Vivian Fu Wants to Tell a Different Story
The artist on resisting labels, exploring intimacy, and the effectiveness of using a "dumb" approach.
Vivian Fu started taking photos of her everyday life—a trip to the grocery store, adventures with her friends, intimate photos with her boyfriend—and sharing them online in the early 2010s when the practice felt new. She used the camera as a tool (“an excuse to engage,” as she puts it) to deepen ordinary moments, push them further, and then relive them again as they traveled through online spaces. Now, with all of our new experiences filtered through the same platforms, the camera plays a different role. For artists like Fu, the internet’s evolution toward sameness can be jarring—but it can also be an opportunity for reinvention, especially for someone who wants to tell a different story.
You can now mint Vivian's special-edition piece, Self Portrait with Joey, Los Angeles, January 2021, exclusively on Gemma.
In a recent conversation, Gemma co-founder Lindsay Howard spoke with Fu about challenging other people’s assumptions, romanticizing her life, and playing with objective truths to convey something unique and different.
Lindsay Howard: Is it true that you don't consider yourself an artist or a photographer?
Vivian Fu: My interest with photography has always been about wanting to take pictures of my life. Growing up, we would go on family vacations and my dad would take happy, smiling photos of us—even when we were hating the trip. As I got older, I wanted to be the one to take the photos and to use them to reflect the way that I see and think about an experience.
I feel weird about labels like “artist” and “photographer” because they’re so limiting. It’s like when you go to a party and say, “I’m a photographer,” or “I work in tech,” then people automatically make assumptions about who you are and what you’re like; but you’re so much more than an archetype. It’s especially squirrely because my work is about myself, and I don't want people to reflect those assumptions about who I am onto my pictures.
When I first started showing my photography, I got some press with clickbait titles like, “Vivian Fu is here to change the way you see Asian women!” While I am thinking about and reacting to concepts related to my Asian-American identity, it’s weird to have that at the forefront whenever someone mentions my work. I’m not consciously thinking, “I'm really sticking it to western power dynamics whenever I take a picture of me and my boyfriend!" I am just living and sharing my experience.
What draws you to photography as a medium?
I don’t know if I would consider photography my primary medium, actually. Back when I took a lot more photos, I was living the life that I wanted to live and also a life that I wanted to photograph. In a way, I was performing for the camera; the camera became an excuse or reason that I was allowed to go and do these things. But now that I think about it, the "art" was actually the way that I was living my life.
My relationship to photography has changed so much over time because what felt new back then—documenting my everyday life—is how many of us experience reality now. Being online is to take a picture and post it. We’re all living out a reality TV show about ourselves and broadcasting it for our audiences, who are also following along within the context of the reality show about their lives. I don't take pictures with the intention of sharing them anymore. Now, it’s more about taking pictures for myself and keeping them to myself.
It sounds like your earlier work was about living, creating, and then sharing images online. Now, it’s more about living, creating, and then having a sense of privacy. What caused the shift?
Maybe because now that everybody's doing it, I don’t want to do it anymore. I'm like, "I was doing it before you guys thought it was cool." But yeah, part of me does want to share photos online again.
Photography is so different now, because people are living their lives in such a specific way. They’re taking pictures in a really specific way. The internet feels so fake and performative, even when we’re trying to come across as authentic. For example, if someone were to go on a trip to Joshua Tree, they wouldn’t be able to post anything new. We know what those pictures look like already, because we’ve seen it enacted so many times on Instagram. It loses the feeling of being a unique, authentic experience because we've been trained by the internet to document our lives in such a specific way.
It’s interesting to think about this in the context of what you said earlier about living as an artistic medium. Before, photography was an excuse to participate more fully in the world, whereas now it’s become normalized to live in order to take photographs.
I might be making it sound like I'm more intentional than I actually am. I don't consciously turn every situation into a performance for an audience. On TikTok, there's this trend about romanticizing life, and it resonated with me. Sometimes, even without my camera, if I'm in a memorable moment, I'll pretend to take a picture, almost as if capturing it mentally. It's like recognizing when a moment could be a scene in a movie about your life.
I'm not actively trying to make every moment memorable. However, on a subconscious level, maybe I am. People talk about “main character syndrome” now on TikTok, and in a way, it aligns with what I'm doing—acknowledging that this is the life I'm living, so it's the one I want to remember. My pictures often have some kind of cue that they’re taken from my perspective, like a selfie where I’m reflected in the mirror, my hand reaching out, or my hair blowing in front of the camera.
How did you develop your visual style? What were some of your early influences?
I got into art in high school, and thinking about the media that was popular then, an ad from Levis called “Go Forth" stood out to me. It was highly curated but had a feeling of spontaneity, realness, and authenticity, which worked really well with how I think about my practice.
The internet also influenced my work through LiveJournal, where I posted pictures of my friends and what we were doing. In college, I discovered photographers like Ryan McGinley, and then saw how he was likely influenced by Nan Goldin, Lee Friedlander, and Nobuyoshi Araki. Even though Araki is best known for being a raunchy pervert, there was something that stood out to me about his work. I watched a documentary on him called “Arakimentari” where he talked about taking pictures around Japan, and then boiling the film while he developed it so it had a really fucked up look. When he shot the photos, he would set the timestamp to match with the date of the Atomic Bomb. I thought it was interesting to take something seemingly objective and truthful, like a timestamp, and use it to convey something different.
Your photography often focuses on everyday, ordinary, and intimate moments. Nudity and sexuality are recurring themes, but while the images are definitely provocative, they don't come across as pornographic.
It’s more about exploring intimacy. It's not just about being naked and looking attractive; it's about being exposed, maybe even in a less flattering way. It implies vulnerability, although I personally don't feel vulnerable when taking these pictures. People have commented that I was brave for showing vulnerability, but I feel powerful in choosing to capture those moments. For instance, there's a photo of me crying, but it's not vulnerable because I consciously chose to document it. It plays into the idea of what is authentic, intimate, or vulnerable, and gets into the aesthetics of images conveying truth or the feeling of a moment.
Also, it's about playing with authenticity versus titillation. After college, I got a job working at a photo lab and had the chance to see ordinary people's pictures every day. I was inspired by the range and variety of pictures, from trips to Coachella to all sorts of personal, intimate moments. So common, but compelling.
It feels significant that you’re not just taking intimate photos, but you’re also choosing to share them online.
It comes down to challenging perceptions. Instead of dealing with what the internet thinks about me or my body, I prefer to share the story I want to tell, which is different from what people might assume. While it's true that I am trying to create a new representation of Asian women, I really just want to tell you a different story.
In the past you’ve talked about keeping things "dumb," and I’m curious what you think about that now. As you’re someone who’s clearly very intelligent, what are the benefits of embracing a "dumb" approach?
Sometimes, being overly conceptual seems like a way to hide a weakness. If an idea doesn’t make sense on a simple level, some might try to make it sound more important or valuable by making it complex. People often think that complexity makes something better, but I don't agree. I've noticed this in movies, where tricks are used to make them seem smart and difficult. When I see that happening, I find it annoying. It feels like gatekeeping, or just trying to speak to fewer people. I think it’s harder to simplify complex subjects so that more people can relate and connect to them.