In the new state of our world, everyone is being forced to reconcile their work life with their personal life as the two spaces converge. Add the workload of earning a graduate degree in photojournalism to this balancing act, and you get Eric Lee. Lee is a D.C.-based freelance photographer set to graduate with an M.A. in new media photojournalism at the Corcoran School of Arts & Design at George Washington University this month, now virtually. From the confines of his apartment, Lee discussed grappling with the unfortunate reality that his graduate thesis will not be seen as it was meant to be, figuring out how to work from home and how his photography is evolving in the time of coronavirus.
District Fray: What were you working on before all of this happened?
Eric Lee: My thesis has been a year-long project so far documenting this family that lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I got kind of reflective and thought about my own experiences as a young Asian American boy and how that shaped me today. I was curious how parents now, first- and second-generation [citizens], are teaching their children what it means to be Asian American and blending that with [the fact that] Asian Americans, especially men, have been emasculated in popular culture and pairing that with American masculinity which has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years. When I applied to grad school, I knew I wanted to cover Asian American stories, but didn’t have the tools yet or know what stories to tell. But for my thesis, I knew it was just a matter of time to understand a little better about the community and myself.
How have you had to adjust your work on your thesis without being able to go out and photograph?
I did one thesis-related photo shoot. I went to shoot my subjects at their home. I stood outside the door and we chatted for a little while, it’s weird because I’ve worked so hard for a year to get their trust and to learn to be in their home, and then all of a sudden, I’m back on the outside. And that’s just a physical thing, but it felt a little shocking and I felt a bit disappointed to not be able to continue that work that, to me, had felt so intimate.
How is this affecting your freelance career?
I’m mainly an event photographer in D.C. and the Mid-Atlantic. Just over the last three weeks, I’ve lost several events – from weddings to fundraisers – all the way through July. I’m disappointed to not only not be able to see clients I’ve been talking to for a long time or work with old clients, but financially it’s devastating right now to lose my main source of income. It’s not what I do every day, but event photography pays for everything from my rent to insurance for the gear and was actually supporting my graduate studies. Even events with just three to four people would feel inappropriate to do. I want to put the safety of everyone first. I would love to go out and photograph, but we have to postpone until things quiet down more.
Has this time period inspired you artistically at all? I have been noticing a lot more black-and-white photographs on your Instagram feed lately.
I’ve always been in love with black-and-white photography, but I think I strayed away from it in the past year with my studies. Lately I’ve just been feeling a bit more free about it. I’m home all day, so I study how light falls in my own apartment. With black and white, you rely on the geometry of everything around you and how the light falls and casts shadows. I have been able to create more dramatic scenes with black and white. I’m just focused on being quiet in the moment and black and white has helped me have that vision. Having a theme and constraints of sorts is helpful to pursue creativity.
How has having to work from home changed how you interact with your home space?
While at home, we only have one big room and there’s only so many options you have [for a workspace]. To separate work and at-home life in quarantine, you have to adapt. It’s been better for me because I’ve [had to] clean up my apartment and organize things. I have a separate area of my kitchen table [for work] and my balcony patio where I can sit outside and do work. Having those dedicated spaces has actually helped me get a lot more done than I usually do when I’m home.
How do you think you’ll be able to share your work now? Will it change how you present your photographs for people to view in the future?
Instagram’s such a great platform because it’s photo-based and where a lot of photographers, editors and the audience come together to look at work. I love it for that reason. I love that we can connect with anyone from across the world and share photography, but the scary part then is that anyone can come and say, “We own this,” and take it. I have been looking at other ways to share work, and I actually took a photography book class where we learned to bind and curate a book of our work. I’m making a photo book for my thesis, so I’m learning to sew the pages together and bind it.
What’s the appeal behind the photo book?
While it’s really time-consuming and I don’t know how much more hand binding I’ll do in the future, I love the idea of something physical that we can all hold onto and share through the medium of photography. I’m hoping to maybe turn all of this work from the pandemic into a small zine and share it with friends and family so that they can see how I see life through all of this.
Photos by Eric Lee.
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