Art & Design, FeaturesDuke FORM

Zun Lee: Father Figures

Art & Design, FeaturesDuke FORM
Zun Lee: Father Figures

Black fathers: loving and present or absent and removed? Society prefers to see the latter, but Zun Lee offers a new perspective with his collection “Father Figures.”


Lee grew up as part of a two-thirds African American single family household. However, he did not grow up with a formal father figure. The artist remarks “I’ve experienced father absence but also at the same time father fullness.” Upon being taken under the wing of African American men growing up, Lee was driven to create Father Figures: a black and white photo series that provides insight into the unknown narrative of black fatherhood. Lee claims that he did not originally set out to create Father Figures, and rather that the project grew out of his personal exploration. This is exemplified by the fact that Lee only learned of his black heritage when he was 25, after spending years thinking that he was South Korean.


As Lee was coming to accept this new information, he was being encouraged to go beyond street photography. Because loving and tender fathers cease to exist in American media, Lee “needed to show something that I know from my own birth experience: they [black men] were just loving and affectionate and tender.”

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“For me it was important to say that it was not just about Black men being fathers,” says Lee, “but it was also about embodying a different type of masculinity.” Lee’s images challenge the stereotypical image of black men by providing more intimate shots, which reflect the experiences of the black men that raised Lee. 

Father Figures' unique perspective results directly from Lee developing more intimate relationships with his subjects. Despite boundaries between photographers and their subjects, Lee says “one family in particular took me in… they embraced me as something other than a photographer.” The more trusting relationships Lee was able to develop, such as even being godfather of one of the children, played a paramount role in the images produced. These images reflect a reality for many African American children, to which Lee states, “I made these images just for us….when we see images in the media we know they are not made for consumption by the community for which they originate.” A collection that started as search for a relationship that Lee lacked grew into a powerful project that resonates through the larger black community.

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The contrasting effect of the messages portrayed through “Father Figures” transforms Lee’s collection into an agent of storytelling. Organized by Duke Visual Art’s President, Joyce Er, Lee’s “Father Figures” finds itself displayed in the Louise Jones Brown Gallery, in the Bryan Center. “I really want these images to offer up a safe space for the uncomfortable conversations to occur,” Lee remarks on why he chose to place “Father Figures” in an area filled with student activity. Through his images Lee hopes to facilitate these conversations between students because he believes, “it’s easier to have conversations, hopefully, that are more around tenderness and joy.”

Zun Lee: “Father Figures” will be showing in the Louise Jones Brown Gallery (located within the Bryan Center) athrough mid-October.


Words by Doha Ali

Photographs by Tommaso Babucci