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Photographer Wing Young Huie goes beyond appearances

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Wing Young Huie
Photographer Wing Young Huie outside his studio near Chicago Avenue and 38th Street S., Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Art Heroes is an MPR News series about people who have chosen to use their artistic talents to make the world a better place. These are people who commit themselves day in and day out to transforming their communities through their art. We benefit from a wealth of artists in this area who are also great community leaders.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Born and raised in Duluth, photographer Wing Young Huie is best known for his public art installations, most recently the University Avenue project, in which he turned a six-mile stretch of the thoroughfare into an outdoor photo gallery. The pictures were of people and life from the surrounding neighborhoods, some of which he enlarged to the size of billboards. 

The project was all about confronting the prejudices with which we categorize others, based solely on how they look. It's an existence Huie knows well.

"We were the only Asian family in our neighborhood and I was always the only Asian kid in school, until my senior year, when another kid showed up, another Asian boy. And I avoided him. I don't think I realized at the time that I was avoiding someone who looked like me," he said recently.

But that's what was happening. Huie describes himself as a "Banana" — slang for someone who's yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. And he saw that Asian boy as foreign.

"What I realized is that you are what you see. And as I looked around at my fellow students I became formed by popular culture, TV, Hollywood, media, marketing — I forgot what I looked like. It's not like you go around with a mirror in front of you. Popular culture becomes your mirror and it's a distorted mirror," Huie said.

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The average American is bombarded by thousands of advertising images each day. Huie said those images are usually digitally altered to make them look as appealing as possible, and they often stereotype people on the basis of sex or race. 

And he believes most documentary photography is about victims: The photographs elicit sympathy and pity, but the viewer often comes away thinking, "Thank god I'm not like them." Huie hopes his photography accomplishes something altogether different.

Wing Young Huie
Photographer Wing Young Huie, right, welcomes a group of Macalester College students to his studio Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 in Minneapolis. The students, who are taking a class called Placing Race and Seeing Social Inequality, were there to meet filmmaker Mark Tang and discuss his documentary "Open Season" about a Hmong deer hunter who killed six white hunters in rural Wisconsin.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Hence the University Avenue project.

"The perception of University Avenue has been that it is unsafe, that 'those people' live and work there. It's a place of crime. It's a place of dysfunction at all sorts of levels, and I have to watch myself," said Christine Podas-Larson, the executive director of Public Art St. Paul, who has worked with Huie extensively over the years, particularly on his University Avenue photo project. "It says everything about us as a society that when we look at someone we judge them instantly."

Huie's University Avenue project included nightly parties, during which he'd project his photographs on stacks of shipping crates and host live music. Each month he presented cabarets featuring local spoken word artists. The event, Podas-Larson said, drew people to the neighborhood that otherwise would never have come.

"And lo and behold they get to University Avenue and they aren't mugged," she said. "I cannot tell you how many people came to the projection site from other parts of the Twin Cities area, and that was a pretty common comment: 'Well, here we all are in a parking lot sitting with people we've never met before in our lives and this feels good and I feel safe. I never thought I would.'"

Podas-Larson said Huie finds the beauty in the everyday moments of people's lives and displays them as a sort of antidote to marketing images that continue to stereotype or offer unrealistic standards for good looks or wealth. 

According to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Huie's images don't just change the perceptions of outsiders, they also transform the community they portray.

"Sometimes you can live in a community, but when you see it up on the big screen it becomes more real to you, and you realize maybe other people know about us and maybe other people see us in a different way than we see ourselves," Coleman said. "I think that was one of the things that Wing's work was able to do — was to say, 'You know what? Here's a fresh perspective on a place that you've lived in and known all your life.'"   

At a time when the neighborhood was preparing for the long construction process surrounding the Central Corridor light rail project, Huie's work on University Avenue brought its people and places together in a sort of summer-long celebration, enlivening a community that is often portrayed as disparate and downtrodden. 

"I think in a way I'm a tour guide: You walk the street, you won't see all of this. I go into people's homes," Huie said of his work. "We live in cultural bubbles, cultural islands, we go from point A to point B and don't see what's in between. I'm showing you what's in between. And it's fascinating work." 

Just as powerful as his photography is what Huie does with it once a project is over. 

On a recent Thursday morning, Huie presented a slideshow of images to students at the University of Wisconsin campus in Superior. One of the photographs showed some Latino men hanging out around a nice-looking car, with the window rolled down. 

Day laborers
Wing Young Huie recently presented a slideshow of images to students at the University of Wisconsin campus in Superior, including this one of some Latino men hanging out around a nice-looking car, with the window rolled down. One student thought the scene depicted a drug deal. But eventually others correctly guessed the image was of day laborers negotiating a job -- the photo started a conversation about how two different people can see the same exact image, and have a very different reaction.
Courtesy Wing Young Huie

One student thought the scene depicted a drug deal. But eventually others correctly guessed the image was of day laborers negotiating a job — the photo started a conversation about how two different people can see the same exact image, and have a very different reaction.

Later, Huie conducted what he calls a "chalk talk," in which students are paired up to discuss, and come up with answers to some basic questions, including, 'What are you?' And, 'How do you think other people see you?'

As students gradually come up with their answers, they are asked to pick one of them and write it on a small chalkboard. They have their photo taken, holding the chalkboard in front of them. The result is a portrait in which the viewer is not just invited into someone's world, but into their mind. 

"You know, we all have a public face and a private face, and I think especially in high school or middle school, no one wants to be ridiculed, no one wants to be embarrassed, no one wants to be bullied and so they keep their real selves  to themselves or only to those very, very close," Huie said. "But when I ask them if they would like to be real all the time? Everybody does."

The chalk talk is a device Huie came up with to take his photography somewhere new. It's now being used by schools and companies to raise awareness of diversity among their students and staff. It's another example of Wing Young Huie working to create a world in which everyone can be their authentic selves, and see each other with more open eyes.

• The people's photographer
• Photographer's homepage
• Huie's Science Museum race project (pdf)
• NY Times: Anywhere the Eye Can See, It's Likely to See an Ad