Thomas Holton began photographing in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown in 2003 while working towards his MFA as a way to explore his identity as a Chinese-American man. During that time Holton discovered a local housing advocate agency and struck a deal: if they could get him behind closed doors he would give them prints. Through the housing agency he met the Lam family—two parents and three young children who were living and interacting within the confines of a crowded 350-square-foot apartment.
The exploration into his identity soon morphed into a 13-year chronicle of the Lam family’s personal journey and preceded Holton’s career as a photography teacher at the Trinity School in New York City. Holton’s series, which now depicts the children grown up and moved out of the family home, is being published as a book by Kehrer Verlag on April 12, 2016. Here Holton speaks about his immersion into the Lam’s home and his drive to overcome the monotony of a long-term project.
When you started photographing the Lams did you realize it would be an ongoing project?
No. I knew I wanted to get a closer look into the reality of Chinatown life, but I did not know I’d photograph a single family for so long. I was just simply thrilled to finally meet local residents and to witness their everyday life.
What interested you about the Lams in particular?
I guess it was the energy of their home. Their apartment is very small and with two adults and three small kids, there was constant chaos. Both parents were super friendly and curious about who I was and what I was hoping to see and capture. But to be perfectly honest, the Lams were also the only family that invited me to return and share more meals together. Every other family I met through the housing advocate either completely ignored my request to come back again to photograph more or weren’t too keen on the idea and said no. I honestly got lucky that the Lams said yes.
Was it hard gaining their trust once you entered their personal space?
Not for the three small children, but initially with the parents to a certain degree. Being kids, I was just another adult to play with and entertain them. I believe that due to the chaotic nature of they home, the parents could not honestly think too much about why I was there because there was always so many errands to do, kids to bathe, clothes to clean and food to cook. I think that I simply blended into the background and was another mouth to feed at suppertime. As I got to know the Lams better the initial barriers and wariness I felt from the parents dissolved because they were used to me being there. The photographs only really started to get interesting after about six months and a few camera changes.
What do you think the advantage is to doing a long-term project?
It gives the photographer and the subject time to evolve and to trust and grow together. Like I said above, the first six months of imagery was merely a prelude to what was to come. You have to have the time to make work, make mistakes, learn from them and make more work. Long term projects also involve time lapsing because all of our lives change over time so being witness to these changes is important to any project.
What can a photographer do to make the subjects feel comfortable?
I guess simply be themselves and to be honest with what you hope to accomplish. I’d suggest that any photographer share the photographs with their subject too—as a way of being transparent.
Is it hard getting the motivation to continually shoot one subject over the span of many years?
One of the aspects of this project I found fascinating was the fact that no matter how many times I have visited the Lams and walked up five flights of steps, there was always something new to see. Photographers are hyper-observant artists, so I knew that there was always the potential for a new photograph every time I went. I was and am still always motivated. There were times where I was either too tired after working all day or had other commitments so it was harder to go.
Were there times when the subject matter started to feel monotonous?
Definitely, but I firmly believed that at any moment a new photograph could present itself. So no matter how monotonous one particular day was, I would always remain observant and ready to photograph. This entire project was photographed in mainly one apartment over 13 years where for probably 99.9% of the time “nothing” was happening. This rare chance that a compelling photograph presents itself makes it all worthwhile. More times than not, I’d be reading a book or simply hanging out waiting for dinner and then all of the sudden, something happens! Every photographer out there knows exactly what I mean by this.
How do you know when your long-term project is finished? Is it ever?
That is hard to answer because life continues and things change. There have been a few times where I took a creative pause and worked on some other ideas I had. Sometimes I feel that I simply must let some time pass so that things can change and perhaps there’ll be a new story to investigate. But even during these pauses, I would always go visit the Lams because they’re important to me. I strongly feel that if I am to continue photographing the Lams, I want there to be a new story to tell and explore or I’d just feel like I am repeating myself. I am particularly curious about how Cindy (the youngest daughter) makes it through high school and navigates young adulthood. With Michael (the oldest son) in college, I’ve spent most of my time with her the last year or so.
Would you ever begin a similar project with a different family?
I wouldn’t say never, but this experience would be very, very hard to replicate. But as a photographer, I always keep my eyes open!
What did you learn from observing the Lams?
As a person and now a parent, I learned mostly that life is full of challenges and things happen for a reason and hopefully everybody grows stronger as a result. Nobody has a preordained life path and the journey of life is an adventure as well as one long learning experience. I have also learned how important family is and to always try to be present for one another through all the ups and downs of life.
As a photographer, this experience also reinforces the idea that there is a story everywhere, perhaps right in front of your nose. There is no need to travel across the globe to make compelling imagery. I tell my students that to truly make work that speaks to not only the photographer but also the viewer, they have to make work that is uniquely theirs. Meaning, make photographs that only you can make. I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of making work that resonates with you on a deeper, more personal level. By doing so, you’ll always feel emotionally vested and engaged with what you do.