Identity

Meet the Photographer Taking Intimate Portraits of Queer Asian Nightlife in NYC

Photographer Aki Kame focuses on lifestyle portraiture by day, but at night they head to parties like NYC's Bubble T to capture their friends and community.

by Leila Ettachfini
Mar 26 2019, 3:26pm

Photos Aku Kame

Broadly has launched the Gender Spectrum Collection, a stock photo library featuring more than 150 images of trans and non-binary models, in an effort to improve the representation of transgender and non-binary people in media. View and download them for free here.

For Brooklyn-based photographer Aki Kame, work doesn't end when nightlife begins. When they moved to New York at age 26, Kame found a community—and subject matter—in the local queer, Asian nightlife scene, where they began photographing their friends having a good time in spaces made specifically for LGBTQ people of color.

During the day, Kame's work focuses on portraiture and lifestyle film photography, usually of other queer people. Growing up between Japan, Portland, and Seattle, Kame learned to spot the differences in art from one city to the next (due in large part to their grandmother, an artist who took them to museums often), helping inform their aesthetic today.

Still, despite living life between two continents, Kame says they never saw another trans person until high school, and, even today, don't know many trans photographers. Broadly spoke to Kame about their work, process, and inspirations.

BROADLY: When and how did you get into photography?
AKI KAME: I was like one of those kids who always had a camera in their hand. My grandmother really loved taking photos, and she showed me how to use a film camera when I was really young. Once she taught me, I just used up all her film. I started focusing on it as more than a hobby when I was a teenager and started doing it professionally for a little while. I was sort of struggling to figure out my narrative with it and took a break. I actually sold my whole camera set up and moved back to Japan for a bit and only brought film cameras. What I realized when I came back [to the US] is that the issue was that I was having a hard time connecting to digital. Having used film during that time [in Japan], when I came back I was like, I’m just going to commit to film, and I’m going to commit to more identity-focused work.

How old were you then?
That happened when I was 24, I want to say. I grew up back and forth between Japan and here, though.

Where did you grow up here?
I mostly grew up in Portland, Oregon and Seattle.

1551739737056-IMG_6960

Did moving around between the Pacific Northwest and Japan inform the way that you take photos?
I don’t know how much the Pacific Northwest did. I think the community I was a part of in Seattle was really big for that because Seattle has a pretty tight-knit community of queer people of color, so I was just taking photos in my life of what I was doing. I saw a lot of images in Japan that felt very different than images I was seeing in the states, so I think my young brain was wondering about the contrast between the two.

What do you focus your work on and what spaces do you work in?
A lot of [the photos that] I put on social media are just for me and my friends. When I moved to New York, I, sort of out of coincidence, had really lucky timing getting connected to these people who run these parties called Bubble_T, and it connected me to this whole community of queer Asian kids and queer Asian artists that I’d never seen before in my own life. That’s how I met a lot of people, and that’s why a lot of my photos are taken at night.

In my work, I primarily focus on storytelling, because most of my professional background is in social work. I was a domestic violence and sexual assault advocate at an LGBT organization, The NW Network. A lot of my work was getting clear about my story and also learning how to hear someone else’s story and learning how to work together. I realized that that’s what I like to do in my photography, too. I'm still involved with that world, but for the most part, my focus is on this, because to me it feels like another version of that work.

1551739786602-000142940006

The most cliché question: who are the photographers that inspire you?
This is maybe a cliché answer, too, but one of my biggest inspirations always has been Ren Hang. I feel like I got introduced to his work and very quickly he passed away. He was [part of] a whole wave of queer, Asian photographers that were doing work that was so different from what I'd seen before. There's sort of this aesthetic that gets really flattened; people tend to perceive East Asian art, whether it's photography or fashion or architecture, as just being minimal. And while I think that there are some parts of it that are rooted in that, his work was really simple and he shot on a step up from disposable cameras, and he created beautiful work that went along with his poems, and it just stuck with me.

My other really big influence is this person named Andre Wagner. I was having a really hard day out shooting once in the city—nothing was landing, I wasn't finding anything, my timing was off, and I'd had a difficult interaction with someone—and I turned around and he was standing right there taking a picture of me. I didn't know what to do, and we just kind of looked at each other, nodded, and kept walking. I was like, "Okay, if he's here doing the same thing, something is going okay."

How are different aspects of yourself visible in your work?
I feel like my work completely has everything to do with who I am. It's so personal that sometimes I feel like I'm constantly thinking about how photographers are supposed to be objective or removed from what they're photographing, but the stories I choose to go with or the projects that I choose to take on usually have something to do with me because I feel it's irresponsible as an artist, especially with a visual medium like photography, to be photographing people that I have no connection to. What am I gaining from that? And what are the people that are in the photographs and in this process gaining from this?

1551739866798-IMG_5108-1

A lot of the projects that I work on primarily have to do with being trans and trans experience and also being first generation [American]. There's always going to be the issue of being pigeonholed into just being one kind of photographer, but the whole reason I got into this work was to tell stories in that kind of way, so I love meeting and working with other trans people and other queer people of color because I feel like, in the media right now, especially in the last couple years, there's been so much coverage about trans issues and if there's not very many people out there that know that there are trans writers and trans photographers, a lot of that narrative is written for us, so it's been a huge reason why I decided to take my photography more seriously, and I want to be one of the people to tell it.

Yeah, I think something's been happening across creative industries in the past few years, where there's a focus on who is behind the scenes. It seems obvious that having someone from within a community doing the documentation of that community is the better idea.
There's this photographer, Texas Isaiah, and they talk about this a lot. We've communicated back and forth for years through social media. As a Black trans photographer, he's very vocal about his experience in such an amazing way. The piece that he did recently where he followed Pat Manuel, reading his description about the photos, about how he was reached out to for that to be a Black trans photographer documenting that moment in history; seeing things like that is a reminder for each other about why we do it.

1551739910752-Eclipsed

How important to you is visibility like that?
There are some trans people that are, at least on social media, pretty famous. I think that that's great, and also, not everyone when they do get famous has to use their platform to be vocal for the entire community. You can put a few trans people out into the media and make them celebrities, but at the end of the day—and I wonder if this is just because I have a background in social work—there's so much work to do to just get basic things in life met [for trans people], and so to think that visibility is just the only thing that's going to make things okay—there's a lot of different steps.

Being socialized as a woman for the first 24 years of my life, I have intense imposter syndrome, and being raised very much Japanese, as much as my grandmother was an artist, my family didn't want me to [be an artist]. They never floated that idea. As the first person in my family to go to school, they were like, yeah right you're going to be an artist. So as trans people, as trans people of color, building our own confidence in ourselves and then to build our own confidence in our art, they don't happen separately; they are two weights that you're carrying. I think visibility for me has been huge in seeing other photographers and other trans artists inspiring me to do work. I don't think they have to speak for everybody, but the fact that they even exist has an impact.