Bao Ngo —
Just Wants Us All to Succeed
September 16, 2018
I can choose to draw inspiration from the good things and despite growing up in an area where I definitely didn't get along with most people, I definitely have a lot of good memories there.
I remember saying to myself, “Is this even real?” The theatrical sense of light and unapologetically bold colors are what drew me into Bao Ngo’s work when I first came across it three years ago. Her aesthetics have evolved since the Flickr days, yet the playful and performative quality of her work is still intact. Whether in vast landscapes or in obscure motels, it is easy to enter the worlds she’s creating — that’s the beauty of Bao’s work. Dialing in on a convergence of rich colors, costume styling, and dramatic storytelling, Bao creates images that are ethereal yet familiar, transporting me to emotional landscapes.
On a Sunday afternoon we sat down with Bao in her sun filled bedroom in Brooklyn decorated with eclectic vintage furniture and a cart with a few of her beloved digicams. The four of us sat cross-legged on floor of her bedroom. In the comfortable and intimate setting Bao spoke openly and extensively about her experiences growing up in Texas, her family, and how her upbringing influences her photography practice. Though I was nervous at first about photographing Bao, she had this down-to-earth demeanor that created a open and collaborative dialogue. As we moved around different corners of her room, with her cat in and out of frames, it was clear to me that she is comfortable in her own skin and is grounded in her identity. Bao’s humility does not disservice the confidence of her work, but strengthens it.
Assortment of Bao's belongings seen in her room
I heard you got your first DSLR from you dad. Was he a photographer?
He was interested in photography, so he is one of those assholes who kind of bought a DSLR and was like, Yeah, I'm a photographer now. He never really pursued it. I think he loved it and did it for fun. He is more into like collecting art and art dealership. I mean he's a farmer now, so total career change.
I lived in a house in suburban Minnesota. We had a huge basement and it was just filled with my dad's art. He put his ceramics and vases in big glass cases and then he installed fancy gallery lights and essentially built a gallery in our basement. He used to go to auctions in Europe– he has a lot of friends who work for like Christie's and Sotheby's. I wouldn't say he’s a fine artist, but he’s very interested in curation and dealership. And he picked up photography just as a hobby.
Was there any tension when you explained to him that you wanted to invest your career in art or photography?
Yeah, there was definitely backlash. When I was in high school, I interned for a lawyer for two years and actually she loved me. She always told me like, you know, If you decide to do this with your life, I'll pay for your grad school. You just come back and work for me. I really thought I was going to be a lawyer, but a friend of mine who was going to Pratt at the time said if I applied to Pratt I’d get in. And I did.
My mom’s a Vietnamese folk singer and so she's an artist herself. And I think no matter what her kids do, she's going to be happy if they do something. But my dad was like, No, absolutely not. But I guess he realized I wasn't going to change my mind because I never really listened to him anyway. Before I moved here to start going to Pratt– he told me I don't care what you do as long as you do it well. And I was like, Okay, that's fair. I can try that.
&When I was in high school, I interned for a lawyer for two years and actually she loved me. She always told me like, you know, if you decide to do this with your life, I'll pay for your grad school. You just come back and work for me. I really thought I was going to be a lawyer.
You said he’s interested in art and has an artistic life. And your mom's a singer. Do you feel like they were more accepting because of their relationship to art or anything like that?
With my mom definitely. I mean, my brother, he just ended his career as a Soundcloud rapper, but it was like, no matter what we did, she would have been happy as long as we were doing something that we liked. And with my dad, I mean he loved the arts as like a hobby.
Where did he start this hobby?
Well, so he came to the states from Vietnam, when he was around sixteen. Then he went to university in Maryland and got his degree. They both went to university and got bachelor's degrees here. His was in mathematics and his first job out of university was for an architecture firm. So actually, like, he got a math degree and then kind of went down the design route for a little bit. But then he got into the corporate world and I think, you know, that's why he worked in the corporate world for so long that he was like, My kids are going to do the same. And he was very strict when I was growing up. He was like, You need perfect grades, you need perfect everything.
I think the reason why he softened up so quickly about the whole art school situation was he realized he couldn't fight me. We're both really stubborn. If he chose to fight me then, you know, I had no problem with cutting him off because I wasn't asking my parents for money. I just wanted them to be there emotionally.
Hanging with Bao in her room
When you came here and settled down in New York was there any kind of culture shock or anything in particular that was alarming to you?
Actually, there wasn't much culture shock. I felt like I was very culture shocked my entire eight years of living in Texas, and so when I came here I was kind of like, Yeah, this is where I should have been the whole time. But in Texas I grew up in a very conservative, very white area. I always argued with kids, I was always picking fights with people in my classes. No one liked me, so when I came here and I had friends, I was like, this is comfortable. Immediately I felt comfortable here. No culture shock.
Are there childhood or nostalgic themes in your work? I see a dreamy or like emotional sort of a sensibility in your photographs.
Yeah, I think um, not all, but a good number of my photographs are inspired by my own memories.
You mentioned being in Texas was a little bit alarming for you, so when you work within nostalgia, is it more positive or negative connotations?
It's definitely positive. I mean I would never raise my kids in Texas and I would never live there again, but I feel like since it’s been five years since I moved here and I think when an era of your life is over, you can look back at it however you want. I pick and choose the good things and I don't forget the bad things, but you know, I can choose to draw inspiration from the good things and despite growing up in an area where I definitely didn't get along with most people, I definitely have a lot of good memories there.
What were some things that you didn't get along with people? Were there prejudices you faced?
One time my senior year, I walked out of my math class. The girl next to me called somebody the n-word and I got up and I told my teacher like, I'm turning in my homework assignment now and I'm leaving class. I'm not sitting next to this girl. It wasn’t even directed at me. It was just because she said this and nobody reacted. And the kid who she directed it towards was silent. I mean, what was he going to say? I don't know. I walked out and skipped class.
I mean white people would say things, but it was also a lot of Asians would say things to me and I was like, you don't need to talk to me like this. I want you all to succeed.
Was it because you’re also a minority and you sort of knew how that felt?
I will never know what it's like to be black and being called the n-word specifically. But I was definitely called a lot of things. There were actually a lot of Asian kids at my school and even they looked down on me because I was more of a creative person. I wasn't seen as like smart. Whereas the rest of them were very much like, look at my grades and then they would like compare papers to see who got a higher score. I'm not very competitive and while I did make good grades, I stayed out of that competition because it was definitely an expectation and it was forced on me mostly by other Asians. I mean white people would say things, but it was also a lot of Asians would say things to me and I was like, You don't need to talk to me like this. I want you all to succeed.
It's cool that you support other minorities because I feel like a lot of times Asians are like considered to be the token minority, and as a result a lot of them kind of take a passive stance when they witness racial injustice. On your Instagram you’re very outspoken about these issues and I think that's really awesome. Were you always that way?
I'm not expecting seventh graders to have like a moral compass– but like, back then I totally thought it was normal for people to be racist, for people to be homophobic or whatever. I didn't think about anything because it's the environment I grew up in. But when I got to high school, I went to an international school for the first two years and most of the kids weren't even American, English wasn't even their first language. I think that exposed me to a lot of different kinds of people. Around this time I was also coming to terms with being queer. Then I started becoming really outspoken when I transferred to a public school and saw all this behavior that would not have been accepted at my previous school.
Asians are the model minority, they are very passive in general and don't speak out about things that affect other people. Or they care about like, Asian men in Hollywood need to be considered fuckable by white people. And I'm like, There's so much horrible shit happening. Like Southeast Asians have some of the highest poverty rates in all of America. And we are here worried about whether the male lead from Crazy Rich Asians is considered fuckable by white people.
I try to think about like, diaspora in very broad terms. Like there are tons of us all over the world. It's not just Asian Americans and what we experience here. I don't think there is really such thing as ‘the collective Asian American experience’, but I think a lot of people experience a lot of different things and I think it's important to talk about them.
From Bao's project for Mitski's latest album, Be the Cowboy
How do you see Asians being perceived in America? And what needs to be changed about that?
I'm actually not sure about that one because there are so many different ethnicities and so many different countries and also the issue of like what is Asia. Like for example, I have a friend who's from Kazakhstan and people say she's Asian American when actually she speaks Russian and doesn't identify with any sort of Asian culture. And then in America they would say like, But Kazakhstan is West Asia. But then if you ask her, she's like, I'm not Asian. I think there are a lot of issues with just labeling people.
So all of that is very complicated. When we get boxed into stereotypes, East Asians are seen as very nerdy, studious, dorky, geeky. I think Southeast Asians are definitely seen as like Asian gangsters, like very troubled. These are unfair generalizations obviously. But even if we are any of those things, it’s okay. It’s ok to be who we are, whether or not that does or doesn’t fit a stereotype. We’re all complex individuals. We can be smart and still troubled, we can be happy but still critical. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
What would be your ideal, like how would you want a white person to see Asians?
I don't know. As people and not stereotypes. I don't think stereotypes are inherently bad. The bad part is we're all expected to be that way. Ideally I would like for there to be no expectations.
Yeah even in New York — which is shocking — like someone might just shout something at me on the street because they just assume I wouldn’t say anything.
The funny thing is people just assume that I am whatever they want me to be. Some people don't even think I'm Asian. I've had people shout racist shit about Mexicans at me and I'm like, I'm not even Mexican. What are you talking about? First of all you're a racist, but two, you're a bad racist.
Like Southeast Asians have some of the highest poverty rates in all of America. And we are here worried about whether the male lead from Crazy Rich Asians is considered fuckable by white people.
You said you identify as queer. Is there a parallel in that experience with racial experiences?
Well I'm bi and I did not come out until I started living here. So I didn't really experience bullying back at home or anything. It's been very freeing to be able to say that I am and not be scared about it. Obviously there are parallels because both are considered minority groups, but personally I haven't experienced like any real backlash for being bi since I came out.
How did your parents react?
They thought I was kidding. If you ask my mom, she will say like, I am not homophobic. I have gay friends, I have drag Queen Friends, I know trans people. But when I told her I like girls she was like, Haha, very funny. And my dad is straight up, like, very homophobic. He doesn't believe me. There are definitely parallels, but I haven't like experienced the worst of it. I was closeted so I wasn't bullied in school. No one was ever interested in me, like I was never asked on a date once throughout all of high school. So kind of saved myself there.
Your subjects range from all different races and shapes, genders and sexualities. How does a project between you and the subject come together, and how do you go about photographing them?
Most of it’s been client work, and in that case, I'll work with the client and really make sure that they are portrayed the way they want to be portrayed and I really ask them about their vision. So if someone's hired me, I really want to make sure that what they want is prioritized over what I want. If it's like a collaboration with friends, I definitely try to, even if it's my idea, make them as comfortable as possible. I think photography has a lot of issues with like exploitation and surveillance. A lot of photographers don't ask models like, Hey, is this okay or is it alright to portray you this way? Or have you posed this way?
It's this power dynamic where the photographer definitely has much more power, so I try to be very conscious of the way I work with people. Photography, definitely to me, relies on exploitation to thrive a lot of the time. I think people talk about like male-photographer-female-model, they'll talk about that power dynamic. But they don't talk about how inherently there's the power dynamic in which the photographer’s always in power.
Bao's portrait work
So working within those guidelines, do you have a preference for certain types of subjects or subject matter? How do you choose?
Basically I will take most clients who come to me. I would say about fifty percent of the work that I put out online is client work. The other half is like personal and for my personal work I like to work with friends. It's always people I already know or people I have mutual friends with. I don't really contact people I don't know.
You say you work with friends, but they're also like, well established models or YouTube personalities. How did you meet them?
It's all through the Internet. So I meet a lot of my collaborators on Instagram or Twitter, but it doesn't start out like I follow them because I want to work with them or I reached out to them because I want to work with them. It's just I liked their work, I respect their work, I like what they're doing and maybe eventually that turns into working together. So usually I'll meet someone online and then it takes like several months of us being friends online and then we meet and maybe we work together, maybe we don't.
How did your project with Mitski and her latest album happen?
I met her a couple of years ago when she was still playing really small venues around Brooklyn. First time I shot her was maybe four years ago. Almost a year ago, I DM’ed her on Instagram to have a reunion and collab again and instead, she was like, Actually, would you be down to do the artwork and press photos for my new album that comes out in a year?
So it wasn't like someone who is as well known as her just randomly reached out to me. We've had an established connection for a couple of years and it started with both of us being very local artists on the Internet.
It’s ok to be who we are, whether or not that does or doesn’t fit a stereotype. We’re all complex individuals. We can be smart and still troubled, we can be happy but still critical. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
What are some underrated Asian things and some overrated Asian things?
I don't think anything's overrated. What's underrated? I feel like Banh Xeo is very underrated. It's a nice cute dish, like a crepe kind of. I can never find it anywhere, but I always want it.
I love that place!
It’s always pretty crowded, but they have a pretty good Banh Xeo.
Yeah, it’s pretty good. But it was like so impossible to find three years ago when I was trying to find it, but I feel like if more people tried it they would love it.
It’s hard to make.
Well, it's also hard to make pho, and hard to make, like, most Vietnamese foods.
Another thing I've noticed, culturally, it is very common to give massages by walking on people's backs. I definitely want that to be a real thing. I want to be able to walk into a massage parlor and say walk on my back. That's underrated. Yeah. It needs to happen.
Bao's cat gingerly tiptoeing around her bed
Favorite Asian, if any?
My sister. She's 19, lives in Texas and works at a fast food restaurant. She's like an Instagram baddie. She's a ceramic artist who sold her first piece when she was 15. It was a vase she made that sold for around $1,000 and she just graduated from high school a couple months ago. She's my hero because she's doing everything that I tried to do, except she's doing an in Texas instead of New York. To me there's definitely resilience to that. I respect her a lot.
Cool so that's about it, unless you wanna drop your brother's SoundCloud link.
Or your sister's Instagram.
Yeah. No. She doesn't have her artwork on it, but if you want to admire her beauty, her Instagram is @tuhan.ngo. I will not be dropping my brother’s Soundcloud link, unfortunately for him! I think he also is like retired, which is really funny.
Did he retire pre-face-tattoo or post-face-tattoo?
He did retire before a tattoo. He doesn't have any really. None that I know of, surprisingly.