A staged photo series about Asian American narratives by Michelle Watt for Joy Sauce

But Where Are You From From?

Acclaimed photographer Michelle Watt creates a game show setup mocking the question Asian Americans encounter daily

A staged photo series about Asian American narratives by Michelle Watt for Joy Sauce

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Words by Jonathan Ng Sposato

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Photography by Michelle Watt

Months before the launch of JoySauce, we commissioned acclaimed photographer Michelle Watt (of luxury brand ad campaigns and TIME magazine cover shoot fame) to create a series of high-fashion editorial photos designed to examine some of the tropes associated with being Asian and/or Pacific Islander in America. In line with the core values of JoySauce, this irreverent series portrays four scenes that cheekily critique common misperceptions of AA+PIs, and examine some of the ways our communities have adapted to survive (and thrive) in America. These photos also invite the viewer to contemplate how AA+PI identities intersect, sometimes humorously, with other cultures in their broader American context. 

Ultimately, our goal is to get you talking. As Watt says, “Getting the conversation started is the point. The fruit of that discourse will be way more powerful than the photos themselves. Framing the context is necessary but finding the right words is tricky.”

A staged photo series about Asian American narratives by Michelle Watt for Joy Sauce

In our fantasy game show titled “Where are you FROM from?”, we collapse two different experiences many Asian Americans face. The first is an obvious nod to the conversation most AA+PIs are deeply familiar with: 

Uber driver/server/Tinder date/otherwise stranger: “Where are you from?”
Asian American: “Seattle.”
Stranger: “No, like, where are you from from?”
Asian America: “I mean, I was born in Brooklyn, but then moved to Seattle.”
Stranger: “No no, where are you really from?”
And on and on…

Whether descending from a long lineage of Americans or recent immigrants, AA+PIs are often sobered by these questions’ painful reminder of their “forever foreignness,” regardless of dress, command of American English, or economic standing.   

A staged photo series about Asian American narratives by Michelle Watt for Joy Sauce

The second type of experience our photo underscores is one of internal examinations amongst AA+PIs regarding each others’ identities. Growing up, my own mother would speak with unintentional hilarity about her gift of being able “to tell.” Anytime we encountered another Asian, my mother would utter an emphatic and clear; “Oh, she’s Korean…” or “He’s Japanese for sure.” My mother was frequently wrong, and witnessing these misunderstandings helped me to in turn become much more fault tolerant of when others often guess incorrectly about my own origins. To emphasize these often undiscussed intra-group misunderstandings, Watt deliberately centered the photo’s narrative around an American Asian contestant, while a white male game show host remains a symbol of the existing patriarchy, within which this dynamic ultimately operates. 

But don’t just take our word for it. As always, we want the art—and the artist—to do the talking:

JoySauce: Where did the idea for this photo come from? 

Watt: This idea came from Jonathan. It resonated with me deeply because we’ve all been asked a gazillion times where we are from from. As if being American is not good enough of an answer because they don’t exactly believe we qualify in the same way they do. And it’s gotten to a point where Asian people will do it amongst themselves, having learned and adapted well into a system manipulated by their white “hosts.” 

JoySauce: What was the hardest part of this shoot?

Watt: The hardest part of this shot was to make it feel surreal in just the right way. We wanted to make it clear that this was not a real show, and this photo is meant to be satire. We discussed in detail what the race of the host and the contestant should be. We wanted to make sure we covered the exact subtleties we were aiming for. When working with stereotypes, it is like walking through a field of landmines. Having a white contestant guess Asian races is obvious, but having an Asian contestant play the game twists the knife more. It’s a painful truth because it’s an admission into how easily we can betray ourselves and become complicit in this game, simply because we are forced to survive. 

This is just the beginning of the conversation. We’d love to hear your stories about how you and/or your family have been othered in your own country, the hilarious ways people have tried to ask about your heritage, or how you’ve been mistaken for another Asian group other than your own. Please email us at [email protected] to share.

A staged photo series about Asian American narratives by Michelle Watt for Joy Sauce

Published on September 1, 2022

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Words by Jonathan Ng Sposato

Jonathan Sposato is the founder and acting editor-in-chief of JoySauce. He is also the Chairman and Co-founder of independent tech newsite GeekWire.com, and founder of photosite PicMonkey.com.  When he is not planting eggplants in his garden, he can usually be found explaining to friends just how a London-born, half-Chinese, half-Korean guy ended up with an Italian last name, while going to a British school in Hong Kong run by Spanish nuns.

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Photography by Michelle Watt

Michelle Watt is a fashion and portrait photographer with a surreal narrative style. She is based in both Brooklyn and San Francisco with her Rhodesian boxer Fiona, and likes to travel to climb boulders.