Street photographer Zun Lee, known on Flickr as eudæmon, has always been attracted to capturing images of parents and children. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, he’s drawn to these moments – specifically fathers and sons. For Zun, exploring this relationship is deeply personal, especially after learning a family secret that changed his life forever.
"In 2004, I learned that I was the offspring of a black man," says Zun. "It was a bit of a surprise. I didn’t know about this until much later in life. Basically my mom had a brief romantic relationship with a black man. When she told him she was pregnant with me, he disappeared."
Zun’s Korean mother moved to Germany in the 1960s. After he was born, she married a Korean journalist and they both raised him. Throughout Zun’s life, despite their problematic relationship, his stepfather was the only father he had known. This new revelation not only shocked him, but left him extremely hurt.
"There was a lot of anger, resentment and confusion on my part," Zun admits. "But it was easy for me to hang on to that hurt and not deal with it. Because for me, as long as I could project my feelings of resentment onto a negative stereotype, I could conveniently push it aside and say, ‘I guess I’m just part of the absent black father narrative myself, so what else is new?’"
Zun grew up to become a doctor, but still had lingering questions and thoughts about his identity. Over time, in an effort to understand that stigma of black fatherhood, he began to explore and dissect it.
"It’s a very polarizing discussion," says Zun. "When we talk about black fathers, the imagery associated is that they’re irresponsible, they’re absent, they’re deadbeats and not willing to pick up their share of personal responsibility. The examples to counter the negative stereotypes are Dr. Cliff Huxtable or even Barack Obama. It’s one or the other. There’s very little about the everyday dad who may not be perfect, but is still a part of his child’s life."
It’s this idea that set off the theme of his latest work – Father Figure, an exploration into the lives of real black fathers. Zun wanted to delve into the lives of men who made the choice to be active participants in the lives of their children – in a sense, go beyond the stereotype.
"I wanted to show very authentic, true moments of fatherhood," Zun says. "But I also saw an opportunity to find a connection or resolution to the feelings that I had towards the father I’ve never known."
In the beginning, finding the kind of fathers Zun was looking for wasn’t easy. He didn’t have a specific image in mind – solely because he wanted to break away from common stereotypes. Zun spoke to hundreds of fathers and eventually found five families to work with on a long term basis.
"In order for me to get the images that I wanted – that for me would refute the stereotype – I knew I would really have to imbed myself into the lives of these families," Zun says. "So what that meant was, for a period of time, I had to live with them for several days or several weeks so they would get used to me being around."
During this time, Zun witnessed many things that caused him to rethink his preconceived notions of fatherhood.
"I had a lot of assumptions about what it meant to be a good father and a bad father," Zun admits. "A lot of these assumptions were shattered just by being in the presence of these fathers – just observing how they parent. A lot of them had very difficult situations but yet they still found a way to make fatherhood work for them," Zun says. "It might not be the Dr. Cliff Huxtable sense or the Barack Obama sense, but nonetheless they’re there. They’re present and their families appreciate their presence."
Zun saw evidence of that appreciation and devotion simply through the eyes of their loved ones.
"When the fathers are around the kids are really upbeat and happy," Zun admits. "And for me that was a big lesson learned in sort of not just focus on fathers, but focus on the fatherly interaction. The fatherly emotion that gets reflected in the families overall. I think the most important thing about fatherhood for the children is the knowledge that they matter. And that is the most important aspect that I try to capture."
But at times, emotions touched close to home. Zun had difficulty balancing the role of photographer versus the man who never experienced love from his real father.
"It was tough," Zun admits. "Being around these families who were so forthcoming with love and affection, brought up a lot of emotions from the things I never experienced as a child." Zun adds, "Remembering to press the shutter at certain times was not necessarily the easiest thing to do."
One of those moments (and one of his favorite pictures of the series) was with the very first father he photographed, James Reynolds from Harlem, NY.
"James was teaching his son how to tie a bowtie," Zun recalls. "And his son had never done that before. So James tied a bowtie himself and sort of mirrored that behavior to his son. He [James] told his son to follow his footsteps, and it led to a moment where the son is trying to tie a bowtie. And you could see the father hovering behind in the mirror looking at his son… and kind of watching if he gets it right or not."
"Personally it was difficult because nobody taught me how to tie a bowtie," Zun admits. "So again it was sort of—here’s something that I wish my father would have helped me with. And so that was very symbolic for me."
In the end, Zun’s project was an eye opener; allowing him to witness and capture the reality of African-American fatherhood today.
"All the fathers I profiled take their responsibilities seriously and go about their business very quietly," Zun learned. "I saw the everyday father that’s doing something every day to be there for his kids. It basically shattered the stereotype; which is exactly what I wanted to show."
Witnessing so many fathers trying the best they can be, also led Zun toward the path of forgiveness and redemption about his own.
"Each of the fathers that I photographed could have been my father," Zun says, "But at the end of the day, for me personally, it wasn’t about whether I wanted to meet the man that I didn’t know existed. It was about resolving how I felt about the situation and the decisions he made. And ultimately just forgiving myself even for having certain preconceived notions about him. And for hanging onto that resentment for so long. I think this project more than anything else helped me be on that path."
The project also encouraged Zun to think about himself and his own desire to possibly become a father someday. "I think I’m much more confident now that I not only want to be a father but also that I would be a terrific one."