A conversation about identity

Identity has become an increasingly important topic for artists and designers, particularly as social media and movements for change have opened up opportunities for new voices to be heard. We brought together two photographers, Alexander Coggin and Tommy Kha, to discuss what it means to them and the work that they make

For this conversation, our participants met on the phone. Their work is visually very different – Tommy Kha, an Asian-American who grew up in Memphis but now resides in New York, uses his work to look at “the self in self-portrait, the portrait in self-portrait and the hyphen in self-portrait”. His work often features elements of staging and performance.

Alexander Coggin, by contrast, shoots mostly in a documentary style, but then elevates his images into a form of what he describes as “magical realism” with the use of flash and saturated colours. Coggin was also born in America but has lived in Europe – previously in Berlin and now in London – for several years. Both artists identify as queer.

Coggin: Hi Tommy. My name’s Alex and I’m also American, living in London. I’ve been here three years and I am a photographer, although I think I would identify as a voyeur and an artist first.

Photography is just sort of the tool that I’m using now. I do a lot of kinds of shooting, which is quite nice. I have big bodies of personal work, and then I have a pretty strong editorial career – not fashion, more like news editorial and doing portraits and photo essays. That’s how my career has taken shape.

This question of identity is very interesting to me and got me thinking a lot about a tier-system of identity, thinking what are the things I identify with the most, in order of importance. Voyeur keeps coming up! I just have an insane interest in the lives of other people and their character.

Kha: I can see that in your work.

Coggin: I don’t know if this is an identifying marker too, but I’m very, very committed to elevating reality into a sort of magical realism. It’s very important to me to not shoot things as they are or appear to be, or to work from a documentary point of view, but to elevate that into something a bit more magical. But I don’t know what the noun of an identifier would be for that!

Kha: That sounds so interesting because I feel like I would answer the exact opposite of that. I do identify as a photographer first – artist-photographer, photographer-artist – mostly I feel like that has been my fixed identity.

Everything is really straight documentary-esque photographs for me – I never Photoshop anything, everything has to be done in front of the lens as if it’s a stage, a theatre.

That being said, I always think my identity, being Asian, queer, from the American South and now living in New York City … I always equate identity for me to be something elusive, unfixed…

In past experiences, there have been moments where [I’ve been] asked where I’m ‘really’ from…

Coggin: Ooof.

Constellations VIII, Miami 2017 by Tommy Kha

Kha: “Where are you from?” and “Where are you ‘really’ from?” I still get that if I’m walking to the grocery store. I was actually at an art opening and someone was pestering me – “what ethnicity are you?” It’s like, “I don’t know who you are, I don’t need to answer that.”

I think that also is coupled with the fact that I went by [the name] Tommy Kha until I was 16, and then it was revealed there was a clerical error on my birth certificate, so I have both my parents’ last names, so it looks like I’m married. It’s kind of weird.

In my photographs, I’m really interested in truth and how identity is represented, and how that can be easily dislocated. I mostly stage my work but also improvise a lot to make these pictures look as real as possible.

Coggin: Which part of the American South are you from?

Kha: I’m from Memphis. I grew up five minutes away from Elvis Presley’s house.

Coggin: Oh, wild!

Kha: I know. I always thought, “I bet everyone lives near a famous person’s house”, but this is really annoying. Candlelight vigils are supposed to be silent!

In my photographs, I’m really interested in truth and how identity is represented, and how that can be easily dislocated

Coggin: Would you say you identify as a Southerner at all?

Kha: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s part of my identity. I think there’s so much in growing up in the American South and going to an all-black grade school, and then never actually seeing another Asian person outside of my family for the whole of middle school. That’s something I don’t think I can necessarily remove.

Coggin: And then being a queer person on top of that.

Kha: That came later – puberty hit and it’s like, “Oh OK, well I guess this is happening….” These things are really adding up as how different I am around other people.

Coggin: My family’s from the South, from North Carolina – my dad’s side. I was actually born there and my childhood was in North Carolina, and then we moved to Philadelphia where my mom’s family’s from.

I come from a family of five kids and all four of my siblings went to school in North Carolina or South Carolina, so the American South is definitely a place I know well.

Personal work from the series Brothers and Others, Summer 2017, by Alexander Coggin

I wanted to talk more about queerness as an identity and how you think that’s affected and bled into your work. I can say for myself, one thing I’ve realised over time, as a queer person, [is that] one of the things I’m very, very thankful for is that queerness and feeling like an outsider – and just feeling different from other kids in my class, especially boys – I think had a lot to do with my becoming a voyeur. And of really being able to pay attention and take stock of how others were behaving – not trying to imitate it, but trying to study it and understand it, not just on an aesthetic level but also a behavioural level. And I’m actually so thankful because I think my queerness sat me outside of a lot of social expectations, social norms, and I think that’s bled into why I feel so voyeuristic today in my work. I think I’m still very obsessed with people and their character and their behaviour and how to capture that and distil that and tell stories with that. I wonder how or if you see your queerness or your identity of queerness affecting your work.

Kha: I was actually going to ask you, how was it coming out? Did people know early on?

Coggin: Yeah, I was a pretty effeminate kid. My mom’s fine now, but at the time I think she was a little panicky and didn’t know what to do. I was still made to hang out with the boys in my class, which was my nightmare, and I think one way I got through that was to study and imitate the behaviour and social codes of what American heterosexual boys were supposed to do.

One thing I’ve realised over time, as a queer person, is that one of the things I’m very, very thankful for is that queerness and feeling like an outsider

Kha: To be frank, most of my family, including my mom, don’t know I’m gay – queer actually. It’s something that is very contentious in my family. Most of my cousins, my sister and my aunt know, and we all came to an agreement because we’re just waiting for the matriarch, my grandmother, to pass away before we really talk about it, because it is something that is still seen as taboo and something wrong.

As much as I identify, and am open in New York about my queerness, there is a sense of concealing and hiding for me, there is a level of protection. I think about the relationship to performing, like having to constantly perform a certain identity for certain people. That’s something I started out doing with photography, and wanting to turn the camera to myself is playing with that, with that kind of persona.

I think it goes back to where I just continuously think with my own identity – [and] I can’t say this for other people or other queer photographers – [but] there is something very unsettled.

Coggin: In what ways do you think your work is therapeutic for you?

Kha: Hmmm, I don’t know. I don’t know how to honestly answer that question. Because I feel like I don’t want to resolve a lot of things, because I think I really am most comfortable in the chaos of unresolved issues. They’re therapeutic in the way where I’m able to carry the camera around and use that as a way to act out a certain perspective that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise. I think you have a similar experience with that – I don’t think it’s voyeuristic for me, it’s being able, I guess, to integrate into these other places that I wouldn’t be able to.

Coggin: I apologise, because that was actually sort of a leading question, because I assumed there was a therapeutic element to your processing.

Kha: I don’t think that’s the wrong question to ask. I love that question – it’s just I think there are a lot of things that can be photographically solved … being a photographer for me has been this fixed thing, this constant thing that I’ve always been. I’ve been Asian, I’ve been queer, but those things have never correlated with each other very well, at the same time.

With Her Half, a self portrait from May 2017 by Tommy Kha

Coggin: So much of what I’m thinking about lately is what is driving me to be constantly creating images. I shoot so much, not just for work but for myself – I’m constantly making work. I’m so curious about what is this addiction to voyeurism, and what is this constantly trying to connect the visual dots or elevate reality.

I use flash a lot, and one of the reasons I use flash a lot is for me it’s the quickest way to elevate something into the realm of magical reality. There are many other ways to do that, I’m learning, and I think I might be drifting away from flash-based work as I figure out other ways to elevate reality. I can’t quite identify what it is that’s driving me to constantly do that, but there is no doubt that the process of image-making for me is therapeutic in something that’s unsettled in myself. It’s kind of a manic drive that I have.

I also want the subjects that I’m shooting to feel like I am one of them, that I am like them somehow, even though I’m not

I shot a fashion thing last week, and I don’t usually do fashion because I find it to be incredibly arbitrary and vapid, but one big value I realised is super important and that I think will be growing more [in my work] is no direct eye contact with the camera. I’m not interested any more in subjects looking into the lens at all. Even though I shoot with flash and you can very much tell usually which direction the flash is coming from, I really want my work to look like I’m not in the room somehow. Which is a weird balance to get right.

Coggin: I come from a theatre background, I went to school for theatre and theatre-making and acting. I actually have been acting my whole life – I was the kid in community productions, and I did commercials when I was little. I’ve just been in theatre my entire existence. When I show up to do a commissioned portrait or even a personal portrait, or if I’m showing up at an event or something like that, I will make a point to dress like the crowd or try to mirror [the subject]. So, for example, if I go to shoot a businessman, I put on a suit. I shot this exercise convention in London that was super fun – I was in exercise clothes. I’m trying to mirror the energy of the people because I want to ensure that I’m slipping into anonymity as quickly as possible. I also want the subjects that I’m shooting to feel like I am one of them, that I am like them somehow, even though I’m not. It’s weirdly important for me. I think it relaxes the subject and that way I can get those in-between moments. I can engage them in conversation, just be talking to them while I’m shooting and get something that’s probably less flattering but I don’t care…. That’s certainly not a priority of mine. I think there’s so much more beauty, I think it’s so much more interesting to see somebody in an alive, in-between moment.

I think it also has a little bit to do with my theatre background too. I want intention in your face, I want emotion in your face, I want something that I can read, I want a readable face.

Personal work from the series Brothers and Others, Summer 2019 by Alexander Coggin
Personal work, 2019 by Alexander Coggin
A policeman at the World Congress of Families, an anti-LGBT, anti-abortion right-wing group, in Verona, Italy, for The Face, Spring 2019 by Alexander Coggin

Kha: My approach when I photograph other people, I don’t think it’s ever my intention to just represent their image – I always try to create a space where it feels like a true collaboration.

I always think of how we know ourselves through other people, how our identity can be played off through other people’s differences, and how we know ourselves and how we know our own differences through other people. My approach has been always using a regular cast of people. I go home to Memphis periodically and photograph the same people over time, because I think photography can hold certain truths, but it’s also a slice of time that needs to be updated constantly because we learn new information, we grow as a person, we look different.

Another approach I’ve been mixing in – I’ve just borrowed this term from fashion – is street-casting, because I’m really interested in that authenticity of people, people who don’t model, people who aren’t actors. I like working with them a lot and putting them next to other people who actually are professional models, who actually are professional actors, people who are regular sitters – it’s kind of amazing to see the difference and the sameness of it.

Coggin: I have to come back to the question of it being therapeutic again! Because I just feel like when you’re talking about seeing sameness, and putting different combinations of people together, that just sounds to me that that must be an incredible feeling. To have that be the thing you’re seeking in a photograph … it just sounds incredibly therapeutic to me.

I always think of how we know ourselves through other people, how our identity can be played off through other people’s differences

Kha: I love the therapeutic-ness of picture-making. Being an artist, there’s some truth revealed through photographing other people who are not like us, or just different to us, or could be similar to us…. I like to be unresolved intentionally maybe, to just continue doing it. The moment something is answered it’s like, “do I continue?” If it’s already answered in a beautiful, neat little package, then what is the point? I’m always afraid if I resolve something or answer something, that’s when the project will end. That’s probably why I still have five ongoing bodies of work right now.

Coggin: You still haven’t gotten to the bottom of it?

Kha: I’m scratching the surface. I do believe in long-form, durational projects. I’ve been working on [one project] for nine years now. The camera has changed, I went to school, grad school. I have different approaches now. I’m just so interested in how the last picture won’t resemble the first picture.

Southold (Souvenir), 2015 by Tommy Kha

Coggin: Interesting. I love that, I’m going to take a little bit of that with me, that’s fascinating.

Kha: I think for social media, I don’t know about you Alex, but I feel like it helps. I feel like my work has circulated a lot more through Instagram particularly – for me, in the States, there has been not a lot of interest in the kind of work I do.

Coggin: Move to Europe!

Kha: I think Instagram is almost democratic in a way, where if people like it, they really are drawn to it. I also think it’s a distraction for me. I’m not really interested in content-making, I just want to make pictures. It’s something I don’t much care for, but I do like the use of it.

Coggin: I really like Instagram a lot. I just love that it’s a place to put stuff and develop ideas. Then the bonus of it is people do get to see your work and respond to it. But this is the danger of Instagram – for me anyway, though I feel like I’m OK with this … but I do have a photographer friend who if an image does not get enough likes she takes it down. I was like, “girl, no! No. The caller is coming from inside the house, you need to run screaming from that.” I can’t think of a more unhealthy way to shoot than putting all of your creativity and all of your photographic self-worth in the hands of the masses! I was very parental towards her about that. I do feel like that’s the danger of something like Instagram with the likes.

Shoot at an exercise convention for The Face, Spring 2019 by Alexander Coggin

Kha: Being a queer person of colour it has helped tremendously. My friends, who just have otherwise been overlooked in the art world or fashion world, they are so empowered by it – not through the likes and things, but [the fact that] the work is circulated. I think that is beautiful. That counts for something. Even if it’s a passing scroll, just being able to be seen is like “woah”.

Coggin: Are there any identities you feel like other people have forced on you?

Kha: I guess when I’m in the South, a lot more people mistake me as a tourist, which I find hilarious, and often that has aided me in making pictures. I don’t ever want attention paid to me when I’m photographing. I just want to make this picture, and if I have to pretend I’m not from here, then so be it.

Coggin: Totally. Factually, I’m a male but it wouldn’t even be in my top ten identifying markers to be like, “man, I’m a man”. It’s not nearly how I identify.

I was on the West Coast for a chunk of time this summer, and up in San Francisco there’s a really fantastic group of women photo editors, photo directors and photographers. A really supportive group that I got to see. They have one of these events that’s only for women and women image-makers and women working in the creative photo industry, and I just felt like, “don’t leave me here with the men! Please, don’t leave me with the men … this is not fun for me.”

And even sometimes people get it wrong – I identify as queer and some people write about me and they just call me gay – it’s not an identifying marker that I have. I’ve just learned to let that fly – no one’s going to get it exactly right.

alexandercoggin.com; tommykha.com

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes