Tommy Kha’s self-portraits require a double-take. His on-going project, I’m Only Here To Leave, includes images of non-traditionally printed self-portrait objects staged within real-world settings. The photo-based artist—from Memphis, Tennessee, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York—explains, “I wanted to find a way of representing myself without literally photographing myself. So instead, I have been making photographs of photographs of my face and body as a way to control my representation.” In these images, the artist and others—family, friends, and strangers—can often be found wearing masks of Kha’s face or engaging with other props that blur the lines between the body and the photographed body.
Kha started working on I’m Only Here To Leave in 2015, during a residency at LightWork. The earliest photographs in this body of work include cardboard cutouts of the artist’s face from his existing private archive of self-portraits. For other pictures, he created white cardboard stencils of these cutouts, making it appear as if he had literally cut himself out of his own work. More recently, he has worked with a fabricator to create hyper-realistic masks of his face and used temporary tattoos to give himself the appearance of having four eyes.
He travels between Memphis and Brooklyn, or wherever else his work takes him, with these photo-prosthetics in his bag, waiting for an opportunity to use them. “It’s a funny thing to do, but it lets me strike a balance between straight and staged photography by opening up more opportunities to stage these unreal things into real spaces.” This strategy may be part of what gives I’m Only Here to Leave its mix of familiar gentleness and unsettling strangeness.
Kha’s family are peppered throughout this series of images. Their presence references vernacular family photography and the idea of what it means to be represented in art. He explains, “As a queer Asian-American brought up in Memphis, I did not see myself represented in the media or the canon of Western Art. I think literally inserting myself into representations is part of my way of trying to resolve that.” It will be interesting to see how I’m Only Here to Leave unfolds, as Kha has no plans to stop working it. He views it less as a series than a set of images that are connected, along with the rest of his work. “Everything I do feels like part of one continuous lifelong exploration.”