Born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, artist Betty Yu has seen this neighborhood transformed by gentrification over the past several years. Her multimedia project (Dis)Placed in Sunset Park features stories of neighborhood residents affected by the breakneck changes around them. At one point, she realized that the project was missing a deeper look at her own family’s story: her parents settled in Sunset Park more than 40 years ago, after emigrating from Hong Kong. So in 2019, Yu shifted the lens to her mother and father and their ongoing fight to hold on to their home. —Jayne Ross
What was your parents’ reaction when you first told them you wanted to photograph them? Has their perspective on the project changed since?
My parents have become pretty accustomed to me documenting them over the past 15 years, but I mostly made short films about my mother and her fight against garment sweatshop conditions in the early 2000s and about my dad and his family home back in Toisan, China, which he hasn’t visited in 65 years.
This time it was different. I was interested in capturing “decisive moments” of my parents in their stillness, isolation, companionship, economic stress, and resilience.
Their first reaction was, “Well, why would you want to photograph us? We’re just ordinary people who are trying to get by.” But I explained to them that I thought it was important that we tell our story of fighting to stay in our home, through a personal lens. Most people are familiar with the issue of gentrification and displacement in New York City; in the past 15 years it’s been happening on every corner of the city. What we rarely see is the impact of it from the inside.
My parents have been living in the neighborhood for over 40 years. They bought a home back in the late 1970s, early ’80s, when a working-class immigrant family could actually afford to buy a house on modest wages. It was important for me to show everyday life for my parents, who are both retired garment workers who worked really hard their whole lives. Now, because of gentrification and high taxes, they are worried about their future in the neighborhood.
Of course, as parents, they are always supportive of me, so they’re also down to be documented, but this time it was also important for me to work with my parents to co-author these photographs. In other words, talking with them and figuring out how they wanted to be represented. When I showed them the photographs, I think they finally understood what I was trying to communicate: it’s not just about their relationship, it’s not just about the impact of gentrification, and it’s not just about the neighborhood and its vibrant culture and people—it’s all of those things.
(Dis)Placed in Sunset Park exists in two iterations—there is the multimedia exhibit, along with the more intimate photography series of just your parents. How do they overlap?
I see the photography series as part of this larger work, a continuation of it. I started the original iteration of (Dis)Placed in Sunset Park in 2016 as an interactive project that featured short videos of Latinx and Chinese (im)migrants, workers, and residents in Sunset Park. The common theme among their stories is the shared narrative of migration to the U.S., their journey to the neighborhood, and their fears of displacement. Each story is grounded in the subject’s own sense of home, sanctuary, and refuge that they have found in Sunset Park.
It became obvious that photography was the medium that would best allow me to capture my parents’ internal and external life. My DSLR camera was certainly less intrusive than my digital video camera with my wireless microphones, lights, and tripod. My parents would often forget the camera was there.
You’ve mentioned that your parents were already feeling a sense of isolation from each other—and from their changing neighborhood—before the pandemic struck. How does this project, and this photo in particular, speak to a sense of isolation we’re all now feeling, and what might it have to teach us?
I feel that this photograph, and many of the photographs I took of my mom and dad living in the same small apartment but seemingly in two different worlds, resonate with me so much more now. Even though this photo was taken before the pandemic, the symbolism of it is so multi-layered now. I remember early on, we were all so afraid to leave our homes since we really didn’t know much about the virus and how it spread. We were just looking out the window like my dad—in despair but hopeful.
Initially I had wanted to take photographs of my parents together in one frame—in the kitchen, living room, watching television—but that wasn’t authentic. Since my dad retired from garment work, his favorite thing to do is to sit at the side of the bed and look out the window for hours. He has been doing this for the past 15 years. When I would visit, I would often ask him what he was looking at, and he simply answered, “People walking by … the traffic … the sky … and nothing.” He said it brought him so much relaxation. I finally understood that for him, this was a privilege and luxury. After working 14 hours a day in a nonstop fast-paced factory for more than 30 years, he can finally just enjoy the stillness.
To me, this photograph also represents his longing for connection. My father’s social relationships were defined by his workplace, and when that stopped, loneliness set in. I always say that my parents were already social distancing before it was the norm. They’ve experienced economic hardship, a rocky relationship, and a lot of stress. And over the nearly 53 years they’ve been together, my parents have figured out how to coexist—something especially important during the pandemic. They were not only socially distancing from each other, but also from society: they worked long hours, seven days a week, for decades, and that really creates a certain sense of alienation. That was what I saw when I took the photograph.
Looking at the photograph now, I think that we’re all in our own heads, deep in self-reflection like my dad. You are left with your own thoughts, whether you like it or not, forced to confront things you might have wanted to avoid. I found myself re-evaluating life, relationships, lifestyle—what are the things that matter most? I also daydream about a different kind of society, one that is not so individualistic, one that is more human-centered.
And I think, of course, during this politically heightened time, with racial injustice, the pandemic, the economy, climate crisis, so much going on in our world, we are all doing our own reckonings internally. To invoke change, we must start with ourselves.
What do you hope people feel when they see this photograph?
That they don’t feel pity for my parents or people like them. That they can empathize with my parents’ resilience and relate to their story. Many families’ hardships are even more pronounced now during this global pandemic. My parents’ neighborhood has been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Many businesses have shuttered and probably won’t reopen; many people have lost their jobs. The neighborhood has become a hot zone during this second wave of the pandemic. I plan to continue photographing my parents from a social distance, because my father has a compromised immune system. I want to show how the pandemic has affected the livelihood of this community, from the businesses to the residents.
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