Intimate and compassionate, the photographs from Zun Lee’s “Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood” fight the stereotype of the absent black father, despite Lee having learned of his own biological father — a black man — who left his mother while she was pregnant with Lee. Instead Lee, after years of navigating the road to forgiveness, decided to explore black fatherhood and hold a mirror up to the complexities of fatherhood.
Over the course of several years Lee built relationships with several fathers with the mission to not depict any one side of black fatherhood, but to explore its quiet moments, and how its nuances exists despite a collective perception. And ahead of Father’s Day, June 21, he sat down with In Sight to speak about his groundbreaking work.
In Sight: In what way do you hope your photos speak to the discussion currently going on regarding the perception of black individuals in the media?
Lee: The “absent black father” has become a powerful and pervasive metaphor that is often belabored as a root cause of the demise and dysfunction of the African American family. But beyond that, the intersectionality of African American fatherhood has come into focus as uprisings from Ferguson to Baltimore bring into our national consciousness the way society and media pathologize black men, and how visual stereotypes negate actual reality despite ample evidence to the contrary.
There is a plethora of “negative” visuals centered on the deadbeat, irresponsible black male who has ample prowess to procreate but runs from the responsibility of fatherhood. The visuals and rhetoric that counter that negativity, however, are often equally rigid. From a prevalent narrative extolling the virtues of traditional middle-class patriarchy, to the hype surrounding celebrity and star athlete dads, there is very little in the way of showing what research has proven for a long time — that the everyday African American father is in fact present in his children’s lives as much as – or in some instances even more so than – fathers of other racial groups. The question is why the visuals have not kept up with this reality. And the answers must be discussed as part of a conversation that revolves around the criminalization of black masculinity, period.
In Sight: What is something you gleaned from each of the fathers regarding how they view fatherhood and how they are hoping to raise their children?
Lee: I really wanted to home in on the kinds of images that are not considered newsworthy, glamorous or significant – the kinds of everyday moments of love and interaction that are so fleeting and subtle we easily miss them. Collectively, these moments demonstrate for me that many black men exhibit a strong sense of identification around the responsibilities of fatherhood, and this manifests in ways that often get lost in the shuffle. Many fathers develop a highly individual definition of what fatherly presence means and how to parent their kids, and this is based on a combination of personal choices as well as intersectional circumstances. The common denominator is that, whatever the circumstances, no father I met took his responsibilities lightly, and nobody aspired to ever being or becoming a deadbeat.
In Sight: Was your photo series intended to try and dispel a stigma regarding the presence of black men in their children’s lives?
“Dispelling the myth” was never my primary intention because I knew from my own lived experience that the deadbeat stereotypes were not based on reality to begin with. My goal was not to find “positive” examples that defy the negativity but to answer the question of why the prevalent visuals are not representative of the depth and breath of actual lived experiences of black fatherhood.
If there is one aspect missing in many conversations regarding black fatherhood, it is nuance. This absence of nuance creates an environment that negates the many ways black fathers demonstrate love and presence. The lack of nuance also contributes to the flawed rhetoric of making black fathers responsible not only for “fragile families” but also for many social ills in general.