I can’t ask [my father] questions, but through this process of photographing families whose fathers may well have been similar to or like my own father, you’re able to step out of your own resentment and come to terms with your own history,” said Lee

The project has earned Lee national recognition. A book of his works has been shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards and named a winner in the photo books category of the 2015 PDN Photo Annual competition.

It’s also put Lee on the receiving end of hate mail, negative comments, even death threats.

“People feel threatened,” he said. “The comments range from ‘you’re telling lies’ to ‘you found the few fathers that are actually there.’ I don’t get upset. It just tells me I am hitting a nerve, and people have beliefs that are coming out into the open.”

The negative backlash is, he said, a “bizarre” response to gentle, loving images. “I don’t think people think it’s bad, but it shakes up their worldview. I’m not hitting them over the head or attacking anyone or raising my fists. I’m just saying, ‘Look, this is what I’m observing.’”

This larger conversation has become Lee’s impetus to continue. “As much as it was about processing my personal story it was also about providing perspective on a conversation crossing the country. I wouldn’t have done it for years and years if it hadn’t been for that larger conversation.”

That conversation includes police brutality, the school to prison pipeline and the numerous unspoken stereotypes that pervade American perceptions of African-American men.

“When people talk about what we are really witnessing,” Lee said, “not just the events that are unfolding but also how the media covers them, it’s important to me to show more than what’s already out there.”

Zun Lee’s show “Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood” opens at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center on June 5 and runs through August 29.

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