‘I Have Never Seen the Asian American Community Galvanized Like This’

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Yunghi Kim has used her camera to cover conflicts and crises in the U.S. and around the world for more than three decades, from Rwanda to Kosovo to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1992 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the famine in Somalia. Over the last 10 years, she’s turned her lens toward some of the most high-profile protest movements in the U.S., including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

For her, however, this past week has felt like something new.

“Maybe it’s because this all strikes closer to home,” says Kim, who immigrated from Korea to New York at the age of 10 in 1972. “I have never seen the Asian American community galvanized like this.”

It started on Friday night, when she left her home in Brooklyn to take pictures of a vigil at Union Square for the victims of the shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, last week, six of whom were women of Asian descent. “I treated it as going to a protest to cover like any other,” Kim says, “but when I got there, it hit me as a Korean American that there was a shift in how the Asian American community was reacting to this.”

The next two days, she joined demonstrators at a series of rallies, shooting for several hours a day as people throughout New York City mourned and marched. It’s the first time Kim says she’s seen the Asian American community come out to protest so intensely—and she thinks it’s a sign of the changing times.

In the past, she says, “I think the Asian community has been kind of silent. They’re not the type to protest.” But hundreds of people showed up on Friday night, and it was more than just a gathering to grieve with some speeches interspersed. Shooting in her signature black and white, Kim aimed to capture the palpable sense of shock among the crowd—a shock that spurred them later that weekend to the streets.

While “Friday was more somber,” Kim says, “Saturday was more energetic,” as hundreds of people of all ages and races walked and chanted together from Times Square to City Hall. “There was a tone of solidarity and defiance.”

“It was not just a protest against what happened in Atlanta,” she says. “I saw it as a wider discussion about where Asians fit in in America.” Anti-Asian sentiment and violence has been on the rise nationwide for the past year, fueled by racist language and rhetoric promoted by Donald Trump and others that falsely blames Asian people for the coronavirus pandemic. New York, in particular, has seen a sharp increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.

In the signs people carried, Kim saw not only a reaction to the news, but “a larger discussion—that Asians are Americans.” Some of the slogans scrawled on cardboard addressed broader issues of racist stereotypes: “We are not your fetish,” “We are not your model minority,” “We are not a virus.”

Protesters came back out on Sunday in Chinatown, as they demonstrated in Columbus Park, a place Kim says “is where old-timers typically play cards.” It was emotionally resonant in a different way. For years, Kim says, the Asian American community has been difficult to photograph. “Usually people would say ‘no, no.’ Older generations tried to assimilate into communities and didn’t want to bring attention to themselves,” she says. “At least that was true with my family.”

But this weekend, people young and old would thank her for documenting this historic moment. “They were eager to say, ‘Look at me, I’m here.’”

“It’s no longer a matter of economic survival. It’s more existential than that” Kim says. “Asian Americans don’t just want a job. They want to have say.”

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