Valerie Bower: We’re Not Who You Think We Are
Words by Molly Lee-Teng
Portrait by Joshua Spencer
All other photos by Valerie J Bower
As a photographer, Valerie J. Bower is in a position to offer a unique perspective on underground and subculture. The half Filipina, half German grew up in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Wilmington, CA, sensing early on that she was part of the “underdogs.” She laments that the lack of authentic portrayals and stories of her community in art and photography gave her a direction when it came to who and what she photographed. “You don’t feel represented in a true way. I started getting inspiration from where I grew up, my own family and background…just trying to share that.”
In Valerie’s offering of authentic portrayals of under-represented communities, what may feel like a simple black and white image is deeply grounded in the shared human experience around “connection”. In distilling her subject to their core sense of self, she relates her subject with the viewer, no matter their viewer’s background. There’s something for everyone — whether you relate directly to the subject’s physical environment or appearance, their connection to a secondary subject, or simply their expression. In her own words, “No matter what, it comes down to being human. We’re all just connecting in some way or another.”
The larger conversation around representation is disparate and specific to the individual. In an effort to not insert my own commentary and filter her perspective, I’d like to present Valerie’s words as her own. Below are portions of our discussion.
MT: Can you share a bit about your background and how you were introduced to photography?
VB: I started taking photos of trends, things I liked, things I found interesting and used it to help me understand the world around me. As I was taking more photos and trying to shoot more people of color, maybe [my objective with photography] came about from seeing the lack of representation and authentic stories and voices in photos. I wanted to do something that could mean something to me and maybe other people that grew up in a similar background as me where you feel like nothing really connects to you.”
MT: Much of your earlier work focuses on the LA lowrider scene but is presented in a way that differs from how that scene is typically portrayed.
VB: With the lowrider community, I feel like I have an insider’s-outsider’s perspective. My oldest brother is in a lowrider club and he introduced me to car shows. That was really inspirational for me because I saw the car shows in a different way. I’m not a car person so I was seeing it from a “lowrider’s kid sister’s” point of view. I started documenting some of the women involved. Not the pin-up girls but the daughters of these guys, the wives and sisters and trying to show that there are women in that scene but they’re not always the super sexy pin-up girls.
I’m not in that scene by any means, but I do see that there is more to it than what people think. Even if I’m shooting other areas I’m not from, I can see similarities with the neighborhood I grew up in. It’s multi-dimensional, there’s more to it, and there’s some curiosity in there too. Peeling the layers back, trying to discover and explore, meet people. Just being human and trying to talk to people. Even when I travel, I’m trying to get to human nature. I just keep getting back to, “It’s not what you think.” “We’re not who you think we are.” Trying to show other sides of people who maybe have stereotypes put on them or negative connotations.
MT: You mentioned you’re not part of the lowrider scene, yet your photos have been received by the community as an intimate, authentic representation. As a photographer, how are you connecting with the subcultures you may not be a part of in order to present an accurate portrayal?
VB: I’m a soft presence and a soft person so anytime I go somewhere I’m not familiar with, I’m a fly on the wall. The intention is always important. I would never go anywhere to try to exploit something. Art and photography can be very biased. Two people can shoot the same thing and they can tell you different things with the way they shoot it. I think about a lot of things like that lately — there’s so much photography that’s from a white point of view. I just try to be careful about what I’m doing and I try to question myself, “Why am I shooting this, what’s my intention? Should I be shooting this?” Always trying to be respectful is key.
MT: It’s interesting you mention your “fly on the wall” style. When I saw your “Homegirls” series, I felt like these girls were completely natural, in their element. You just happened to be there taking their photo.
VB: Yeah, exactly. We met at a park, I didn’t tell them how to dress, I didn’t tell them what to do. I just let them be free. I also wanted to shoot them from a female perspective because the way they dressed was more of that “chola look”. A lot of times when I see photos of that style, men shoot them in a hyper-sexualized way. But the girls started doing their own makeup, helping each other with their hair, and doing their eyelashes. I thought that was so special — this sisterhood. I felt their connection was so special. They were friends and 2 of them are actually sisters. They weren’t three girls I pulled that don’t know each other. I didn’t grow up with sisters but I still felt their connection. I hope that maybe people who grew up with a lot of girls around could feel that.
MT: What kind of feedback have you received from the communities and subcultures you’ve photographed?
VB: For my “BLUE LINE” zine, [interviewer’s note: The “BLUE LINE” is a collection of photos Valerie captured on her daily commute on the LA Metro A Line (Blue), which run from Long Beach, Compton, Watts, South Central, to downtown Los Angeles] the publisher and I did a talk. Afterwards, a girl came up in tears. She said she takes the Blue Line and has never seen a book like this and it was really meaningful to her. I’m really happy when people connect to any work that I make. I always try to do things with love and respect and show a different side to something. It seems like people connect to different aspects of my work for different reasons.
MT: And now you’re on tour now and focusing more on the music scene.
VB: Yeah, I’m following my boyfriend on tour. In the last year or two, he’s blown up and I’m documenting that journey. It’s interesting because you can’t really pinpoint his genre but there’s mixes of punk influences with rap influences. There’s a lot of newer artists right now that, maybe because of the internet, they have these different influences from all over. Before it was like, you’re either this or you’re that. You’re into rap or you’re into country. Now all these worlds are mixing. This scene is really unique and it’s very new.
There’s always a thread connecting all my work, even if they’re different. I’m at the shows observing people again and seeing who they are, what type of fans they are. This tour we’re on is tying a lot of different things together and I’m probably going to make a tour zine from this. I’m imagining it’ll be a mix of the shows, fans, some photos of us and our travels…going to all these cities and states we’ve never been to. With my work, it’s always about exploring, curiosity, connecting with people, and trying to share.
I’m also working on a zine highlighting AAPI photographers. I had this idea after a lot of the Asian American violence. I was like, I don’t know what I want to do but I feel like I need to do something and this is what I know. I pulled some photographers together and asked everyone to submit work reflecting the Asian American or Pacific Islander communities. It’s a little anthology of work from us, about us.
Even within the book, the photos are breaking stereotypes. They’re not of the model minority myth. I have a few photos in there of Asian American and Pacific Islander prisoners in San Quentin. These guys are huge. That’s breaking the stereotype that all asian males are very frail, fragile, and feminine — and that’s not the case. I think this an important project that I’m excited to put out soon. I’ve never seen anything like that and it kind of represents for all of us.
MT: Wow. I’m part Chinese and my husband is Taiwanese. Recently, we’ve been talking more with our families about the model minority myth…how it’s outdated yet still so prevalent today.
VB: It’s so heavy. There’s so much to do but if this is a little thing I can do to help break these stereotypes, that’s what I gotta do. And we’re all doing it together — me and all these photographers. I’m excited because it’s not photos of Chinatown. It’s photos of us being us. That’s the only way I can put it.
We’re calling it AAPI, and now I’m even reading that Pacific Islanders don’t like that term and they don’t like being lumped in. So I’m trying to be careful – I want to include Pacific Islanders. I’m putting it in the “AAPI” label so I need to make sure they’re being represented. And then I need to make sure I’m doing the same thing with South Asian representation, Indian communities. Even within the Asian community, there’s always these calls for “Asian Artists”, and then it’s like, “No, you just really wanted East Asian.” I’m trying to be as inclusive as possible so I’m not doing a disservice. That’s always in my head because I’m always trying to be respectful, aware, and careful. This is trying to say something. It’s not going to be perfect, we probably wanted more photographers and more diverse backgrounds but we did the best we could — I’m excited for people to hopefully be inspired by it.
MT: How do you balance being delicate with the subject matter with your creative freedom?
VB: I’m trying to be organic with it but also be socially conscious. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about it a lot — being aware but not letting that dictate my creativity. I know it’s not going to be perfect. This one book isn’t going to sum up the Asian American or Pacific Islander experience, but we’re trying, we’re just doing what we can. I have to do my best with that. Just being aware to make sure it’s what I want to say and of how we’re saying it.