In the introduction to his new book, Father Figure, Zun Lee says:
'When I began my project in 2011, I knew that I wanted to explore a different take on the usually negative representation of Black fathers.'
As soon as he began photographing, Lee began having doubts, the question pile was getting higher and the answer pile lower:
'What qualifies someone as a “good” Black father? How much of the deadbeat-dad narrative do we tend to accept as fact? Do statistics confirm or disprove popular stereotypes? Can empirical evidence and actual lived experience reveal another reality behind the numbers? The more I dealt with these questions, the more I realized that the path to my answers lay in finding redemption to my own past.'
That front door involved a biological black father who disappeared before he was born, it involved an emotionally and physically father and it had involved Lee seeking and finding solace in other families on the military bases where he mostly grew up.
As he photographed, Lee's attempt to understand American Black Fatherhood (and it's really important to stress that it is American) became a struggle to understand his own upbringing, his own father and to let go of the imaginary childhood that he didn't have. (read more about this here)
So a book that started as a counter-propaganda exercise (Lee says that he was originally looking for the right kinds of fathers) became something altogether more interesting - a three-dimensional portrayal of fathers that embraces far broader aspects of black fatherhood than the stereotypes allow,
And Lee's pictures show us how thin those stereotypes are. He shows us a black father lying exhausted on a sofa, two kids by his side. He's probably not as exhausted as the mother who's cooking in the kitchen, but he's still exhausted.
Or there's the dad standing on the street corner with a baby in a sling, his mates gathered round, looking all skinny and street in a dad kind of way. I've never seen that before in a photograph, movie or TV programme.
There are dads playing with their kids in the street, changing babies' nappies and going on days out to the aquarium or park. And all the time there are quotes, really obvious quotes
'My first few months as a father were so overwhelming. Sure, you prepare as much as you can but you quickly realize you don’t really know how things will shake out, and despite all the advice from family and friends, you’re still just winging it. You kind of learn as you go, and over time, your confidence grows.'
'It seems basic or obvious, but spending quality time with your kids – being present really comes down to that for me. For me, that’s not just being in the same room, but actively engaging with the kids.'
'Fatherhood at its core means that there is someone else on the planet that is more important to you and that it humbles you to realize that there are more unknown elements than known. It means that I have to be open to learning more and experiencing life through another. It is wildly satisfying.'
It's obvious but it's also essential. These are pretty much universal feelings that all fathers (and mothers for that matter) go through. But it's that obviousness that makes these sentiments so essential, because (from a distance - I'm not black and I live in the UK) they are so rarely expressed in such a direct manner.
I remember reading an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who is Nigerian). She wrote that until she came to America, she didn't realise she was black. This sentiment is echoed in a quote by one Domican-born father who, said:
'I got into a lot of trouble as a teenager. As part of my rehabilitation process, I spent time in Kentucky with the Job Corps Program. Living there you realize very quickly that no matter how you see yourself, America reminds you that you are Black.'
Father Figure is very Family of Man; it says that black men are people too, that they love their children, they feel pride and sorrow and long for what is good for their families. But it also recognises that not all fathers are great, that there is a spectrum of fatherhood that ranges from the good to the bad - and that must be recognised and addressed.
I think Lee begins to do that with this book. I spend a lot of time talking to people about how all photographs are fiction and nobody believes in images anymore. And I kind of sympathise with that.
But at the same time, we do believe in images more than ever before. There is a reality principle behind images that is greater than ever before. That's why so many people believe in simplistic stereotypes of all kinds. Because however much we may say we don't believe in what we see, everything's manipulated - we still believe it in our hearts. It still works! We still believe in it. But most of the time it's in a bad way.
'I provide for my son as best I can, but as a single father, it’s hard to provide for him emotionally at times. I give him enough affection as a dad. But sometimes he needs the input of a mother in his life.'