Union Square Portraits: Conversations about America – with Lee

On November 17, 2017, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Freelance photographer and software engineer Lee.

By JT Thompson

Lee is a freelance photographer and software engineer who has been the director of the Washington Street gallery and studios, just outside Union Square, for the last fifteen years.

When we meet at bloc 11 café, he is wearing a 2006 brown and blue Art Beat t-shirt, glasses with black, rectangular frames, and a red cloth hat which looks something like a hunting cap. He says he thought it would add a nice touch of color to his photo.

Lee is an appealing conversationalist, roaming open-mindedly between intriguing tangents, and fascinated by people in an amused, gentle and non-judgmental way. He fidgets endearingly while he talks, and his observations on people and culture are often threaded through with his light laugh.

Being actively engaged with the world clearly means a lot to him, but he is always quick to acknowledge that there is more to know than he what he knows – that people and situations are always too complex for one person to fully understand.

Lee grew up in Houlton, Maine, a tiny town about five miles from the Canadian border.

“At the turn of the century, Houlton had the highest income per capita income in the nation, from potato farming. I don’t know if it’s true, they may just say it. The town had about 6,000 people when I was growing up, still does. They’re just much older now.”

“I didn’t necessarily feel like I should get out of Houlton. But it seemed like things outside were interesting. But most people stay.”

In the photographs of Lee’s that I’ve seen at the Washington Street Art Center – mostly candids of friends and family – you can see his love of the little details that make people unique.

I ask him how he got into photography.

“I’m not suuuure…we had a camera at home. Then…hmm…when I was about ten, I started buying cameras at yard sales. I took a lot of pictures of our seven guinea pigs,” he laughs. “I was also into the science of it. I skipped a year of science, got into the electronics class. I was into computers. Which I guess makes sense,” he laughs again.

Though he has been more focused on freelance photography in recent years, software engineering is still one of Lee’s main sources of income.

Lee didn’t travel much growing up, but has a vivid memory of taking a lot of pictures at the Natural History Museum in DC (“Including some of their guinea pig!”)

I ask him when his family came to the States, and what he loves about America.

“I realized recently, I’m only second generation. On my father’s side, they were in Canada in the 1800s. It was my grandfather who became a naturalized citizen in the U.S.”

“What I love…seems like there’s a lot to it. Which I think is good. The country is diverse. City to town, rural to city, I have more experience with.”

“I’m somehow named after Robert E. Lee. Dad’s mother’s side had that name, not sure why. Don’t think they were racist, but who knows,” he laughs. “In my town, someone complained on Facebook recently that someone broke into their car and stole their Confederate flag. I don’t know why they had it. This was a new thing in Houlton. I was driving up to Houlton the other day, and stopped at a big drugstore in Bangor, which now sells Confederate flags, with the Don’t Tread on Me snake. So, I don’t know.” He shrugs. “The country’s getting more segregated, not just racially, but ideologically. More intolerant.”

“In some sense, there’s better communication, but still segregation, just communicating with your own people better. Lots of assumptions people make without finding out what their deal is. Seems to come down to assumptions about motivations. Which are hard to guess about.”

He pauses. “Accurately.” He nods firmly.

“It’s both sides,” he continues. “People not talking to the other side really. Both making assumptions about motivations and other things.”

Lee came to the Boston area to go to college at MIT.

“I studied computer science, with a minor in literature. I’m less of an avid reader now. I have a lot of books, a lot I haven’t read,” he laughs. “Like a lot of people, I read a lot on the Internet. Harmless, but also focuses you on shorter things.”

“I didn’t do a lot of photography in college. There was no darkroom. After graduating, I went to Japan for a software job, and took a lot of pictures the six weeks I was there. It got me back into it.”

“My girlfriend then, I was with her for six years. I realized later I didn’t have many pictures of her. It’s something I’ve reflected on since, probably had an influence on me. Things I take pictures of today, people I know, friends and family. Also everyday life.”

Lee pauses.

“What I was thinking about segregation…most people, everyday people, are just trying to get by. I mean, like, you’re voting for someone, you’re not doing it against someone, you’re probably just doing it for yourself. But not thinking about how it might affect others.”

He nods, smiles ruefully, and goes back to his photography.

“I don’t usually approach strangers for photos, I take pictures of people I know who are comfortable with it. I got involved at Washington Street in 1998, because they had a darkroom. With photography, I like…well, there’s the aspect of taking the photos, showing what people are like, communicating something.”

“It varies with people, what your message is. With my sister…she died. She had a history of mental illness and alcoholism. I did a series of photographs of her,” he spreads his hands wide, “and showed it at Washington Street, to show her story. Here’s this person, here’s what happened.”

“But when I put it together, I realized, these are two things people don’t talk about. The mental illness. The alcoholism. It’s good to discuss it with people publicly. More awareness, more discussion. At the opening, a small group self-organized in the corner. One guy said, ‘A friend of mine had bipolar disorder, and killed himself.’ A woman said, ‘My brother is schizophrenic. He was driving across the country on “a mission from Obama.” We don’t know where he is.’

“The photos of my sister are a specific story about one particular person, but that opens the door to discussion on a larger, more universal scale.”

“Another aspect of my photography is that it’s candid, not posed at all, captured in a natural way. I took some at a wedding the other day. I don’t know how to say this in a way that’s not clichéd…but I captured in a natural way their happiness, and their interactions. Something that’s important for them now, and also later.”

“Then, I guess also, the love expressed between the various family members there.”

Lee pauses for a long moment. The topic of family gets him thinking about his own family.

“Also, um, I’m adopted. I don’t know if that’s important for your thing,” he laughs. “Just me and my sister. She was also adopted, but from separate places.”

“I never worried about my birth parents, that maybe somebody didn’t want me. I do wonder if there’s people out there who look like me. People told us my sister and I looked alike. I don’t know if that’s true. It was never treated as a negative thing. If people ask, ‘Do you want to find your parents?’, well…” he spreads his hands and smiles, “I already have parents.”

I ask him what he likes about Union Square.

“I like that there’s a wide variety of things in Union. There’s the Brazilian market and then there’s, like, bloc 11. I don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s going to go down. There’s some new ‘nice’ places that are more expensive,” he says, using his fingers to make quotation marks, “but I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Some places have stayed a long time, and are evolving. The Taqueria, now Cantina Mexicana, used to be take out, now it’s sit down with margaritas. Potro is very different. Cantina is more like burritos, enchiladas. Potro has grilled meats. But I don’t know, they probably both have both. That’s just the way I approach them. Potro’s mariachi bands are a nice feature.”

“I like Ebi Sushi. I think I read in the Scout that it was started by Hispanic people. The opposite of Anna’s Taqueria, which was started by Japanese people.”

I ask him if other things he loves about America are coming to mind.

“I think in general, we have a lot of freedom. Some less than others, but probably doing pretty well in certain ways. After 9/11, it became a clear model of security vs. freedom. It’s becoming a general model. If you want to make something better, or keep it as it is…well, if you’re trying to control things, the trade-off is less freedom. Somerville is going through lots of changes. Demographically. I don’t live here anymore. Now I can’t afford it. People have taken advantage of the housing market, maybe sold their place and moved to, I don’t know, Wilmington. But you can’t force things to stay the same without reducing freedom.”

“Are there things about America you think are great?”

“Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think we could do better. But it’s not a dichotomy of great/not great. The implication is that things used to be great – but for who? For some. But for others…not for them. Hopefully what’s happening now is just a glitch. I hope it’s not a regression. But even if lots could be improved, it’s still probably better than 20, 40 years ago.”

“I don’t know if I’m qualified to give a specific example. I just saw a Facebook discussion, saying things were better for women in the 70s. Were they? I assume it’s better now. But I don’t know. I’m not a woman. Maybe it isn’t better.”

“I think also, we’re at a point, where people voted for Trump, and that’s bad. But there’s a lot more political activism now. It had been building. Since the election, it seems to be accelerating. Because there is an official position from the President that looks pretty bad.”

We wrap up our conversation, and step outside for a photo of Lee in his red hat.

I go back to my table, and am writing in my notebook, when Lee reappears.

Hovering over me, he says, in his gentle, amused way, “I just wanted to say, I love talking to different kinds of people. At parties, I have lots of questions for people. What they do, where they’re from, what they think about things.”

He raises his hands and puts quote marks around this observation: “’Everybody’s the same, everybody’s different.’ I’ve been characterized as asking people a lot of questions.” He smiles, nods, and disappears again.

I find myself wishing that more people in these polarized times had Lee’s good humored, open minded curiosity, and his gentle willingness to be proved wrong.


1 Response » to “Union Square Portraits: Conversations about America – with Lee”

  1. JLIrwin says:

    This is a fantastically recorded transcription of my friend Lee! Captures his personality perfectly.

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