Spend 19 minutes with

Bon Duke

& Mo Mfinanga

 
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  • Published on May 24, 2019
  • Photos courtesy of Bon
 
 

Bon Duke is a photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. As an undergraduate at the School of Visual Arts, I noticed Bon’s sense of style and grace and his consistent work ethic. The impact and mettle of his work—on the walls of the department—was immediate. We bonded over John Cage’s Ten Rules of Art School. His skill and creative vigor were recognized soon after his graduation from SVA's fledgling graduate program in fashion photography by Art + Commerce, who began to represent him in 2010.

His video work seems an act of choreography as much as filmmaking, and is characterized by an intricate figurative movement of groups slicing through the frame, matched by the agility of the edit. Figures twirl, spin, leap, swing, then silhouette and the camera is their pas de deux. The street swagger of the work is of notable contrast to Bon’s gentle and observant presence; his confidence and brio as an artist is palpable in his work.

Stephen Frailey, Chair Emeritus, SVA and Director of Education Red Hook Labs

 
 

Mo: What's new in your world?

Bon: For me, it's been being focused on personal work and directing quite a bit more. Photo is always going to be there, but I'm concentrating on my personal work whether it be photo or film, and there's a lot of writing in there actually. It's nice because the past two or three years I haven't shot many editorials by choice. I feel like times have changed and there's no rules, which is nice, but at the same time it's really about curating and putting in the craftsmanship into what I make.

Bon: I'm older now so there's this sense of maturity within myself and my work. Being raised in New York City, I've always had the hustle mentality and [cognizant] that you need to know how to make money here somehow. So I've come to the point where I can comfortably do what I want, but there's always that thought [of hustling] in the back of my head. I still do advertising and I love it—it's quite enjoyable.

Bon: Other than photography and directing, I've been working with a lot of kids actually. It's important to me because it's a way for me to observe how younger artists are attuned to media, what they're putting out there, and how they see things. For me, it's important to see that evolution and learn from them. But work is coming in and at the same time I'm always looking at what the next venture or project is.

Bon: I saw that you were with Clement [Pascal] recently. I've known that guy forever.

Mo: I love how he works.

Bon: When he first came to New York he would help me out a lot on shoots, and we have a lot of mutual friends. I went to his wedding [laughing] and it's crazy because I haven't seen him in a minute, even though we live 20 minutes apart.

Mo: Here in Highland Park, I have friends who are a 20 minute walk away from me that I haven't seen since last year. [laughing] What neighborhood do you live in?

Bon: I live in Brooklyn—the same neighborhood I grew up in. My parents are a block away and my brother and sister are a block away, too. It's home. New York City has always been rooted to my work in the sense of whatever that core is, just growing up here being surrounded by so many types of good and bad things. My parents came here in the 70s and I'm first generation. When I look back at it, a lot of my work is group-based and I think New York has that because I grew up with a bunch of friends from all over. When my parents migrated from Vietnam their goal was to live the American dream and through that, get their siblings over here, which they did. Now that I look back at it, I notice that it's really important to keep family together. I think that's translated to the people I surround myself with here. Finding people to keep close here is key in the sense of living and thriving here.

Mo: I think the ideology of community is so important. In terms of the photo community, it's one of my biggest priorities; making sure that there's still a sense of community and that people are being engaged with one another.

 
I can take a lot of photographers work, including mine, and ask, ‘What are we trying to say here?’
— Bon Duke
 
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Mo: What challenges do you notice younger artists now face that maybe you didn't?

Bon: Right off the bat, being able to question oneself. I think some people want to create work for what they think is good but there is the issue of asking what's the purpose of what they're creating? Take the time to examine what you made. Maybe it's great, maybe it's not. Communicate with your viewer, though. Taking in that communication between your viewer and you as an artist lets you analyze what the next steps are. I was faced with that, too. I remember wanting to make certain work because I saw it in a magazine and I think it's more sped up now.

Bon: When I look at books or portfolios, majority of the time you can see that there's not a lot of time taken in considering the curation of work. I feel like there's not many photographers doing that anymore—they're just shooting—and that's okay as long as they can understand growth and mistakes that happen through that. This is how I feel though. I can take a lot of photographers work, including mine, and ask., what are we trying to say here? [laughing] I'm not inspired as much. It takes a while to find something that I'm taken away by.

Mo: I remember talking to Tracy Ma, a visual editor at The New York Times, in our interview about how everything is so similar now. This is easy to harp on but let's look at the 80s and 90s. There was a visual playlist for those decades. But what's the visual playlist for the 2010s?

Mo: You can look at things like normcore and say that the visual language is the fact that everything and anything can represent this decade. It also depends what you look at. I'm in my own bubble because I mainly focus on contemporary photography so I know I'm not seeing everything that's happening in other areas of photography, whether fashion or another environment.

Bon: I think you're right. Even back then when I was in school, studying these contemporary photographers; everyone wanted to shoot like Gregory Crewdson! Then it evolved to the point-and-shoot photographers like Juergen and Terry. Even before that, there was the super-slick digital fashion photographers. So after the point-and-shoot phase it got a little quiet. Well, the recession happened which I believe affected a lot of art and culture.

 

Spring Forward

PSNY x Jordan SS18 ft. the Chinatown Rockits.

 


Mo: How does this season compare to last spring?

Bon: That's interesting. I haven't really thought of the seasonal feeling. This is the first spring where I'm excited but there's also this teetering worry of the economy and work in general. I'm always stressing upon people who do photo or creative about understanding the business side of things because you'll be able to survive. The reason why I'm a little nervous is because there's this over-gloom of another recession happening but also these risks I'm jumping into make me wonder if I can afford to take them. Who knows if it's going to be a rough year! [laughing] When I graduated, the recession happened, and I remember our graduation speaker just telling us "good luck." We were like, fuck. We were just doing random jobs, assisting, and it was super slow, but you break through it. It is scary, especially at that age. I wasn't fortunate enough to cruise on by.

Bon: I also think about younger creatives graduating the next few years and how that may affect them. This season is exciting, though. Exciting work has come out and new, younger artists have come out. There's new profound ways of seeing work and seeing who's been hired, but I don't want it to fall apart because of the economy since we're on such a good roll right now.

 Mo: That's something I think about a lot. I'm in the formative years of my creative career and I occasionally remind myself that we're kind of due for shit to hit the fan. 

Bon: It's time and place. The core work is going to excel you but it's all about time and place with the luck that you have and who you meet. All of that is what has pushed me into the work I do. Sometimes it might be kind of slow where you're asking yourself, damn, what am I doing? And the other side of that is when things are flying and awesome. We have to understand that.

Mo: Are there any people or things that come to mind that excite you about the photographic medium?

Bon: That's a tough question! There's one artist who's work I always enjoy named Jordan Wolfson. His installations are crazy. His video work shoots the shit out of a lot things in the fashion and art world. I think that there's a sense of entertainment that doesn't make you feel stupid. You know how sometimes there's a pretentiousness that happens in art where it becomes annoying. For him, there's this thin line of, is it pretentious? Or is he shooting the shit at us and making fun of the whole thing? I think the fact that I smile every time I see an exhibition of his lets me know its a genuine response.

Bon: For me, we're creating work that's inspiring, hopefully. If not, I hope it's invoking some sort of emotion but at the same time, we're not doctors or surgeons. Younger me was always like, I'm in fashion. Actually, it's not like that. Like, wow, who am I? [both laughing]

 
 
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Criticism
 
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I’ve lost jobs where they’d say, ‘You’d be perfect for this because you fit the profile.’
— Bon Duke
 

Mo: What do you feel like is lacking in the photo community that you wish to see more of?

Bon: Right now, I would say honesty and risks. I feel like these "risks" that are happening right now are not risky at all. For example: there could be a series based on real individuals that are part of the LGBTQ community. It's a nice action, but stop presenting it that way to sell something.

Mo: We're doing this thing that should've been done at least five years ago, but look!

Bon: It's fine if you want to state that this is the first female or African American photographer to shoot this cover, but let's actually support that in the long run. From my personal experience, in the past year, I've lost jobs where they'd say, "You'd be perfect for this because you fit the profile." And I'm like, wait a minute. What do you mean? They'd continue with, you're Asian, you're doing this type of work, et cetera, et cetera. It would fall through and then they'd tell me that they wanted female photographer that was this profile. I get that you're trying to diversify, but you're creating profiles to fit an agenda. I should've stopped them the minute they said they're looking for a photographer that fits this. I think that me being in my position I could've called them out, but I wonder what younger creatives would say who don't have that kind of work opportunity. Are they speaking out? It's a tricky thing. I've been in that position where you're younger and you know you need to go with it because of the opportunity you've been given.

Mo: And for younger artists, I think there's always going to be someone taking that opportunity regardless because maybe the check's good or the client is a title they want in their roster. I guess it's about informing the client about what they're doing, and if that's not possible then at least showing that to the community is important.

Bon: Yeah, and some people might not want to hear it, but I'd rather be honest with fellow creatives that this is something that should be fixed or approached differently. Honesty also comes through criticism, as well. I feel like a lot of people have not been able to take criticism lately. Practicing how to talk to fellow artists in an effective way helps that. Back to your question—the answer is communication in the most general sense.

Mo: It's funny because the most accessible channel for artists and viewers is the internet. So you'd think that, that might be the best place to introduce that criticism. I guess, for me, my passive criticism can be how I engage with someone's work online. Granted, I can't see everyone's latest post all the time so I can't comment or like everything, but if I like majority of someone's work but not that image or two, maybe—just maybe—I'm not that crazy about that one image. And that's fine. But even then, it's a stupid way to provide “criticism”.

Bon: It's a shortcut. I'm gonna just keep scrolling. [both laughing]

Mo: Nonetheless, it's great to have spaces like Red Hooks Labs where you can engage with curators and authorities in photography and receive that needed criticism. One thing I can think of, though, is that if you are shooting something popular like a magazine cover, the number of people paying attention to the personality or spectacle you shot will automatically open you to that criticism.

Bon: I mean, the title of being a photographer is evolving so quickly as an individual. There is this kind of pinnacle point of holding integrity and still being a great artist. There are a few people who still fit this profile, like Spike Jonze; someone who can do a fashion film, a skate film, commercial, and short film. And then there's Yara Shahidi who's a producer, actress, writer, and voice for her generation. So I feel like that's a path most photographers and directors should take because it's going to start weaving out people who have great work but also have a voice that stands out. Not just a voice through their work, but what else are you doing? Because of the culture we're in now, people want to know. The audience is much smarter and can see through everything.

Mo: I don't think there's that much room left to be the elusive artist who says nothing and pushes out work. We all have this growing accountability of having to speak and I’m hoping that benefits people. It makes no sense if you're creating great work and not sharing your thoughts alongside that. Certain visual mediums only have so much capacity to say something. As much as I love photography, it can't say everything.

 
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Bon: I've been shooting for 11 years and I've realized it's about perception. I've realized who I could convince to get jobs by perception. But don't try to deceive, which a lot of people still do. Our industry is easy to navigate, I feel.

Mo: Within the context of fashion?

Bon: Yeah, for me it's mostly been fashion. I'll tell you this, my middle name is Duke. The reason why I chose Bon Duke instead is because back then if I chose my last name, which is a very traditional Vietnamese last name, I wouldn't get hired. I do enjoy Bon Duke, though! It flies off the tongue. [both laughing] Subconsciously I knew that Bon Nguyen is too foreign. [both laughing] That's what it is.

 
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Education & The Youth
 

'Switz' by DJ Lag

 
 


Bon: Everything is the same discussion which can get exhausting so I'm always wondering what can we do to actually change things. Is there a new way to work in the education system? I'm putting my time and effort to work with inner-city kids and see how we can put in better programs for the arts. Me holding a sign and complaining as a mass number doesn't help. I'd rather put my time and money into things that I really believe in. 

Mo: What have you found to be some current solutions, if any, through that initiative?

Bon: Right now I work with Asian-American kids in New York City. And I also work with Red Hooks Lab. So what I do is workshops there where I get my team of real stylists, hair and make-up to let these kids get hands on experience on learning about the industry. I think I connect with this a lot because having immigrant parents, they were like you need to be a lawyer or doctor. You're never really given that thought that you can go to arts and work it out. [laughing] I mean, kids today never knew that was an option since their parents wouldn't support it. I get that because I come from that but they have to try it. If you genuinely love it then you have to pursue it. You will find a way.

Bon: I think that spark in seeing that opportunity for those kids is important to me. It happened to me in high school when my art teacher got me a pre college painting and photography course she paid for and it was awesome. That was such a pinnacle point for me. So hopefully this program where I'd have the kids come to my studio and do a photo session and talk about work will root that sense of community within the students of support and supporting each other. Even though I was doing that in high school, I was alone. I think a group of kids pushing each other has that same feeling of when a kid is a part of a football or basketball team. You have your teammates, but here you have fellow artists and peers at a young age even if you don't realize it.

Mo: There's a focus there. It's interesting when you can concentrate that passion. There's no wrong way, obviously. But same here. I was pursuing a creative impulse almost alone in high school. Thankfully there were small photography programs I did that concentrated that passion. So it’s nice that you're making an elusive untouchable world seem accessible.

Bon: Hopefully it keeps growing.

Mo: What's your role at Red Hook?

Bon: They work with a bunch of local high schools where kids can come in and get free talks from other photographers or people they're interested in. They're completely free. You just need to sign up. And it's hard because sometimes their parents don't believe that it's free. [laughing] You meet these great kids that never knew this world existed. Red Hooks Lab is founded by Jimmy Moffat, who is actually one of my mentors—he also founded Art + Commerce. He along side Stephen Frailey mentored me my entire career. Anytime he calls me and asks can I do x, I'm like absolutely.

Mo: How did you guys cross paths? 

Bon: School of Visual Arts, actually. My chairman, Stephen Frailey, introduced me to him and we hit it off. For a while I was very nervous around him. [laughing] We did a little business together which was a film festival and doesn't exist anymore. We connected in a very father-and-son way and have done a bunch of talks together. He's able to connect everyone together through a community. We also have the same birthday which helps.

Mo: I've only been aware of Red Hooks Lab the past two years, but I'm jealous that New Yorkers have that. [both laughing] So, what’s the purpose of your work right now? And has that changed since you first started? 

Bon: I guess the purpose is underlying this sense of energy between your friends. It might sound cheesy but there are these little moments that you experience with friends that are unforgettable or individuals that you are really inspired by. It's almost me trying to recreate that through my work and that's why I work with a lot of dancers because of the synchronization they have, or if I do a group portrait everyone has a role but together they're an unstoppable force…

Bon: I want my portraits to show who the individual really is.


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Q&A

 
 
  • Where can we follow you?

  • Website & Instagram
  • What's the most recent thing you regret buying?

  • This ↗. Don’t ask why but I instantly regretted it.

  • How would your parents describe what you do?

  • “He takes photos for the newspapers. I think.”

  • What does working with you feel like?

  • I hope it feels like an amazing meal with friends.
  • What are your favorite books and/or web articles?

  • Confessions of an Advertising Man, My Dear Bomb, Kitchen Confidential, Powerhouse CAA, Champagne Supernovas.

  • What's your personal brand™?

  • My Rings?
  • What would your 13-year-old self be most surprised to find out about you now?

  • I still don’t have a driver’s license.

 

Further Reading

  • Micaiah Carter
  • “My work is to be a voice for the people who feel like they don't have a voice.”