Photographer Wing Young Huie’s empowering public art

Paul Smirl


Wing Young Huie reacts to what he sees. As artist, photographer, documentarian and community member, he is a vital part of the modern American story. The only one in his family to be born outside of China, the University of Minnesota school of journalism grad grew up in Duluth, Minn., where he was frequently an outsider. Today, he uses his self-taught photography skills to unveil the lives of other outsiders, capturing the diversity of urban life in the Twin Cities, the silenced trials of immigrant workers in California and the complexities of being Asian across America.

Huie has served as a visiting artist at Lawrence for the past week and was able to present his work on Monday, April 23, to an audience in the Wriston Auditorium. Insightful, yet informal, Huie created an atmosphere of discussion that invited audience members to ask questions and engage in dialogue with himself and his photographs.

Focused less on the artfulness of his pieces and more on the critical questions they pose, Huie spoke on his work from a documentary perspective. Moreover, while many of Huie’s photographs are marked by striking juxtapositions — an image of an elderly white man in a wheel chair next to a black baby in a stroller comes to mind — none of his images are pre-visualized. Huie instead uses of the camera as an “accidental medium,” continuously snapping photos of his surroundings rather than constructing portraits.

Similarly, Huie goes against the norm of photography being a window to the real world, considering his work to be mirrors which transform depending on the viewer. Comparing photography to writing, Huie is not clearly spelling out a story, but rather “putting together a suggestion of a sentence.”

Furthermore, much of Huie’s fame has stemmed from the role of the viewer in his work. As an photographer who specializes in unearthing images that are rarely seen in the public or art spheres, Huie has been able to not only document minority groups, but additionally engage them in the viewing process.

Exemplary of this idea was Huie’s series, “Frogtown: Photographs and Conversations in An Urban Neighborhood,” for which he created an outdoor installation in the same St. Paul neighborhood which he had been photographing for two years. Consequently, a diverse population, often removed from popular media, was able to celebrate their community by observing scenes from their own lives.

Huie’s ongoing “We are the Other” series has additionally given a voice to the silenced, as he poses questions to everyday people and allows them to respond on small chalkboards. Huie photographs the person and their reply, letting the subject of his piece contribute to a greater conversation in their community.

Engaging on multiple levels, Huie’s work brings seemingly opposite people together, creating an expansive dialogue that reaches from art gallery to sketchy food store, the corner coffee shop to upscale shopping district. Yet, in the end, one chalked response at a bus stop on 38th and Chicago in South Minneapolis explains Huie’s work better than anything else: Equality for the Undocumented.