Exhibiting seamless talent in his latest project, Rye Above the Sea, Fengzhao (Lucas) Xu shares his journey as a Chinese immigrant in the United States, evocative of his psychological disorientation and emotional transitions, and as a form of representation for his community during the process. For Lucas, photography isn’t just his passion, but a form of communication, stemming from the inner self as a reflection of his journey and the world through his work. While his photographic style is authentic and individual, Lucas uses photography as a means of representation for those who resonate with the duality, and experiences that accompany it, as an immigrant. The unique perspective Lucas brings to the visual arts world is moving in itself, inspiring not only who and what his photography represents, but those who aspire to their creative outlets as a means of a greater understanding of their message and purpose. ABILITY’s Amaris Medley interviewed Lucas about his latest exhibit and his life’s influence on his work.
Amaris Medley: How did your journey begin in the U.S.?
Fengzhao (Lucas) Xu: I came to the U.S in 2013 as a foreign student from China. I first came to the Midwest, Iowa, for college. I first studied psychology…you know, I thought it was something I wanted to dive into because there are a lot of people these days experiencing all kinds of mental struggles because of the social environment, or maybe family causes. One of my family members is one of them, so that’s why I started in psychology. Then after I finished, I thought, you know, it’s probably better to show something for them. Psychology is something you learn, you study, and then you cure, but visual studies, like photography, or visual arts, it’s something you present. Like how these people are, or how you are inside of your mind, and I think that was when I switched my emphasis from psychology to visual arts. I spent almost two years in college to study art history and photo history after psychology, and then I went to grad school at Columbia College Chicago for Photo MFA. After that, I moved to L.A. last year to start my own projects and life here. That is how my photo career, or I would say the journey of my photography goes in an academic way.
Medley: What was your ‘aha’ moment in realizing photography was your calling?
Xu: I think, psychology provides all kinds of approaches to whoever is suffering from their mental illness, it provides the way to cure them…but I think it’s more like aftermath. To me, I think visual arts, or photography, is the only way to provide my vision to the people, or what I think about the world or society before things happen, you know. That was one of the main reasons, but I was a foreign student studying in this country, and I also went through a lot of psychological dislocation and physical displacement, so I think visual language is the best way for me to document, to present, or make my voice out to the world. That was also one of the reasons I moved from traditional college studies to the art field.
Medley: In what way do you consider photography to be an outlet for you?
Xu: Yea, I think that’s a really good question, and I think yea, of course. For me, photography is definitely an outlet for myself, and I always think photography is a unique emotional, or personal visual language. I don’t see it as a serious art type, I see it as a language, as a way to express myself. You can make a photograph yourself, and people can make photographs with their phones, and anything these days especially. You can make a picture with any kind of tool. You take this picture because you want to make this moment documented or recorded. For me, I definitely think photography is my own visual language and emotional outlet.
Medley: It seems that you view photography as a unique form of self-expression, as well as communication to the public. Could you elaborate more about this dual perspective?
Xu: Yea, you know, when you see a photograph, taken by photographers from Asia, or like South Africa, you don’t need to learn about the person, you don’t need to learn about the photographer or anything, you just learn about their world through the picture. That’s how people, especially after the pandemic, we are more connected than ever before, the world is more connected than ever before. One of the most convenient ways to make us more connected is the internet, we are able to see pictures and videos on the internet every day. They might’ve been taken in the past couple of years, or by someone just randomly capturing their life. That’s how we learn about the world these days.
Medley: One piece of your work, ‘Rye Above the Sea’, is different from your previous work, such as its style and composition. What are some experiences or anecdotes that inspired you to focus this exhibit on your immigration journey?
Xu: So, I started this project many years ago when I was first arriving to this country. It was a big, I would say exploration and journey for me, at the beginning, and I thought using photography is my approach to document my emotional transition, or whatever is the best way for me to look back, or maybe for others to look at the people, or community like us. So, that was why I think I started this. Also, during this process, during the whole past ten years being here as a Chinese student, there was a lot of confusion…especially when I’m here for this long, I’ve realized there are different parts of me, existing inside of me. There’s western culture background and influence, but I was born in China, and lived there for almost 20 years, so these two cultural backgrounds collapse inside of me. So, the project Rye Above the Sea was more like a visual journal of myself. I used to write down all of these emotional moments or texts when I first came here and I wrote a lot of like diaries, or journals, like every teenager would do.
But then, I realized, you know, it would be easier, or quicker for me to document, or make the photograph exist, maybe in my hard drive. Or, some of them are film, so when I look at them physically, the memory is clear, but also more vague, because every time you think about a piece of memory, it wouldn’t be that clear, you know, vagueness and clearness are coexisting in my photographs, and that’s how I feel about being here as a foreign student, immigrant student, for the past ten years.
Medley: On your website, you said, “a passage of overly clear words can be as powerless as a textbook concept, while overly vague communication is like a faint emotion.” Is that what you are speaking to?
Xu: Yea, you know, there’s always a sudden emotion you have towards something in your life, but when you recall, or, when this part of the memory reoccurs in your mind, would that be the same kind of emotion, or the same kind of feeling you had before? It’s probably going to be not-so true. The emotion you have in the present, it’s true, but for the past, it might not be true. So, the truthfulness and the fakeness between now and before, or now and the past, and probably in the future, would always collapse and conflict with each other. That’s like how my work exists, from all this chaos, you know.
Medley: What are certain aspects of your cultural identity you would say that influence, and are incorporated into your photography?
Xu: I am Chinese, and I’m here in this country for 10 years, and you can’t deny… I mean in this country, there are a lot of immigrants. Also, a part of my family moved here 30 years ago, and I visit them every once in a while. So, when I talk to their kids, I realize how confused they feel for their cultural identity. We call them second-generation immigrants, there are a lot of these communities in this country. So, I know there are people who are confused, and they need this attention. People recognize them as American, but they have the other part of their identity that cannot be denied one way or another. So, that was what triggered my interest, or attention, to photograph them, and also myself, because after being here these years I realized that, even if one day I may go back to my home country, or some other country, being here as an immigrant student, I can’t deny all this. I have to accept myself for my previous cultural background, and I’m also accepting cultural influence from this country, and that’s why I’m here you know (laughs). I’m trying to accept and learn, and fit in to this cultural background here, and when these two emerge with each other, that’s how…I mean, when you grow up in a different cultural background, there’s always something rooted inside of you, and when this part of you interacts with the new cultural background, you know, the new stuff just comes out, and that’s my photograph.
Medley: What are certain aspects that you hope, from this exhibit, will resonate with people who have gone through similar experiences of immigration, physical and psychological displacement, resilience, and things related to that?
Xu: Yea, I mean that’s my ultimate goal, for my work. I don’t know how people would react to a body of work done by a Chinese student who studied in the states, but, for me, I think it’s necessary to make this voice for my community. There are a lot of students, international students, they decide to stay here and work really hard to maintain their status and everything, and I think, everyone has their own reason, but there are some real difficulties that people who are not in this community cannot see. That’s why I think it’s necessary and really important for me as a photo artist to draw attention from society and others to this community. like, yea, (laughs) we are here! People can’t deny it, and that’s why we have to say it out loud, like I did in my photographs.
Medley: How does that link to the narrative you want to speak on, regarding your cultural identity, or the immigrant experience, to your audience who haven’t gone through the same experiences?
Xu: There’s still people, or students, or kids from all over the world who want to come to this country to see what it is really like in America compared to Hollywood films, the movies. How I learned about this country when I was a kid, I watched all those Hollywood films and movies, and books, with my parents, and I learned a lot of culture and history about this country. When I was a kid, I wanted to one day see it in person, so I can really learn about it. I think there are still a lot of people like me, now, and they are probably going to go through all of this psychological displacement, yea, one day when they are here.
Medley: How would you say your work can have an impact in a greater understanding of the experiences of the disability community?
Xu: That’s a really good question because I made this whole body of work, I would say during my darkest time here in the states, right before the pandemic started, and everything went wild, and after the pandemic. One of my photographs in this project is my hand, trying to reach something in the darkness. It is always my purpose in the photograph that I’m trying to show people, there’s always darkness in the world, there’s always hopelessness, and always something you can’t expect in your life, but there’s always light. You have to try hard and reach it, and that’s my purpose in making these photographs. Also, one of my other projects, it’s about my grandmother. It’s about my grandmother’s generation, and they’re getting old and, I mean, everyone has their grandma and grandpa in their life. So, when they’re getting old, they started to lose hope, they started to feel like life is just like this, it’s getting close to its end. Through that project, I was trying to go deep into her heart, into this generation’s heart. You know, they had been doing a lot to make everything possible in their life for the past 80 or 90 years. I don’t want them to worry about anything or be anxious about anything in the last several years of their life. That’s why I think my photographs always try to tell people, there might be something gone in your life, there might be something lost in your life. It happens everyday to everybody. I can’t represent you, and you can’t represent anyone else, but there’s always light and hope in some other way, and that’s what my project is trying to say.
Medley: How do you see your work evolving in the future?
Xu: I think, you know, I always say to my friends who ask what photography is to me, it’s more like drinking water, or eating, or like taking a walk for me. So, photography is a part of my life. I’ve never thought anything before making a project. A lot of photographers have a very specific plan, or like what they’re going to do in the next couple of months, what kind of pictures they’re going to make. For me, because I just moved to L.A. last year, I think the city is a big stage for visual artists like me, and for photographers like me. I think I will still keep doing the projects I was working on before, as long as I’m here in the states, in this country, I will still make photographs as an immigrant student. I’m not originally from here, or born in this country, so there’s definitely a lot more to explore and to put myself into as a foreign student. There’s a famous photographer, Robert Frank, when he first came to the U.S. he documented all these people in the street, in his own perspective, and I think everyone is able to look at others in a unique way, but it’s in a good way because we all need attention from others. That’s what I’m going to do in the future, just keep doing what I’m doing right now. Photography is a part of my life. Yea, it’s going to keep going as long as I’m here in this country.
When I’m walking down the street just taking all these photographs, the scene just like, flows to my camera autonomously, and I capture it. I just can’t help thinking of Bruce Lee’s quote (laughs). Like, it’s true, that the world is like liquid, I just try to fit it differently into the camera with my own mind, so yea. It’s just part of me, and part of my life.