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December 03, 2015

Korean-American street photographer captures the joy of Philadelphia

Susan Nam shows 5 years of work at Asian Arts Initiative

The Arts Photography
01-120215_SusanNam_Carroll.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Philadelphia photographer Susan Nam at the Asian Arts Initiative, where her current exhibition, "Freestyle," will hang until Jan. 22.

Camera in hand and baby strapped to her chest, Susan Nam's devotion to capturing what she calls the "joy" of Philadelphia is unshakable. 

"I guess because I didn’t technically grow up in the city -- I grew up in Montgomery County -- I see it as a much more hopeful and beautiful place," 29-year-old Nam, a mother of two, told PhillyVoice. "Our city has such a bad rap -- we’re a very 'tough' city. I feel like my calling here is just to break those barriers a bit and bring some light in."

Nam will debut her first solo street photography exhibition, titled "Freestyle," at the Asian Arts Initiative in Callowhill on Friday. The 14 photos were taken over a five-year period to capture corners of the city seldom documented, most of them taken spontaneously in North Philadelphia -- a challenge as a full-time mom. 

"It's a balancing act," she said. "Because, to be honest, becoming a mother was very unnatural for me – it still is. It's difficult not being able to go out whenever I want."

But she finds a way to make it work, through the help of family and sheer determination to showcase the diverse and gruff-but-affable neighborhoods made special by the people who inhabit them --particularly the city's children.

"Eyes," a piece from Nam's exhibit captured in 2010. "I just think it's very 'Philly,'" Nam said. "It symbolizes childhood and it's very free and innocent." (Susan Nam)

"Children definitely bring a different aura to photos because they’re so unfiltered and not scared. They have nothing to hide, and they're so open and pure," Nam said. "I want to show them how special they are."

Nam's process differs from her fellow photographers' in that she seldom walks away from a subject, youth or otherwise, without showing them their photo. She wants those photographed to be just as impacted by her photos as curious gallery-goers.

“I think it's important for them to just be able to see themselves from a different pair of eyes," she said. "It has some kind of effect on them when I show them. 'Oh, I look cool!'"

"Break Time," one of 14 photos in the Asian Arts Initiative exhibition. 
“A lot of people approach me and ask if I can take their photo," Nam said. "A lot of people haven’t had their photo taken in that kind of manner." (Susan Nam)

Nam stands out among Philadelphia street photographers, too, as few others share her Korean-American background. Growing up, her deep-dive into the arts wasn't always encouraged, as is the case among many second-generation Asian-American families. Explaining her work to her mother, Nam said, has been a struggle since leaving the nest to attend the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2007.

"I’ve heard the refrain so many times [from Asian-American parents]. ‘What are you doing? What is this? Why are you trying to be an artist?’" Nancy Chen, senior program manager at Asian Arts Initiative, told PhillyVoice. "Susan didn't have to elaborate for me to totally understand that. Her pursuit of this dream is despite that lack of total support; though, I do think that support comes through in other ways."

Nam takes pride in what she's able to offer through her perspective. For instance, she's able to leave a playground in North Philadelphia having both photographed kids for her work and taught them that she's not "Chinese," she said, and that they all share more in common than they'd think. Her background serves as a tool.

"Being a minority, I'm definitely able to identify more with my subjects, to a certain level. And just being Korean-American and being a woman, I thought those were for sure my biggest challenges being in the photography field," she said. "Now I’ve learned to use it to my advantage and they're my biggest strength. Especially being on the streets. No one’s threatened by me.”

"Smokin'" was captured in 2010 at the Broad and Erie streets subway stop. "
She’s just a perfect example of the characters in the city, and a lot of the characters people don’t get to see because people are in Center City most of the time." (Susan Nam)

Next up, Nam is hoping to comb through more than 60,000 photos she's taken of Philadelphians to compile a book of street photography. The goal is to give Philadelphia a better reputation for the art form.

“So many street photographers are connected with New York, and there are so many of them, but I feel like Philly doesn’t really have any," Nam said. "No one’s ever came here and left their mark, and that’s what I’m here to do."

"Freestyle" debuts at the Asian Arts Initiative gallery space on Friday, Dec. 4, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free.