Lost in Translation

© Wing Young Huie

© Wing Young Huie

It’s an old canard: a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of this photo, a viewer with nothing to go off but the image could follow a thousand trails. The commodification of food, fetishizing of a culture, or casual racism expressed by the advertisement might catch your eye. You may also see fascination with representations of self, cultural confusion, wholesale mockery, or keen, winking marketers at work. For Wing Young Huie and Doug Hartmann, too, the picture, taken by Wing in downtown Minneapolis and featuring three Asian American women checking out an ad for Japanese restaurant Fuji-Ya, elicited very different responses.

Doug:

I guess I did request food for thought, didn’t I? It strikes me that looking sociologically at food and eating is a tricky challenge: the emphasis is always to put eating and food in the social contexts that others often take for granted and that can be hard to represent in the first place. How to capture not just the physical “food” and its biological consumption, but all of the other phenomena that surround food and imbue it with meaning and importance? Plus, American culture adds layers to food, from how it’s represented on television (there are whole networks devoted to literal consumption) to how it’s advertised—here with a ridiculous tagline observed by women at a bus stop, within a street- and cityscape. This image is fascinating in its sociological aesthetics.

Wing:

Although the photo is part of my series “Eat,” I was doing a project on adoptive families when I took it. Each of these women is adopted from Korea and, though they grew up in different family structures, they have in common that they all had white parents. When they started hanging out, they noticed that people stared at them when they walked together in public. Here, they are staring: at a sushi restaurant advertisement with racially loaded—ironic?—messages.

Fuji-Ya is a hip Japanese restaurant, and this promotion is a play on fortune cookie messages, with their broken English laced with sexual innuendo. Another ad for the restaurant has the message “From this position you will receive fun.”

I, too, think the photo is hilarious, but can see that, no matter the intent, some will find it offensive. But, then again, my English is not broken.

Doug:

I’m not sure that the new literature on the sociology of food would have come to mind had I not been prompted, already thinking about “food for thought.” Now that I read your reply and know the background of the photo, I feel like I can’t help but shift toward race and urban space. I’ve been mulling over how I put your image in the “food” box so quickly, neglecting all of the other possible themes.

All of us face huge challenges in grasping and representing the whole buzzing complexity of the worlds around us. It seems so improbable, almost impossible to get at it all. And when we try, we do so through particular lenses and categories of analysis that invariably—necessarily—come at the expense of others. It’s a curse as much as a challenge.

To quote James Baldwin’s classic essay “Notes of a Native Son,” “Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. These categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; into which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions.”

Exploring Dora

© Wing Young Huie

Wing:

Hey Doug, it was great to see your latest post and thoughts about “found sociology” and about the trap of the documentary approach. I wonder about [this] in my own work, but try not to think about too much—try to keep my head down (or up) and just keep producing.

….Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’m attracted to photographing the various ways people are mirrored (or not mirrored) culturally. I’ve never watched any episodes of Dora the Explorer, but when I was growing up there weren’t any Asian cartoon leading characters, so I related to white characters like Jonny Quest and his father Race, rather than his brown exotic sidekick, Hadji. (more…)

Hoodies

Roland (Hoodie Diptych) © Wing Young Huie

Roland (Hoodie Diptych) © Wing Young Huie

The Changing Lenses project, as a conversation between a photographer and a sociologist, is very much based in the interaction of images and stereotypes, assumptions and visions, contexts and the understandings of those contexts. (more…)

Debt, Foreclosure, and a Little Help from Your Friends

The TSP team has been working to assemble a collection of thematic materials on debt for the first iterations of our books from W.W. Norton. I mentioned this to Wing and asked if that theme called any particular images to mind. At first he couldn’t think of anything. Then he had me take a look at this picture from his “We are the Other” project.

Bobby and Reggie, from "We are the Other." © Wing Young Huie, 2012.

The photo shows two men, Bobby and Reggie, according to the title, sitting in a kitchen. Save the fact that the men are of different races and the haunting self-consciousness of the unnamed man on the right, I didn’t immediately understand the significance of this image, let alone its relation to debt. One could see it as a photo of a neighborly chat, a family gathering, or a work break. But then Wing shared the story behind the image.

(more…)

Behind the Political Process

The Society Pages’ work on the “social side of politics” has, at the time of this writing, already has yielded some insightful white papers (Joe Gerteis’s piece on religion and political culture brings Weber to life, for instance), several great Roundtable exchanges and Office Hours interviews, and a host of host of provocative blog posts. But we’ve been having a devil of a time illustrating some of these contributions.

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Muslims in a “Judeo-Christian Culture”

Doug Hartmann: There are at least two facets of religion in America that stand out to sociologists. First, Americans have long been among the most religious people in the developed world. Religion has been a foundation of community, connection, and citizenship throughout this country’s history. Second, there is a remarkable diversity and pluralism of religious belief and practice in the United States, documented most recently and famously by Diana Eck‘s religious pluralism project at Harvard.

Few nations can claim this unique combination; typically, religious devotion goes hand in hand with religious conflict (or worse). Indeed, it is precisely because of this harmonious combination of devotion and diversity that noted political scientist Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame) titled his recent book on American religion American Grace.

For a sociologist, this unique, almost paradoxical combination of devotion and diversity raises questions about solidarities and boundaries. These kinds of questions inspired me to undertake a research project with some of my students almost a decade ago on the idea of America as a Judeo-Christian (rather than Christian) country. Without going into the details, we found that over the course of less than 50 years, the term “Judeo-Christian” went from being either a cultural curiosity or political provocation to a bipartisan, mainstream touchstone supposedly signaling the historic culture of the nation.

As Wing Young Huie and I started talking about religion and society, I remembered this paper and sent it along. Wing is not particularly religious, though he was for some time, and I don’t know how closely he read my paper or what he thought of it, but this is the photograph and commentary he sent in return.

Muslim Men by Wing

Roosevelt High School Students, Minneapolis, MN. From Lake Street USA (1997-2000). © Wing Young Huie.

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Diversity and Destruction

Demolition Derby, Baker, MT © Wing Young Huie

Demolition Derby, Baker, MT © Wing Young Huie, from "Looking for America: An Ethnocentric Tour" (2001)

Wing Young Huie:

I had never been to rural Montana. When we first pulled into Baker, it resembled a scene from an apocalyptic movie: tidy, rustic shops lined main street, but where was everybody? A lone soul finally appeared to inform us that the demolition derby was in town. Apparently the entire populace of Baker was at this car-as-gladiator spectacle.

An accommodating elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat excitedly explained the intricacies of the sport to us. The sight and sounds of smashing metal contrasted with the languorous audience and its intermittent cheers. In many ways, it didn’t seem all that different from a crowd at a baseball game back in the Twin Cities.

When my attention turned to photographic possibilities, I was excited to spy one of the only Asian faces in this communal gathering. This man and his wife, both Cambodian, blended right in with their dress and deportment. But to me, he still looks Photoshopped into this picture. I wonder, is that what I, also an Asian American, look like walking around the land of Lake Wobegon—as though I’ve been Photoshopped into the landscape? (more…)

Big Geno, Little Geno

Big Geno and Little Geno, Minneapolis, Minnesota, from "Lake Street USA" (1997-2000)

This is little Geno. I’m big Geno. He’s going to be a security dog. I’m going to take my time with him. I’m just trying to get his neck to be strong. The chain is to put muscles in his chest. Right now he’s young. As he gets old he’ll get used to it…Once he sees me with it, he know he’s got to put it on. At first he didn’t want to have it on, but now he’s used to it. It’s not being abusive. You can train a dog how you want to train a dog, just like a child… You know, you just raise your dog just the way you want to be raised up. That’s all that is. (more…)

Michael Jordan in Chinatown

Wing Young Huie and Doug Hartmann share two passions: playing pickup basketball and talking about race in America. So it seemed only natural, when they started to think creating about The Society Pages’ Changing Lenses project, to start there. Doug asked Wing to take a look at a book chapter he’d written on Michael Jordan and see what, from his extensive portfolio, sprang to mind.

Chinatown Bar, from Looking for Asian America. © Wing Young Huie.

The chapter came out of historian David Wiggins’ collection of biographical sketches of the most famous African American athletes of the 20th century. (more…)

Introducing Changing Lenses

Where some saw, say, the alienation of the immigrant, others saw integration and, indeed, success. Where some saw a man lurking dangerously, others saw women who were the relics of a forgotten age of matching shoes and gloves, unconcerned with the stylish man around the corner. And where some saw cringe-inducing reminders of a racially-charged past prominently displayed on a midwestern couple’s front lawn, others learned there was a also story of proud adoptive parents maybe just looking for some way to incorporate their child’s cultural legacy into their own.

After this successful party, we excitedly came together with The Society Pages’ associate editor just a few days later, jumpy with the energy of new ideas for collaborations. What you’ll see here in the coming months (and, given luck and the depth of Huie’s expansive portfolio) will be a continuance of that cold evening’s warmth: sociological insights, a photographic insider’s knowledge, and readers sharing their own viewpoints. We encourage anyone and everyone to join in: please, please share what you see through your own lens by posting your pictures, stories, and even academic insights in the comments. More firmly convinced than ever that art and sociology really are for everyone, we can’t wait to get started!