Photographer Tommy Kha, a 2013 graduate of Yale’s MFA program, will not kiss you back. In his project, Return to Sender, Kha documents himself receiving a kiss from strangers, friends, lovers, acquaintances, and not returning it. To what do we owe this visual pleasure and physical discomfort? These images of Kha’s bewildered, open eyes while his malleable body is taken, touched, and grabbed at another’s whim conjures up an amalgam of emotions, the least of which is our own discomfort.
Why? The photographer knows: “While my passive character mirrors stereotypes of the Asian men—almost always depicted as neutered, asexual, or submissive within media—it is my transgression as the photographer that undermines this passivity. Coupled with the other participants’ control over their own representation through their kiss, these images intend to question and confuse the role of the photographer and sitter, protagonist and supporting character, self-portrait and performance.” We recently found out more from Kha.
Why did you choose kissing as the method for self-portraiture as it is in effect here?
“I approach the picture making to explore desire, through intimacy, but it doesn’t necessarily look intimate in the photographs. It has to do with the desire to see oneself reflected. With kissing (on the lips), there’s something very expected about doing that act. I like to be surprised by photography since my work lies within the terrains of self-portrait, performance, and staged photography. Even in making these photographs, it’s not really about the kiss as an act itself but how each kiss is different.”
What did you learn about yourself doing this project?
“Much of what I’ve learned revealed itself over time during the three years I’ve been working on this project. It’s still ongoing, but I didn’t originally set out to explore my own stereotypes…but because that was something embedded in me, the pictures inadvertently reflected that. This is also where I started sharing the frame with others, I wanted to challenge the notion that the artist is automatically the protagonist. It’s having struggles rather than answers when moving between worlds, and by appearing as well, I implicate myself.”
Is there a backstory to woman in white in a bar? Was she a bride?
“She is actually a Mississippi debutante, let’s leave it at that. I didn’t tell her what to wear as I don’t give much direction. I tell the “Kissers” they can kiss me however they want but they have to kiss me on the lips. Part of the reasoning of having one direction is about control, either over how they portray themselves or in a larger context, their representation. I’m operating in my role as a photographer/director and character/actor while sharing the frame with somebody else.”