In the statement for her recent series "American Girl Project: Semiotics of Nationalism" Jin Young Lee states, "When I was around nine years old, I told my parents I was American-Korean, not Korean-American. The syntax of my new title neglected both accuracy and logic, but my resolve was that I was an American 'first.' I carried being American with the utmost pride. This was before I found language for otherness, before I would learn the ache and beauty of hyphenation, rich with diaspora."
In our interview with the New York City based photographer, she delves into how her project came to light— the appropriation of rural American aesthetics, the exploration of opposing conformity within rural American settings, and the research behind the devotion that exists within nationalism.
"American Girl Project" was produced through a year of research and shooting that made up her thesis work at Parsons School of Design and was exhibited at Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery this past May.
Hi Jin, welcome to Lomography Magazine! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work in general?
Hi! I am a Jersey girl born and bred. Outside of photography I love sending snail mail, writing auto-fiction, and swimming (my sun sign is a Cancer.)
I have always felt a strong inclination to make work regarding my identity. My mom immigrated to America from Korea in her early 20s. My dad is a “1.5” generation kid, meaning he immigrated here very early (at four years old,) and was raised in Queens, New York. I grew up being able to walk to my paternal grandparents’ home but only met my maternal grandmother a handful of times before she passed and consequently, my understanding of culture and diaspora has always been present. My work reflects my active desire to expand the canon of photography through representation and research.
How did the initial idea for "American Girl Project" come to be?
My project came to life during the initial stages of a revival in Americana aesthetic. There was an increase in ‘ironic’ Americana fashion during the same time Interview Magazine’s September 2022 edition (Kim Kardashian as the American Dream) was released. A part of me felt wronged as I was too frequently seeing the lines of ironic and unironic being blurred by the alleged anti-racist communities I was surrounded by.
I had also discovered a random model-casting instagram page where I saw dozens of different girls and women from all over America, coincidentally during a time where I was physically seeing America more than I ever have in my life— throughout three different road trips.
I was incredibly inspired by the work of Buck Ellison’s Little Brother series, Nikki S. Lee’s Ohio Project, Kiyan Williams’ How To Properly Fry an American Flag, and Deana Lawson’s portraits. I wanted to step into the role of who a nationalist may look like and my subjects and I are both reenacting the performance of assimilation and taunting the very presumption of the ‘ideal’ American.
Can you tell us a bit about the process that went into making the project?
My strictest rule within this project has been exclusively choosing to photograph girls/women of color. As per the political nature and rhetoric around my project, my professors at the time, Keisha Scarville and Mimi Wong, really pushed me into the direction of well backed research. I took this part of the process very seriously and I was consuming five different types of media a day from published research articles, contemporary artists from all kinds of mediums, historical symbols of propaganda, and books like Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. I was even looking into right-wing podcasts, reddit forums, and clothing brands like Dsquared, Barragan, and Vaquera, whose certain collections directly reference American subcultures or use the American flag.
One of the most pivotal moments in the project was when I spoke to my friend Marcello Flutie, who is an incredible fashion designer. Through our conversations, I was learning about how clothing reflects the ethos of a designer and how the way we choose to dress is an active participation in signaling to others. Semiotics informed how I carefully thought out clothing, posing, and location, as they were vessels for every one of my images.
Why is it important to you to use photography for what you describe as a "form of racial resistance in question of nationalism" as opposed to other visual mediums?
The summer before my sophomore year of high school, I went to view Nan Goldin’s slideshow of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at the MoMA. I had written an email to my mentor at the time: “I want to know what other people get from looking at her photos. I wanted to see her behind the scenes. How she took these photos and what camera she used. During Nan's show no one brought their phones out. What do other people get from her work? I don't want to say the only thing I got was that her friend's nipples all looked like mine. One of my thoughts was that she took photographs like a mother would. I probably walked around half the museum typing this, still thinking about the people in her photos. Sorry for sending you this run-on paragraph but I wouldn't have come here if it wasn't for Nan, and wouldn't have known about Nan if it wasn't for you.”
Seeing the work for the first time changed my life, and for a young girl, gave me the desire to find autonomy and liberation. I believe that everything within the four frames of a photograph creates an opportunity for photographers to discover their very own autonomy and liberation. I know how life changing it can feel to view a photograph, and I am a photographer because I hope that one day someone will experience that same life-changing feeling with my own work.
How has your view of "Americanism" shifted throughout your research and photography?
I have lifelong friends who come from rural American backgrounds and their families have extended so much of their love and care to me. Stacy Kranitz is a photographer I constantly looked towards as she photographs members of the rural Appalachian area in an incredibly empathetic light. This combination created a conflict that I had within my work for a long time, over my guilt for appropriating and targeting a community that I have also found trust and comfort in. The biggest shift I felt from my research was from the satisfaction I felt from feeling vindicated. By reading the words of hard facts and statistics to back up my personal feelings, I no longer felt alone or guilty for the work I created. In the time it has taken for me to work through my body of work, I no longer feel like I have to negotiate my autonomy for assimilation.
Did the direction of the project change at all throughout its year in making?
I briefly mentioned location when explaining my process for my work, but I wanted the ‘set’ of my images to reflect my road trip observations. These findings being that every town (in America) I was visiting looked and felt uncannily the same. While there are variances in the kinds of locations I chose to shoot in (outdoors versus indoors, homes versus gas stations) I wanted to center that feeling of ambiguity. Whether it was because of the architectural style or the kinds of vegetation in the images, every location I chose felt incredibly American to me.
How would you say the aesthetics of film photography engage with your work?
I come off as quite extroverted and bubbly but I am naturally a very shy person. Working with film really gave me the confidence to direct my models. Film is an expensive hobby and knowing that I was going to spend x amount of money meant that I needed to get the exact image that I had already planned in my head. Aside from being financially motivated, I’ve noticed that people take film cameras seriously. There was a completely different kind of tension created between my subject and the camera, and maybe this is cheesy but film really forces you to slow down.
Aesthetically speaking, I have personally never been able to produce as rich of shadows or as deep of colors as I have using film over a digital process. I definitely think an argument could be made against that statement, but digital will never give me the same directional ability I get from working with film.
How do you view the idea of an "American Girl" now, after your exploration of the deeper meaning of the phrase?
I have always dedicated this project to every little girl who does not yet feel they have found their place in America and the little girl that continues to live inside of me. I think “American Girls” are self-assured, brave, and come from all different backgrounds. My definition and idea of the “American Girl,” changes and grows everyday. Ultimately, every American Girl is the best American Girl in my mind!
Where do you see yourself and your work going from here?
I feel really proud to be Asian American and I have been trying to keep that energy going through a zine that I had stopped working on last year. I’m currently processing my family archive which I plan on working into the zine alongside new images I am currently taking of my family members! I’m also in the early stages of planning out my next long term project which is focused on expanding Queer Asian visibility through photographing my community. I’d like to think over the next few months I will still be reading, drinking lots of water, and (hopefully) getting commissions.
Anything else that you'd like to share?
I always use Lomography to gauge different film stocks and it was the first website I used to find photographic inspiration, so this really feels beautifully full circle and I thank you guys so much. I would also like to give a big shoutout to all my friends and family who have driven, hosted, modeled, assisted, and loved me through this project.