Zun Lee

Black Fathers

This is from an essay about black fathers. An exploration initiated by my  student Zun Lee and  based on dispelling the myth of absentee fathers. Mr. Lee was digging deep. He only found out recently that he had an African American father. A father he did not know, nor will ever know. Keying off of this personal trauma, Mr. Lee sought to do a very personal set of photographs showing what he never had. Real relationships between fathers and sons.

This essay was presented to an assemble audience last Friday evening featuring all of my students work and lead off with presentations by Chris Anderson and Bruce Gilden.

Photographed by Zun Lee

27 thoughts on “Zun Lee – Black Fathers”

  1. you will at some point see all essays in a slide show…i just cannot do it technically ..using the slide show program we have here on Burn requires quite a production..seems like it should be easy, but is not really…Claudia does all essays published here on Burn from her home in Italy…

    Paul, you serious? i have to now attend to my students..someone surely will explain if you really do not know…

  2. Slideshow Pro is silly easy to use with Director. Try the Lightroom plugin, it’s a no brainer.

  3. I’m lucky to have already seen the entire Zun Loft essay as it developed. It is powerful and when you see the images, you will be amazed that Zun could produce such a number with such power in such a short time. You look at the images that were presented Friday night and think they could be the cream of the crop of a labor of months – but it was just days.

    I think Zun is going to be great. And it is great that I can now call him “friend” and mean it in a real and deep way. That was the best part of The Loft – not only what we learned, but the connections we made with each other.

    I am practically dying to put up a good Loft post on my blog, but I have come home to some hard-pressing work and will be totally engaged in that for the next two, possibly three, weeks.

    That might be okay, though, because one thing that David repeatedly said was that much of what we learned would not kick in for two to three weeks and then suddenly it would hit us.

    So maybe it will hit me when I finish what I now face, when I have time to blog my Loft experience.

  4. PS: Brian and Jim – thanks for the slideshow suggestions. I am very frustrated with the slideshow feature of my blog. I will investigate and see if you have given me the answer.

  5. Looking forward to see this essay.. and would like to know hiw Mr. Lee went about approaching the people he then photographed.. it’s just a few days, that was connecting fast!

    On another more personal note, I hope he’ll come to terms with things regarding his father.. and even if it is of no consolation to know this, but having a father present in flesh it does not, unfortunately, mean he is a presence.. but for sure there are less doubts. All the best!

  6. David…

    Smiling and yes I was serious. I’ve no idea of what this myth is about or at least right now I am oblivious to the fact. My interest in this subject is genuine my father left home when I was three years old never to see him again. I do hope Zun manages to come to turns with this suffering and I await with great interest to see the entire essay because it looks very good.

  7. ZUN:

    i could and wish to write and entire blog worth of rollicking and swaying words for you and this project….about fatherhood….about what it requires to be a father, what demarks and embarks fatherhood and the raising of a child and also, as you know, what it means to be a son….but i shall wait until the entire essay appears….just to share with you something personal…my son, who is my son and without whom i would be bereft and vanquished, did come bloom into this word from my spit and squeak and seed, his initial life-kicking dna came from another source, a source that ran like a coward away and out of his life and tumbleweed’d into oblivion when he was 4, but fatherhood and the swarming into life requires much more than biology, it requires steam and thrusttowardlove and hope and patience and exhaustion and unstinting love and connection….i awakened into my son’s life when he was 5 and he awakened me and he is my son and his bones and shape and voice and head and heart and stubbornness and passion and love and madness and teeming, remarkably, resembles my own, to the degree that when strangers meet him they think he looks like me, though he does act and talk and cantor and drink (his poor mom) like me….a swelled heart…..fatherhood is about, above all, sacrifice, that someday the father (I) shall become better because of the life that he (my son) bequeathed me……my son spent much of his first 5 years ‘fatherless’, and i spent my first 36 years sonless, and blessed be the crash of this tilted world that brought us together…..fathers and son requiring and giving and loving….i cannot wait to see your work here…..and hope we have a chance to talk over drinks (i’m wondering if we have mutual friends in Tdot or have even met)….

    but i know u understand all this, so i leave you with this….

    from Michael Ondaatje’s new novel…a writer who knows a think or two about fathers and sons…

    “There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feel it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You find in this way the path of your life.”


  8. JIM

    hmmm, well that’s interesting….contrary to what i am hearing, but i will investigate further…


    i will let Zun explain…i honestly do not have accurate information/statistics etc available to me at this moment to be able to comment properly…

  9. Thanks so much for your comments – I hope the slideshow goes up soon. This is now an ongoing project, and its gestalt and direction are already morphing into something bigger. Loving the discussion this has sparked, looking forward to your thoughts once the entire essay is online.

    @Paul – I’m not a sociologist but much has been written and discussed about the Black absentee father. Just google that term and see what pops up. Here’s a good introduction if you will: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1816485,00.html

    Absent dads exist in an culture or ethnic group, but specific pathology has always been ascribed to this phenomenon in the African-American community, so much so that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, cause from effect, excuses from legitimate critique. It struck me that the imagery surrounding this issue is just as polarized on both ends of the spectrum and there’s rarely a balanced view of how father/father figures do step up and assume responsibility. But all that aside, my essay is not (primarily) about social commentary, it’s a personal exploration into the meaning of fatherhood, and in many ways a cathartic process of getting to a place of forgiveness, both regarding a dad I will never know, and the dad who raised me (who also wasn’t much of a father).

    @Frostfrog – Bill, thank you for your kind words and yes, friendship. It was your loving essay regarding your own father’s journey you showed at the beginning of the workshop that inspired me to explore this theme rather than sticking with a doable but “safe” plan B. I agree that much of our learnings happened on a personal, spiritual level, and will slowly emerge over the next weeks and months – we will be all the more thankful to David when all of that sinks in. Please stay in touch, and I hope to see you again very soon.

    @Bob – thank you for your heartfelt note and for sharing your own personal experience. I don’t believe we have met but would be happy to get together when I’m back in the T-Dot. And what an apt quote by Ondaatje, it pretty much describes the current process that will inform this ongoing journey.

  10. ZUN :)

    my pleasure…have much more to write on the subject and on your work when i see it (love this picture alot, for both technical and (more importantly) emotional reasons. I don’t want to write without seeing the essay, so shall wait. This phenomenon extends way beyond the African-american community and there is a profound history of this in Russia too, ditto Korean and Vietnamese left by soldiers after the war. As the father of a son whose biological parent (not father) abandoned both him and his mother, i’ve got a lot to offer you in the way of stories and experiences, as well as my son’s perspective. I can introduce you to him as well. Ultimately, this story is about you and your search for self, which as my son my tell is, begins and ends with both forgiveness and that parenthood is sheltered throughout the world of others…anyway, a chat over beer when you return? You friends with any photogs in T-dot? I’m sure we have mutual friends (you know Boreal crew?) or have crossed paths. when you return, drop me a line (i’m on facebook). i’ll be giving a talk and screening of one of my projects end of October. glad you liked Ondaatje…he’s a magician and wiseman…..waiting to see the essay :))


  11. Zun, I like the photograph a lot – the repeated layers really work. I’m trying to deconstruct the photograph but I can’t really see the effects of the flash: can you deconstruct for us please?

    Looking forward to seeing more, Zun and congratulations!


  12. Bob, Zun

    I’m very glad that you have tackled this subject. As is so often the case, when we tackle deeply personal subjects, it resonates deeply with myself and certainly others. Anger, sadness, loss, guilt, eventually we hope, forgivness and understanding.
    I’m anxious to see what you expored.

  13. @Bob – you’re right, there are universal themes in how these dynamics play out and as the project evolves, these will naturally crystallize. My focus will remain a deeply personal one and as you mentioned, they center around forgiveness and grace. Due to the nature of my dayjob, I’m rarely home and not well-connected to any local collectives so I’m looking forward to exploring who’s out there. Can’t wait to meet up when I’m back home. Best, Z

    @Mike R – thanks for the feedback. Just working indoors with available light (no flash) and a huge multifaceted mirror that made it a pain to stay out of the frame. This was the final moment of dad teaching his son how to properly tie a bow tie. I loved the fact that dad’s loving presence manifested through his many reflections, even though he is not physically in this image – highly symbolic.

    @m.avina, Gordon, michael kircher – cheers for sharing; I have to thank David, his team and the other participants for inspiring me to take this on. As I’m gaining some distance to the actual workshop, it’s becoming clearer how far I was pushed and how much more I can do so as I continue working on this theme.

  14. Zun…

    Thank you for answering my question and no I didn’t know anything about this myth. As far as I’m concerned it’s a load of rubbish, it has nothing to do with race.
    I sincerely hope this essay helps you ease your pain and find the forgiveness you are searching for, because you really must move on and not let this traumatic past hinder your future. I’ve personally have never given much thought on this subject since I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t be bothered to waste my precious time thinking about someone who never ever tried to get in contact with me.

  15. @Paul – thanks for your response but let’s not over-dramatize. I’m not sitting here bemoaning the past and am certainly not traumatized to the point of being unable to function. I’m neither thinking about the dad I never had, nor wanting to find out more about him at this point. This essay is not about creating a world of wishful thinking, it’s about exploring the fact that a man I never knew influenced every fiber of my being and I find that intriguing. And on a broader level, it’s providing a vehicle for balanced discussion: This issue may not be huge to you, but it’s significant to the Black community, and not because it primarily has anything to do with race.

  16. Zun, I absolutely love this beautifully layered image. You work is so good, was a delight to see what you brought in everyday during the workshop. Hope to see you soon.

  17. brother z:

    as promised, just wrote something simple…..



    my last comment….

    a ramble, short and brandy-sweet

    ALL we have is human contact…nothing more, though its generosity and circumnavigation is, at least for me, the only ballast the steers the tonneage of things….

    spent the afternoon, amid the gray umbrella’d raining wind and late-october whirl, in a quiet amberlit bar with Zun Lee (Black Fathers), whose opening picture from ‘black fathers’ David recently published, black fathers his essay on the search and meaning of forgiveness which he worked on at David’s workshop. We spent 3 hours over brandy and beer and stories of fatherhood and picture making and gossip and reconciliation and all the rest. A fine and deeply loving and generous man. An instant bond: maybe it was the twinned laugh, louder that the cook’s order, maybe the shared ageing smiles, maybe it was a simpler thing…

    in truth, up to now, i’ve come to Burn for both the pictures and, more importantly, the stories in hope that they would bridge the chasm of all that all to often seems to attend the world of ambition, of career picture making and position jostling. In truth, I walked into the room of Road Trips and later burn for just that: in hopes to connect to others, to knot my life to others and if picture were the yarn, so be it, if stories were the loom, so be it, it only a hand shake and a hug, so be it.

    I love this guy, this 40 year old physician who seeks something more simple than the yearning of ambition…

    a friendship born today…

    though i felt quite discouraged of late here, in the end, a finer ending no imagined….

    contact of our lives….

    all the rest, pictures, ideas, arguments, ambition, dross….

    a hug under the umbilicus sky….

    seek not the pictures, but the rhyme connecting you to those…..

    all the best….

    see u in 2….eat yourself toward Etobioke…..:))


  18. @MarkyB: I’m looking forward to reconnecting, and especially re. the options that involve Toronto as the basecamp for exploration ;) thank you for your kindness and friendship, that goes for you and the entire group, this would not have been as profound an experience without your talent, insight, and the inspiration from your beautiful work.

    @bob black: “seek not the pictures, but the rhyme connecting you to those”… As I continue to work on this project, this will guide me through the moments of doubt, and ground me in purpose.

    When asked why I shoot, I’ve often responded “To remind myself of how to be grateful. I tend to forget often.” Meeting you and sharing in the moment had the same effect, and bestowed the same grace. Memorable indeed. Thank you for allowing for grace and a meeting of the minds and hearts. A friendship born indeed!

    Hugs back,

  19. “it’s about exploring the fact that a man I never knew influenced every fiber of my being and I find that intriguing.”

    my father literally hitchhiked out of my life when i was 2. i too find his influence on me very intriguing. influence of genetics is crazy for me. influence of thinking and hearing about him in such a negative light but looking and acting much like him in all the smallest ways.

    photography is the best therapy! i hope that OUR paths cross and we get to meet one day.. oh say on a cold day in winter in the chi! or somewhere else. looking forward to seeing more of the essay!

  20. Zun Lee,
    I run a website for black men (and in particular black fathers) and would be very interested in publishing/sharing your essay. If it is as good as the pic above I’m sure our readers would love it. Check out our site (http://afrodaddy.com) and if you’re interested send me the essay via the contact form.
    Take care and keep up the good work!

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