By Barbara Yau, AsAmNews
If you have an immigrant Chinese mom, there is a good chance that she never visits your home empty handed. She probably greets you at your door with several bags in hand filled with little knickknacks and all your favorite goodies.
Because fears of COVID and anti-Asian attacks continue to be heightened especially for the older generation, many of you may be longing for these warm in-person visits, as well as the bounty of treats that your mom and your dad chose just for you. Realizing the need for comfort during these challenging times, New York based photographer Shirley Yu has found a way to help.
Through her colorful and relatable photographs in her new still life story named the Quarantine Care Package, released just in time for Asian American and Pacific islander Heritage Month and Mother’s Day Weekend, Shirley allows us to reminisce on those moments of love through caring gifts from our loved ones.
In a recent interview with AsAmNews, Yu speaks to us about this latest project and her desire to connect us all through her craft.
1) Tell us about your new project, the Quarantine Care Package, and your creative vision behind it.
Absolutely. I spent three years as the staff social media photographer for Walmart and shooting a lot of product photography. I was selling products and illustrating stories like “10 desk accessories that you’ll NEED for your home office!” and “5 moisturizers that you’ll NEED for your morning routine.” And while I’m great at that, it led me to question what are the things I actually need in my life.
With the pandemic going on, isolating us from seeing one another except for on our screens, I realized that right now, what I need is love, familiarity, and family. When I open my pantry, my fridge, or my bathroom, so many things that I have and use on a daily basis are things that my mom has brought me.
She doesn’t visit me without bringing over a bag of practical items, such as fresh and preserved vegetables; cooked lunches like zhongzi, wontons, and pressure-cooked beef broth for stew; my favorite drinks from Sweetwaters; slippers, face masks, oils and balms; trinkets from supermarkets, and decor and dishes from department stores like Pearl River market.
These are things that satisfy us on a level of hunger, thirst, and health, but also remind me of my culture and how much she cares for me.
So I developed the concept of still life story Quarantine Care Package as a spotlight on the kinds of things that my mom brings me. The inspiration for the setting is one of my hometowns — Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s “Chinatown” — which was amazing to recreate with my amazing art director & set designer Giulietta at Limonata Creative.
2) Why was it important for you to create a photo story that relates to a Chinese family specifically?
Based on conversations of shared experiences with Chinese American friends, I wanted to speak to the idea that the love language in many Chinese immigrant family is one that’s more implicit — not through an overabundance of words of affirmation, but through actions like bringing over cooked meals or cut fruit, or some slippers for your cold feet.
3) As I look at all the photographs in this series, there is such familiarity with many of the things I see. What do you hope that people take away when they see these photographs?
In the age of commercial saturation, I think that it’s easy to obsess over the next thing or the newest thing, and we aspire to be the first and/or only people to have an item; but, I hope to remind people to appreciate the items that are common, comforting, and familiar, especially those which comes from our family, as well as our community.
4) The photographs are beautiful and colorful! What cameras/lenses did you use for your work? Did you encounter any challenges during the shoot?
I appreciate your compliment! I used my mirrorless camera, the Canon EOS RP, a standard zoom lens (Canon RF 24-70 2.8), and a macro lens (Canon EF 100mm 2.8 macro lens). For a while, I’d been meaning to buy that zoom lens, but I decided to go for it on the day before the shoot. For a couple of close-up shots, I rented the macro!
Haha, our shoot was simple, but I felt that the challenge was impressing my family and making sure that I was being respectful in my depiction, as it was the first time I was getting them involved and engaged in my work.
5) Your website includes many still lifes and portraits. How would you best describe your body of work?
I have a playful, colorful and whimsical approach to work — just like cereal, for example. Crisp and crunchy with a variety of colors, textures and cute figures that you find in the box.
6) What inspired you to become a photographer?
I’ve had a lot of “hometowns” by way of Beijing, to Brooklyn’s Chinatown, to growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey. I had to get used to being the “new kid.” At best, you’re the extra amongst existing groups of friends or you make no impact. And at worst, you’re bullied.
So, in my most formative years, I lived with this sense of otherness, restlessness and loneliness, that I couldn’t shake off until I started thinking of artists as my role models — those who made their own path and were celebrated for being as kooky and different like Andy Warhol, David LaChapelle, and Richard Avedon.
I found myself attached to photography because it was an accessible medium. I didn’t have a museum within walking distance, but I had plenty of magazines that my mom subscribed to, such as the New York Times, New York Magazine, Vogue, where I noted inspiring photographs by Pierpaolo Ferrari, Charlie Engman, Erik Madigan Heck, and Bobby Doherty.
Through my career as a photographer, I found comfort, community, collaboration, and an optimism that my work can make an impact around me, whether I’m sharing a story, bringing out someone’s personality, creating a fantastical scene, or capturing a interesting moment that can influence someone to smile, think, or wonder.
7) What other projects are you working on or would like to work on in the future?
I’d love to work on more editorial projects that involve portraits of Asian Americans or that speak to Asian American issues, I’d also like to work on commercial projects for Asian American-owned brands and/or global brands doing seasonal campaigns for Chinese holidays, like when I shot the Lunar New Year social campaign for Toyota last year.
When I was younger, I tried to distance myself from my culture, so as not to seem different from my peers, but now I am wise enough to be proud of it and unapologetic about it.
8) What is the best way to keep updated on your projects or get in touch with you?
I’m super accessible! Find new work on my website, follow me on my Instagram, @shirleyshotyu, or hit up my inbox if there’s something you’d like to chat about. If you’re interested in working on a project together, you can also reach my manager Jacqueline at Creative Picnic [email protected]
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