Asian-Americans in the information age have taken to the internet to show their faces, and to see others doing the same.
Web-based media has been perhaps the most effective channel for Asian-Americans (amongst other marginalized groups) to subvert media institutions by making representation for themselves.
This collection of images is pulled from several Instagram accounts that use the app for a variety of purposes. But all users are essentially on Instagram for the same function: public distribution of photographs.
Most users, like the ones presented in fig. 1-2, use Instagram purely for “private” socializing. That is, to interact with personal friends and acquaintances for no purpose other than pleasure. However, most of these users also hold public accounts, which anyone can access, and photos from which are promoted through the app’s “discover” function.
One can argue that any photograph that is made and shared is inherently political, regardless of the photographer’s intentions. When photographing a person, you are inviting an audience to identify and contextualize that person, and to make deductions about the community that the person represents. These deductions are often subconscious but they do impact public perception. Some (or all) responsibility falls upon the photographer for the social impact of their photograph.
I believe that the photographer is always present in a photograph. I don’t mean that in the literal sense, (fig. 1) but in that the photographer has a gaze that acts as window into the subject. Photographs carry the politics of power, race, gender, class etc.. There’s a massive difference between a photograph taken for federal documentation and a photograph for social media of oneself with friends. The former carries the implication of a power dynamic in a person’s relationship to the state, and can function to condemn (and in cases such as immigration, quite literally alienate) the individual. The latter gives more agency to the subject and allows the maker the power to define some boundaries for the contextualization of self.
Not even the latter example presented above is free from the weight of implication. In On Photography, Susan Sontag argues that aggression is “implicit in every use of the camera,” that images are aggressive whether their function is to idealize a subject or to make virtue of the “less fortunate.” However, this form of representation for Asian-Americans is perhaps moving in a preferable direction.
Shown above (fig. 3, 4) are individuals who use platforms like Instagram to more or less market themselves in the realm of fashion, style, creative work etc..
Representation by these means comes in a range of forms, but often operates within capitalist structures for personal benefit. The people in these examples are moving in the direction of internet personas with larger followings of other users, many complete strangers to the people who own the account.
Many Asian-Americans have seen success in running personal style blogs, modeling, doing creative work, or even just existing as the face of an engaging collection of content.
In Asians Wear Clothes On The Internet, Minh-Ha T. Pham states, in regard to personal style bloggers, “This approach to the media representation of clothing distinguishes personal style blogs from other popular genres of fashion blogs. The street style blog… is concerned with representing the material, cultural, and aesthetic landscape of a city from a fashion perspective… The primary function of street style blog images is to represent a fashion city, not a fashionable individual. The personal style blog is also distinct from the fashion news aggregate blog… which focuses more on collecting and sharing links about fashion than on creating new content.”
The act of directing and curating personal social media accounts like these means that every decision is made to accommodate the personality of the individual. And that individual has a voice in how they are identified. Representation of this sensitivity for Asian-Americans has pretty much only ever existed via internet media. Much of the success of these internet personas comes from their aesthetic individuality, which some popular personalities believe bloomed from the alienation they experienced as Asian-Americans (and/or non-Asian people of color; and/or other marginalized community members).
Airin Yung (fig. 7) is student seeking a law degree from Georgetown University, intent on representing LGBTQ+ people and being active in legal advocacy and policy development. They are also a very popular style blogger, particularly intended for “trans/ nonbinary masculine folks who aren’t white, tall, short-haired (ie not the mainstream androgynous person).”
Bloggers like Yung have been able to create spaces for themselves and their intersectional communities online, communities which have been neglected or narrowly (mis)represented by a less democratic, dominant, media culture.
images provided by (in order):