In the Bronx, Images of Black Fatherhood

Photographer Zun Lee. (Photo by Julius Constantine Motal via The Riverdale Press)

The photographer Zun Lee, whose multiyear project, “Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood,” involved capturing moments of fathers caring for and playing with their children and culminated in the publication of a book in 2014, has brought his work to the Bronx Documentary Center. Julius Constantine Motal of The Riverdale Press spoke with Lee about the “homecoming” that the exhibit represents.

Initially, Lee focused on fathers in the Bronx, Harlem and Washington Heights. Lee, who grew up in a Korean family near a U.S. army base in Frankfurt, Germany, attained an MD in Germany in 1995 and an MBA in Canada in 2001, according to his CV.

In 2004, his mother revealed a family secret that changed the course of his life. His real father was a black man who had abandoned his mother after learning she was pregnant.

This revelation upended Lee’s life, setting him on a path that culminated in his spending three years documenting the lives of black fathers and their children. 

The prevailing narrative about “Father Figure” is that Lee began this project to debunk the myth of the absent black father. Yet, the truth is that the myth of the absent black father really never existed for Lee. 

“My approach is to say the myth isn’t real for me,” Lee said.

While it is true that his real father abandoned his mother, Lee had father figures throughout his youth: The soldiers who gave him the care and sense of belonging he sorely needed.

“Each of these fathers reminded me of some of the soldiers I grew up with,” Lee said.

As Lee embarked on his project, he labored to build trust with his subjects, and he aimed to preserve the “quiet, quotidian moments that make a life,” as Motal writes. Go to The Riverdale Press to read more about Lee’s project and what he has to say about his work and his process.

Zun Lee’s photographs are on exhibit at the Bronx Documentary Center through March 31. On Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. the BDC will host a screening and discussion between filmmaker Garland McLaurin and Lee on the subject of portraying African-American fatherhood. And on March 17 at 6 p.m., Lee will join Teju Cole (writer, photographer, and critic at The New York Times Magazine) for a discussion entitled “How to Not Lose Sight” at the BDC.

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