Sight Unseen

Jarod Lew’s portraits of loss and love beyond the lens

Jarod Lew, Untitled (Mom) (detail), 2021, archival pigment print.

ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, the photographer Jarod Lew uncovered details of his mother’s past that revealed something about his immediate family. From a text message sent accidentally by an older cousin, Lew learned that his mother once knew a person named Vincent Chin over thirty years ago. Lew Googled the name, immediately finding a 1982 article from the Detroit Free Press under the headline: “Slaying Ends Couple’s Dream.” Looking at the grainy photograph that accompanied the front-page story, Lew at once recognized the woman identified as Chin’s fiancé. The revelation was shocking as much for what it didn’t clarify as for what it did. The more he learned about his mother’s past, the more his own world seemed to be covered in shadows.

On June 19, 1982, Chin was beaten to death by two recently laid-off autoworkers outside a club where he was celebrating his bachelor party with friends. This occurred during a major downturn in the United States automotive industry, then facing fierce competition from Japanese car imports; layoffs fomented anti-Asian xenophobia across the country. A witness reported hearing the white assailants blame Chin, a Chinese American, for their unemployment during the attack, which sent him to the hospital in a coma. On what should have been their wedding day, Lew’s mother attended Chin’s funeral.

The killing became the most infamous hate crime against Asians in the nation’s modern history, and the public trials that ensued mobilized grassroots coalitions, renewing the Asian American Movement’s fight against racial exclusion and violence in the country. Yet despite these broad-based efforts, the system effectively exonerated Chin’s murderers, both of whom were offered lenient pleas bargains and received just three years’ probation and a $3,000 fine. Neither served any time. Kin Yee, president of the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council, inveighed against the sentencing, noting that it effectively granted a “$3,000 license to kill” Asian Americans.

Jarod Lew, Untitled (Mother and Son), 2021, archival pigment print.

This is what Lew quickly learned from a Wikipedia page when he received his cousin’s text on the thirtieth anniversary of Chin’s death. It would take another four years before he could approach his mother about her past and the tragedy that had been kept outside the frame of his life. During that time, his photography practice shifted to explore the nature of unspeakable loss and the solitude that weighs on a society unable to mourn the death of people, industries, and cities. Literary critic David Eng has called this condition racial melancholia, in which unresolved historical traumas of loss, grief, and forgetting haunt the psyche across generations. Eng explains that even when we know who has been lost, we may never know exactly what has been lost in ourselves.

This blind spot appears in Lew’s family portrait series “In Between You and Your Shadow,” 2021, which features his mother in various staged scenes in their suburban Detroit home. There are pictures in which a lens flare or errant reflection washes out her face, interrupting her full capture in the frame. In other images, objects in the foreground—foliage, furniture, decor—obscure her countenance. Lew’s mother agreed to be photographed only on the condition of facial anonymity, a refusal made clear in Untitled (Mother and Son), 2021, where she turns her back to avert the viewer’s gaze. Instead of seeing a face—the basic promise of portraiture—we are shown a curtain of long black hair and blank shadows on the wall, hinting to something beyond the neat binary of presence and absence.

Jarod Lew, Please Take Off Your Shoes, 2021, archival pigment print.

“How do you photograph your mother without photographing your mother?” In Lew’s words, this was the main challenge of “In Between You and Your Shadow.” Her presence saturates each image, including ones in which she is physically missing. A plate of hand-cut apples, a stone fireplace mantel, and a ceramic Buddha all become part of the extended terrain of her subjectivity, recalling Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s description of the face as “an absolute deterritorialization,” in the sense that it “removes the head from the stratum of the organism, human or animal, and connects it to other strata, such as significance and subjectification.” In Untitled (Mom, Back in the Day), 2021, the disembodied finger of Lew’s mother points to a black-and-white photograph of her younger self, indexing the vague memory of the person in the portrait. If Roland Barthes could momentarily exclaim “There she is!” on discovering his precious Winter Garden photograph of his late mother as a little girl, posing in a glass conservatory, Deleuze and Guattari resist the consolations of recognition and determinacy: So, is your mother a landscape or a face? A face or a factory?

Jarod Lew, Gracie, 2019, archival pigment print, 32 x 40".

In his series “Please Take Off Your Shoes,” 2019–21, Lew, whose work is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, trains his eye on young Asian Americans who have agreed to participate in his study of diasporic alienation and identity-formation in suburban Detroit. Solitary subjects photographed in the stark environs of their bedrooms are juxtaposed with still lifes in their eclectically decorated homes, replete with the bricolage of imported lacquer furniture, ink scroll paintings, and Buddhist ornaments. In these carefully posed shots, some sitters stare ambivalently into the camera while others turn away or remain out of the frame, never fully revealing themselves.

Lew’s attempt to locate what is “Asian” in these domestic spaces remains elusive; it does not reside in the assemblage of Orientalized decor, nor in the racialized bodies that appear for the camera. These people and places yield nothing like an essential substance, but belong to a colonized American landscape in which we continually search for legible faces and material signifiers in hopes of conjuring the phantom of racial identity. We are left with a feeling in search of an image.

Jarod Lew, Untitled (Mom on Couch), 2021, archival pigment print.

For Eng, photography can return individuated racial melancholia back to the domain of the social. This is a powerful possibility in an age of snap-to-grid identity politics and flattening racist violence. Despite the camera’s facializing insistence to inscribe legibility and identity in each frame, we are presented with modes of opacity that intimate psychic forfeitures and inheritances in excess of representation, bonds of trauma and love beyond the lens’s capture.

An ethereal mist hovers over the visage of Lew’s mother as she sits, arms crossed, in Untitled (Mom on Couch), 2021. Her visible silhouette, contrasted with the abstraction of her face, echoes the tension between the public narrative of a widowed past and the private sovereignty of her new life, reminding us that one can be a historical subject while embodying a future as yet undetermined.