Congratulations on the launch of Film Xchange! What was the inspiration behind this project? Film Xchange (Filmx) was inspired by my personal love of film and what it did for my mental health. I was struggling with depression my whole life, and it went unchecked for an extremely long time. I started going to therapy after my second suicide attempt, when I was 28. My therapist recommended that I try journaling to help me be more present in my life. I didn’t have the verbiage or understanding to talk about my emotions, so I used a camera as a way to journal anytime I thought I felt an emotion. But I realized that looking at the back of a digital camera took me out of the actual moment, so I switched over to film. When I started developing and scanning the images myself, it allowed me to start a conversation with myself and actively participate in my own life instead of just watching it go by. I wanted to share that feeling with others and give people the opportunity to notice the quiet moments they have to themselves by the way of a disposable camera.
I was also inspired by the Free Film USA project. In 2019, Worthless Studios from New York converted an Airstream into a black-and-white darkroom. They’d stop in a city for a couple of days, hand out free film to people, develop and scan, host some workshops, and then go on to the next city to do the same thing.
I thought—and still think—that this was the neatest thing in the world. Many people I talked to at these pop-ups were too scared to try film photography, hadn’t done it in a long time, or didn’t know it was a thing. Free Film USA helped alleviate these doubts, or, at the very least, allowed people to try film even with these doubts. The accessibility of it was amazing and it inspired me when I kicked off Filmx.
How do you hope Filmx will make film more accessible to others? Filmx hopes to make film photography more accessible by giving disposable cameras to anyone. There is no bias or skill requirement to operate a disposable camera. Filmx packages that all together with free developing and scanning. There’s no payment or risk, and disposable cameras are nonthreatening to the idea of making images. It’s a universal approach into documenting life. I hope to spread the enjoyment of film photography to people who may not have ever thought of themselves as creative or to rekindle the experience of image making in a new light. Maybe even get a camera in someone’s hands that wouldn’t have otherwise.
Filmxlab, the DIY film lab that I started in my basement, serves as a hub for the Filmx project and a small handful of people have been donating to it to keep it stocked with chemicals. But in the long run, I’d love to get more equipment like a Jobo film processor and eventually have Filmxlab be a donation-based film lab. At the end of the day, I am one person in a basement with an “elevated DIY home lab.” But I love the idea of offering film processing on a donation basis.
How has using photography as a means of journaling changed the way you take photos? Photographing as a way to journal is weird because it puts your emotions up front and the final photograph at the bottom of the hierarchy. At the end of it all, it’s a photograph that has nothing to do with the actual photograph. The photograph is simply a note that I felt something. I like to think of it as a self-portrait. I’m not trying to make a specific photograph of anything important; I’m simply noting this quiet moment I’m having when there’s something going on in my head that I’m trying to unpack.
How have you used photography to talk about mental health? Growing up, I fell into the trap of believing that I should never talk about my emotions. That being sad or crying was being weak or broken. I thought that if I experienced anything other than happiness and success, it would have made me “other” and strange. So I never talked about it. I buried all my emotions, and, eventually, I self-destructed. As I was going through my journey of journaling with my images, I found it important to share them—because I wish I had people in my life who openly talked about what was actually going on inside their head. I made mental health a taboo subject to the point of trying to kill myself, twice. I didn’t want that anymore. So I used photography as a gateway to share images and emotions in hopes that it makes mental health a casual thing to talk about with others. Now, every once in a while, I’ll post my personal work with actual journal entries. They’ll be quiet moments with the caption of unpacking the moment that was in front of me. It’s one of the few ways I know how to communicate, but I think it’s important to share.
What intrigues you about the process of shooting film? Film is really neat because it forces you to run this exercise in trust one frame at a time. You’re either going to trust that you actually made the image you’re seeing in your head, or let go of the notion that you may have completely messed it up and that’s totally OK. I can’t think of anything else I do so regularly and frequently that forces me to trust myself enough to let go. And there’s a lot of magic that happens by doing that.
How would you describe your style, and how did it evolve? My style started off being really polished. I used to use a lot of lighting, and it was always the first thing I set up regardless of the situations I was in. Over the years, I started dialing back with the lighting and started to skew towards documentary or photojournalism. Before, it was “How much lighting can I bring in?” but these days it’s more “How much shadow can I introduce before I can’t even make an image?” It’s less dramatic, more intimate and more intentional with the lighting I bring without disrupting too much of what the world is offering me.
How did you get the idea for your series Kung Fu Movie Stills? In the late ’70s and early ’80s, both of my parents fled from Vietnam because of the war and came to America as refugees. Since I was the first person in my entire family history to be born in America, my parents would tell me to be like my White American counterparts so that I would not stand out like they did. To other Vietnamese immigrants, I was the most American thing they saw at their home gatherings. To my American friends, I was the most foreign thing they’d ever been around. Growing up, I felt extremely displaced and had a confusing sense of identity.
In my art history and photography history classes, I had learned about Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, which were self-portraits taken in the late ’70s looking like scenes from familiar movies. It was an amazing series that played on the idea of what a woman is, what a woman does and what a woman looks like. So I took that concept and applied it to my own situation. I dressed up in costumes, photographed myself in stereotypical scenarios and called the series Kung Fu Movie Stills. Interestingly enough, most of those stereotypes were very relevant to my life: I actually do play piano, I was in premed in college, my mom owns a nail salon; I was in a car club in high school and I drove in a Honda. It felt really odd to see those stereotypes highlighted in the series, but it helped me come to terms with who I am. Though I was not like my parents because I wasn’t born in Vietnam, I am Vietnamese through and through. This project helped me be proud of what it means to be Vietnamese American.
What is unique about the creative community in Kansas City? There’s a lot of talent in Kansas City across many different mediums, and people are very open to discussing and sharing their talents. Kansas City is big enough to house more creatives than I could ever meet, but it’s also small enough that I can reach out and find many folks of similar minds. There’s a lot of good work ethic floating around and a lot of good people who are willing to help others. More often than not, the creatives in Kansas City don’t have the luxury to specialize in what they’re doing. Everyone has to be multifaceted. And because of that, people know a lot beyond what they do in their fields and become really useful when they are working in collaborative situations and spaces.
What excites you about photography right now? The technology. Making images has become cheaper, more accessible and more user friendly. Everything is at our fingertips. Better technology makes the entry-level images better, which forces me to raise the bar for myself. All I can hope for is that cameras get so impossibly good that we start talking about the images we make instead of the gear we own. Gear is getting really advanced, which also means things that used to be really advanced become the standard. And I am definitely here for that.