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Mitch Buangsuwon and Modern Americana

Mitch Buangsuwon (he/him) is a photographer, director, and filmmaker based in Chicago and Los Angeles. His work focuses on familial connections and issues. His current film project explores the ways that dementia and lack of control affect a family and his current photography project documents people’s lives across America and delves into their sense of safety. Mitch’s work can be found at mitchb.us.

Cecilia Kearney: Let’s start with your background, tell me a little bit about yourself.

Mitch Buangsuwon: My name is Aaron Mitchell Buangsuwon. I was born and raised in Los Angles, California. I have only recently been living in Chicago since I moved here for school, so I am very much still heavily tied to my California identity. My dad immigrated from Bangkok, Thailand to go to college where he met my mom—they’re divorced now. I was in a family that was really into the outdoors and traveling, so I was lucky to be able to go all over the U.S. and the world. As a kid, I went to Switzerland a lot as well as Thailand. That definitely sparked my interest in traveling and gave me a wayward curiosity. I want to keep looking around the world for things and to be able to find a life path that will allow me to travel as much as possible, in a meaningful way.

CK: What got you interested in photography and film?

MB: When I was in preschool, we had this sheet that asked what you wanted to be in the future. I said that I wanted to be a photographer, which hasn’t changed all that much. I used to use a lot of Kodak point and shoot cameras; I went through so many of those as a kid. I don’t know where any of those photos are now, I wish I knew. My grandmother on my mom’s side would always buy them for me—she was a professional photographer for a long time, so she always pushed me in that direction. My mom’s mom is from Switzerland and was also given a camera at a very young age, which I now have. I’ve used it a lot, so there’s this generational aspect that ties into my photography. I’ve always had cameras around. My dad is a gear nerd and has always had nice cameras around. He was also into photo books. When I first saw those, I was blown away that there are so many good photographs in the world. That was really significant. I was learning French at the time and got really into a Henri Cartier-Bresson book, which was all in French. I realized I could do something more with photography.

Annamarie Mitchell (Mitch's grandmother) peers through her window that was once shattered during a robbery. She now fears that a similar burglary will happen again and will occasionally check her backyard for trespassers. San Marino, California. Courtesy of Mitch Buangsuwon.

Image: Annamarie Mitchell (Mitch’s grandmother) peers through her window that was once shattered during a robbery. She now fears that a similar burglary will happen again and will occasionally check her backyard for trespassers. San Marino, California. Photo by Mitch Buangsuwon.

MB: In high school, I made a film about my brother’s dyslexia and dysgraphia. The film won a competition and was screened [at a film festival] in the White House in front of the Obamas. The Obamas donated a ton of money to fund new technologies for education, to integrate computers and smart boards in classrooms. Part of the reason of this film festival was to highlight how technology is already helping students in general. For the film I made, I talked about how my brother is in a program specifically for kids with dyslexia and how much having an iPad helps. He’s a visual learner so being able to visualize everything and have that screen is really beneficial to him. I was also sponsored in skateboarding and pursuing that really heavily at the time, so filmmaking was in the back of my head. My focus was on skating. The film got a bunch of buzz, which was a huge confidence booster, and made me consider filmmaking as my focus. It made me realize how important my family is in my work, because all of my early work is centered on family relationships.

Right now, I’m writing a screenplay based on my grandmother, which focuses on the granddaughter-grandmother relationship and how that’s being strained by the grandmother’s dementia. The girl’s parents don’t know whether or not they should put the grandmother in a home. However, the grandmother wants to be independent and stay in her house. [There is] this kid who is an outside observer watching this whole family fight over something that the grandmother can’t control and is afraid to confront. It sucks because your whole life is crumbling around you, but it’s completely out of your control. That’s a huge issue for so many people at that age. Because people have to care for you, you’re almost like a child again in some ways. The film highlights that family dynamic. It’s directly correlated to my life right now, and I think that’s where the best work comes from for any artist. I think I can make it as best as I can because it’s something that’s so close to me. I plan on making the whole family Korean and having the grandmother be a Korean immigrant, even though I don’t really have any ties to that. It’s going to be highlighting a lot of the struggles of immigration at the same time, but the core of the story highlights the relationship between a grandchild and a grandmother and how that’s being separated by dementia.

CK: What photography projects are you working on now?

MB: I’ve been really into photography books in the past couple of years, and I’m making my own right now. I’m working on a big project that I started shooting last spring where I’m following the tradition of the American photography road trip. There’s a bunch of books that have been put out the past hundred years that have to do with travel within the United states and they all touch on certain moments in time of when they were shot. I was really inspired by that. I think photographs should always belong in a book as an end product. Someone explained to me once that a photo book is like a musician’s album and their photo show is the live performance. The live performance is cool and is a one-off event, but the book is what’s there and solidified; it’s how people will go back to recognize the work. The main themes of the project I’m working on now are how people get to feel safe and secure in the US and who gets to feel safe. I traveled around to a lot of different communities and tried to reach out to anyone that I could. This was my introduction to talking to strangers more or less; a lot of photography comes from approaching people and being curious about what they’re doing. I started off by reaching out to my friends. I was fortunate to grow up in L.A., so I know a lot of cool people through that. One of the first interviews and photos I shot was of Dr. Richard Terrile. He works at NASA, has worked on the Mars Rover, and has a moon named after him—so he’s a significant dude. He came up with the simulation theory. After that, I road tripped across the U.S., went to Navajo communities, and interviewed truck drivers and people from all walks of life. The final product is not set in stone. It’s more fluid, so I have more freedom to change the narrative of that. I have about 40 rolls that I haven’t scanned that are just sitting on my desk, so that’s my next step.

CK: Do you have an end goal for the book?

MB: The book is going to be out in the spring and will coincide with my thesis that I’m working on. There’s going to be a short documentary that comes out with the book and will be the same subject matter as the book.

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Image: A red, electric motorcycle locked to a sign-post with securely strapped beverage. Altadena, California. Photo by Mitch Buangsuwon.

CK: What message are you hoping to convey to your audience with that project?

MB: I initially started this project based on a lot of insecurity within myself as well as not feeling safe in the United States right now. It all stemmed from political anxiety; I’m interested to see if this was a universal insecurity across class, race, and sex. I started the project by interviewing people about politics, and the more I dove into the project, I realized that talking to random people in my travels about politics was a really good way to make both myself and them very anxious. It was almost becoming more detrimental than helpful. I didn’t want to keep spreading that same vibe during my travel. I wanted to interview people about something that they’re more passionate about and more interested in, so I started asking people about their places of comfort and how they stay comfortable and feel secure in a hard time in the U.S. I feel a lot better about that direction. It was really cool to see where people draw their comfort from. For so many of the people I interviewed, so much of their comfort comes from religion. Growing up as someone who is not religious at all, I wasn’t exposed to religion. I feel like a lot of people who were in the really rural part of the U.S. put so much faith in religion because it’s the only thing they have to cling onto. A lot of it, unfortunately, is complete, compulsive, blind faith.

CK: How does being half-Thai and half-Swiss affect your work, if at all?

MB: I didn’t really know how to answer this question when I first looked at it. I think about this not just in terms of art, but also identity politics, which I’m thinking about all the time. I identify less with those two things and more with being mixed race, because it is a much more established identity within the U.S. Right now, 4% of the population in the U.S. is mixed race, which is crazy—and a lot of it isn’t reported. It’s also the fastest growing group in the U.S. People reference 2042 when there will be more “other” [people] as opposed to white people, which makes sense because we’re such a multicultural country. A lot of the things that have formed my identity are similar of that of mixed people, regardless of being Thai and Swiss. I can talk to someone who is half-black and half-Asian, and [hear that] they’ll get the same weird comments that I get.

Other than that, I feel like since I went to Switzerland and Thailand as a kid, it’s really hard to know what [they’re] like now. I’m going back to Thailand later this month. In Thailand, I’m super white—especially if we’re with my mom, who is white, [so] they know that we’re mixed.  My brother and I have always been way taller than everyone else in Thailand. I’m not Thai in Thailand and I’m definitely not Swiss in Switzerland. There are those weird dynamics that I knew as a kid, but now I’m definitely more aware of [them] as an adult. I don’t really know how to grapple with that yet. I know what it’s like to not be white passing in the U.S., so that’s the lens that I approach most of my work from. A lot of my work is really easy for me to do because of my identity. I have a lot of privilege as a very non-threatening, presenting male to go out into the world and photograph strangers and be comfortable talking to them. For so many other people, it’s much harder or impossible to be in those situations. This book wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t have the male privilege to go out into the world by myself and talk to strangers and go into their homes. I’m not making any work right now that’s identity-based. I want to in the future, but I feel like I don’t have close enough ties to my Swiss or my Thai family currently to be making work from a Thai or Swiss perspective.

CK: Do you have any plans to explore that when you go to Thailand?

MB: I don’t know if I’m going to make work about my time in Thailand. I don’t know my Thai family at all. This is a big step in my life to go back to Thailand. I feel like that will spark more questions and much fewer answers, but I’m excited to do that. A big part of it is the language boundaries. I don’t know Swiss German and I don’t know Thai, so there’s a lot of the culture that I can’t engage with very well. I know a tiny bit of German and I’m learning Thai currently, so I’m trying to engage with it.

CK: Who are some of your biggest inspirations in regards to photographers or other visual artists?

MB: For photography, Alec Soth and Justine Kurland are both road trip photographers that have put out a lot of significant books in the past decade. Deana Lawson takes a lot of portraits that explore black identity and they are so good. She just came out with a new book—it’s unbelievable. She’s a big inspiration. I’d say a large majority of my inspiration comes from cinema because that’s what I’m studying and—inevitably—I think that’s the route that I will be working in.

[I’m inspired by] a lot of international filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Abbas Kiarostami; Wong is a Chinese filmmaker and Abbas is Iranian. I’m into a bunch of different filmmakers from around the world. I wasn’t really exposed to any of that until I got to DePaul and had professors that were people of color who showed me all of these cool international film directors.

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Image: A birthday party celebration for a child resident of the commune, Arcosanti. In their small, tight-knit community, gatherings like this draw the entirety of the residents together. Arcosanti promises both a sustainable living accommodation as well as an incredibly low crime rate. Arcosanti, Arizona. Photo by Mitch Buangsuwon.

CK: What are your plans going forward with photography?

MB: Even though photography is my main outlet right now, I definitely see myself more as an artist that uses photography and film as mediums. I have a set of skills and I know what will work based on each project. Generally, I have an idea first, and if it will work as a film I’ll do it as a film, and if it will work as a photo book I’ll do it as a photo book. I’ve been studying film much longer [than photography] and I am much more knowledgeable about it, but photography is always something I can go back to. I also have a highly addictive personality so once I start something, I can’t stop until it’s done. I am really into photography now, but in three years that could be completely different. I want to do photography now and see where that takes me later. I also love new media as well as taking apart old electronics and trying to build sculptures out of that.

CK: Are you currently working on any film projects?

MB: I am currently writing a screenplay. It’s my first feature film so it will be roughly 130 pages when I’m done. It’s a little bit longer of a project and writing is a little bit outside my realm. In the past, for short films, we haven’t had a solid script. [Usually] I’ll direct while someone else will write it, so this is the first thing that I plan on both writing and directing.

CK: Is there anything you wish people knew about you or your work when viewing it?

MB: I’m not trying to make any big political statements with any of my work. A big part of why my current work is political is just because of the climate that we live in. I do think that a lot of identity-based work on its own, at least for me personally, doesn’t work as its own narrative unless there’s a story to be told. I had a really good professor named Alireza Khatami who is Iranian; he came to the U.S. when he was a teenager and knew he would never be going back. He has been making films ever since he came here. I can safely say he’s the best professor I’ve had at DePaul; he pushed us way more than any other professor. He wasn’t afraid to tell us if something wasn’t developed enough yet and to not put work out until you think about this [factor]. He was very much about bringing work back to the story, which I think about a lot for my work. It’s really important for every artist to have an initial story. That’s my piece of advice. Even though it’s really fun to jump ahead to an end product, it doesn’t matter unless there’s an initial story or concept behind it. If I wanted to make a photo book but there’s not drive or narrative to it, it’s not going to look good and it’s not going to make sense. It sounds harsh, but that was how he taught, and it really pushed me. The film I made in his class got nominated for best director at DePaul for undergrad. He definitely helped me a lot with that. He talked about not making a movie about being a mixed-race person where the whole point is to make a movie about a mixed-race person. You have to have a story about a mixed-race person. Representation matters and that’s really important, but representation shouldn’t be the entire reason you’re doing it. I don’t always agree with that philosophy because, especially in film, there are certain things that need representation that aren’t as deep as he’s making it out to be. In general, at least for my own work, I’ve internalized that philosophy.

Featured Image: Portrait of Mitch Buangsuwon standing in front of plants looking into the distance while wearing maroon sweater with a collared shirt. Photo by Cecilia Kearney.

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Cecilia is a freelance writer and photographer, focusing on up and coming artists in Chicago. She is an English major at DePaul University. She is minoring in photography and her photography projects focus on people and their relationships to the world around them, as well as themes of femininity and the human body.

Cecilia has worked at nonprofits around Chicago and is involved with social justice based groups at DePaul University.