Growing up, Iris Song wasn’t sure how she felt about the shape of her eyes.
Growing up, Iris Song wasn’t sure how she felt about the shape of her eyes. When Josh Chen took her photograph, he used a shallow depth of field, resulting in a close-up photo that draws attention to curves and contours of Song’s face and eyes. But the deliberate light, color, texture, framing, gaze and expression betray no hesitance in their subject, and — as portraits so often do — allow us for a moment to gaze upon a stranger and her experiences, simultaneously foreign and familiar.
Portrait photography is the tool of choice for young Taiwanese American photographer Josh Chen. His work centers on Asian American identity in the Midwest, and through his camera, presents a soft pushback on what vibrant young Americans might look like in the bread basket states of the nation. His subjects are found in everyday situations — in the car, in the park, on the bleachers — but the act of photographing them is a small cathartic triumph addressing a private reconciliation with acceptance, race and beauty.
Song’s portrait would eventually become the cover for Hyphenated, a magazine published in 2021 featuring a photo series that depicts what it means to be Asian American in the Midwest — the region home to the smallest portion of the U.S.’s Asian population.
Chen, a Taiwanese American, began the photography project during his sophomore year of high school in 2018, when he was contemplating how his Asian American identity shaped his life experiences in the Midwest. He published the photo zine three years later during his sophomore year at Northwestern, where he currently studies journalism, with profits going to the Asian Mental Health Collective.
Growing up, he said he did not see media that highlighted Asian Americans and their stories.
“I just think there’s importance in storytelling in general, but especially for a group of people that has been historically excluded from the stories that are told,” Chen said.
Chen grew up in Canton, Michigan near a community of Chinese Americans until he was six, when he moved to St. John, a town in northwest Indiana that had a very small Asian population and a large white population. In Canton, nearly 20% of the population identifies as Asian, whereas less than 2% of people living in St. John do.
“I had a lot of questions surrounding identity, and I think I didn’t start to question or articulate those feelings until high school,” Chen said. “And since that was the same time I was getting into photography, I decided to explore those feelings and that kind of upbringing through photography.”
“I just really like the idea that the hyphen between Asian-American symbolized, and I think that really represented the in-between status in a lot of Asian Americans.”
His explorations led him to issues such as the “model minority” myth or the hyphen in “Asian-American” — some people say the hyphen suggests that Asian Americans aren’t fully American. Chen, however, thought the hyphen could also represent a sort of “third culture” that Asian Americans experience — both good and bad.
“I just really like the idea that the hyphen between Asian-American symbolized, and I think that really represented the in-between status in a lot of Asian Americans,” Chen said. “And I think that was what prompted the idea for the [photo zine’s] title.”
Feeling “in between” was an emotion that rang true across many of the portraits and the interviews he conducted alongside them.
Born in America, Samantha Lim lived in China for seven years before moving back to the U.S. in eighth grade.
“She told me she experienced extreme dissonance after living in China for so long — in language, culture, values,” Chen said in an email. “One of her photos was taken in a moving car, which captures literally the act of moving but also the feeling of displacement and disconnect that defined much of the struggle she experienced coming back to America.”
One similarity across the experiences of different Asian Americans that Chen noticed in his subjects was the cultural distance between Asian Americans and other Asians, as well as between Asian Americans and other Americans due to different values, food, language and other factors.
“A lot of them talked about not really feeling Asian enough when they go back to visit family or go back to their families’ countries, and not really feeling American enough at home,” Chen said. “And also dissonance between appearance and beauty standards because a lot of the people they grew up around didn’t look like them.”
According to Chen, a lot of the women he interviewed talked about different beauty standards and how they struggled to embrace their own features. Some of the characteristics associated with the social Western or American beauty standard include being light-skinned, being thin, having blonde hair and having blue eyes.
During his interview with Melicah Rodriguez, who grew up in Indiana, Chen learned about the journey she took to accept her skin tone.
“So the photos of Melicah, which were taken early in the morning as the sun was rising, really try to highlight her skin and face,” Chen said in an email. “I love how these photos turned out; there is a distinct warmth and glow to them.”
The photo Chen took of Ami Khatra, Gurvir Gill and Tarun Girn highlights their dynamic as close family friends who maintained their friendship throughout high school.
“I was drawn to their experiences within the Indian American community in Northwest Indiana, which they say helped keep them grounded in the culture of their parents and families,” Chen said in an email. “But even within their group, their experiences still weren’t the same, which helped me see how wide-ranging the term ‘Asian American’ actually is and how many distinct experiences that actually encompasses.”
Chen hoped to portray this through his portraits: the complex and multifaceted Asian American experience.
“There’s a wide range of colors and lighting [in the pictures], and I think that ended up reflecting the diversity of the experiences of the people in the zine,” Chen said.
Ultimately, Chen himself also found his understanding broadened and deepened from hearing the stories of the people he photographed.
“I think I slowly started to realize maybe Asian American isn’t a distinct identity or experience but a whole range of them,” Chen said. “It was very affirming to hear those experiences and then know that there are similarities and things that tie these different stories together.”