Nelson Chan says he began photographing his parents simply as a way to spend more time with them.
“With photography, it is a way to get to know the people around you, but at the same time, that’s actually how I navigate through the world,” Chan says. “That’s the most natural thing for me, to look through a camera and understand what is going on.”
Since he was about 9, his parents spent a lot of time overseas working in Hong Kong to provide for their family of five. Chan, now 29, and his two older brothers often remained at their home in Rockaway, New Jersey. Throughout middle school, high school and college, Chan was largely on his own.
As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2005, he decided to use his newly learned craft of visual communication to explore his complicated family dynamic while strengthening his ties with his parents.
“I don’t think the photographs themselves were what helped build the relationship, but I think it was the act of being present,” he says.
An intimate moment Chan captured between his father and mother while on a visit to Hong Kong during a school break marked the beginning of his project, “my Da Lu,” a play on an old slang term for China.
(Chinese who lived outside the mainland in areas such as Hong Kong or Taiwan used the phrase Da Lu to refer to China.)
“As a child of immigrant parents, I am using the slang 'Da Lu' as a metaphor for my bicultural upbringing,” Chan says. “And the lowercase 'my' is to distinguish my usage of English as my mother-tongue.”
The particular photograph that Chan marks as “the beginning” shows his mother embracing his father in a bleak Hong Kong store surrounded by shelves of toys, the family business.
“Just from the positive reaction and support I got in school for making that photograph, that was enough momentum for me to look at my family dynamic in a more serious manner with a camera.”
Since making that first image in December 2005, Chan has used photography to explore his relationship with his parents.
“For me, it was one of the only ways, as a 22-year-old kid coming out of art school, to get to know my parents,” Chan says. “Going to school, living so on my own, having my parents be so far away all the time, it’s very hard to have these in-depth conversations of who you are as a person.”
From junior high to graduate school, Chan says his father never made it to a single one of his graduations. But that lack of presence isn’t something he resents.
Instead, he admires his parents’ work ethic and appreciates what they’ve sacrificed to give him a chance to pursue his career and life as an artist.
“I see a direct correlation, in a very loving way, from what I’m able to do to what my parents have sacrificed,” Chan says.
”If my father didn’t work as hard as he did or my mother didn’t work as hard as she did, my life would not exist.”
- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN