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We Made Our Own North Stars

A reflection on my photography series, Navigator, on my Instagram (@inkybattlefields)

The logo for my photography series, Navigator, created by Madelyn Chow (@madelynchowco)

This reflection is about my recently-wrapped photography series, Navigator, which is about the rising generation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. To check it out, look up @inkybattlefields on Instagram.

It was March 4, 2019. I was sitting at home, fretfully skimming through several open tabs on my laptop during an ungodly hour of the day.

For a while, I'd been wanting to do some sort of art series surrounding what it means to be Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI), but until then, I hadn't thought of creating a photography series for AAPI Heritage Month.

I was terrified of several things. I was (and still am) brand new to the photography scene. In the beginning of the school year, my father gave me his camera. It would be a waste not to use it, right?

However, this is the first time I would be working on a long project with a completely new instrument. I experimented with the camera before, but not on this level. Along with that, I only had five weeks of my freshman year left.

Five weeks is barely enough time to shoot 30-plus photos with a camera I barely knew how to use.

But despite everything, I looked at my itinerary—the planning that needed to be done, the editing, the interviews—and dove right in.

My camera in my lap as I wait for the model to arrive.

You probably think I'm somewhat crazy, but you have to understand: Once an idea is rooted in my mind, my entire being dedicates itself to it.

And it doesn't help that Navigator holds such a close place to my heart. As a young Filipinx-American, I've always felt such a strong attachment to my origin and my identity. But, as I grew older, it became more difficult to maintain that hold.

You see, I grew up in a predominantly-white institution (which can be abbreviated as PWI). I never grew up with POC role models, much less Asian American ones.

Along with that, I was raised in an extremely Western world. While my parents never outright repressed my identity, they never took the initiative to pass down our culture to me. Being immigrants in America meant that they felt the need to assimilate in order to succeed. After all, they came all the way to the US from the Philippines—a third-world country. Why continue to carry the weight of what it means to be Filipino when your dreams can be fulfilled as an American?

Of course, we still retained the small things: Eating Filipino food (sinigang, anyone?), huge family gatherings, leaving your shoes at the door, but having tsinelas (flip flops) specifically for indoors. But other than that, I was never taught Tagalog. I had to press my parents to learn about the history of the Philippines (which is basically colonization on colonization), and about their own childhoods.

I remember feeling so desperately alone. I was too American to be Filipino, and too Filipino to be American, but I didn't know what either of those meant.

My friend, holding a cup of coffee while reading the school newspaper. He is a moment away from bursting into laughter.

You might be thinking, "Okay, so you felt alone when you were younger. That's understandable. But there's representation today, so why bother? We have Crazy Rich Asians, right?"

While Crazy Rich Asians is admittedly a groundbreaking movie, it does not even begin to represent the majority of the Asian population, and the struggles we face.

Here's the thing about representation: There are always people wondering if it's relevant.

Representation is vital, especially in today's world. It's important on a personal level; representation in media can be used to guide anyone of any age on their path to self-discovery. It's essential on an institutional level; without adequate representation in places of power, institutions that were originally built to protect can quickly become oppressive. And so, the cycle of injustice and affliction continues.

To expand on that, there is not enough representation of AAPIs in any platform of media.

Our struggles as an oppressed group remain unseen and uncovered.

Our victories remain unsung.

Our losses remain ignored.

Our history remains erased.

My beautiful friend and mentor smiling at the camera.

That's why it was so important for me to include as many AAPI narratives as possible into this month. The credit also falls to my fellow Navigators—who were willing share a part of their stories with some novice photographer.

This cast of Navigators pushed against several negative stereotypes.

First and foremost, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable. Which, if you're a brown kid, is something nearly unheard of in our culture. Speaking up about their hesitancy is huge, and takes an enormous amount of strength, and for some, stepping in front of a camera is equally (if not more) frightening.

Along with that, we tackled some big topics.

Assimilation, for one. Not every story covered has a happy ending—some of our Navigators are still looking for it. But acknowledging that, yes, assimilation is a problem, because it pushes cultural erasure, the first move towards recovering our culture and finding balance.

We've also shared the dissonance that comes with being both Asian/Pacific Islander and an American. Admittedly, this might be one of the most frequent topics brought up in most interviews—constantly having to prove your identity.

But you are enough.

To tie in with that, we also worked to subvert colorism by covering people that land in different areas on the spectrum of skin-tone. Whether in mainstream Western media or in Asian culture, Asians that are represented tend to be more fair-skinned and are the standard of beauty.

But brown is also beautiful.

Every body is beautiful.

You are beautiful.

A day well spent messing around with our cameras in the city. To me, this is what community looks like.

If I'm to be honest, I first picked up the camera because I was hoping to find myself reflected in this series. I did this for younger me, hoping that this photography series could reach out to other kids who hold similar identities in the hopes that they don't feel as alone as I did.

Although I started this series with me in mind, I'm finishing it for you.

You, yes you. Whether you're AAPI or not, we are all human. And so often we feel isolated, and invalidated, and unseen.

Earlier this week, I was thinking to myself, I wonder why humans feel so alone? And we do because even though we're right next to each other, we make sure to remain unknowing. But all we need to do is reach out for each other. It won't fix everything. But it's a start.

If you take away anything from this month-long project, know that you are not alone. I hope that some time over this series you found community. Because if we don't lift each other up, who will?

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We Made Our Own North Stars
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