Arts·The World Of

How one photographer learned to embrace her inner teenager

By revisiting her teen years, May Truong found her muse. The Toronto photographer explores adolescent angst and Asian-Canadian identity in her first solo exhibition.

Call it an artistic coming-of-age story. By revisiting her teen years, May Truong found her muse

May Truong. Room, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

If you want to kickstart your creativity, try embracing your inner child. Yeah, it's a cliché, but it worked for Toronto photographer May Truong — although in her experience, embracing your inner angst-filled teen will do just as well.

Truong works as a commercial photographer in Toronto and has spent a decade shooting musicians, athletes and even Justin Trudeau while the art practice she began as a student in Montreal went "on hiatus." 

The members of SOFIA (Society Of Females In Art). Top row: Kerry Shaw (left), May Truong; Middle: Michelle Yee (left), Regina Garcia, Angela Lewis; Bottom: Raina Kirn (left), Anya Chibis, Brooke Wedlock. (SOFIA Photography Collective)

That changed when she co-founded SOFIA — or Society of Females in Art, to spell it out for you — with seven other local artists in 2014, a collective that CBC Arts profiled earlier this year when they staged the group show Bad Behaviour as part of the city's Contact Photography Festival.

Expanding on her contributions to Bad Behaviour, Truong's now opening her first solo exhibition. Called Tribes, it appears at Hamilton's Circa to September 24 and combines work from two photo series, A Floating Life and The Outsiders, both inspired by adolescent experiences.

"I feel like both series are based on myself — feeling like an outsider in a tribe, but not fully belonging," she tells CBC Arts. "I've always bucked convention at every turn, but also at the same time, wanted to belong."

But finding that focus was a struggle, and when the deadline for SOFIA's Contact show was set, she had doubts.

"I didn't think that within a year I could create a body of work that really reflected and represented who I was," Truong confesses. Feeling confident in her artistic point-of-view had long been a challenge, she explains, even on commercial shoots, and after experimenting with different subjects and topics — all in the pursuit of pushing her limits — she finally realized the voice she was looking for was inside all along: introspective, rebellious and probably dressed like Angela Chase.

But it took talking to real teens to realize it.

The internal struggle of growing up in Canada with traditional parents and the expectations of that [...] while trying to find out who I was created this huge angst inside of me.- May Truong , artist

Truong was visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario when she flashed back to her high-school days. "I saw these two girls, these two Asian girls, and they were so cool," Truong remembers. They had tattoos, blue hair. They were "at an art gallery — at night!" she laughs. "I thought, 'Wow! That is exactly what I wanted to be when I was a teenager."

"I went through a whole grunge phase — just crazy music and going to concerts and experimenting with drugs and alcohol and trying to fit in," remembers Truong, who's now 37. Her friends were the creative misfits — the Darias and the Winonas — "We weren't cheerleaders or pretty or anything like that. We were just weirdos."

But at home? Home was very traditional.

May Truong. Dinner, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Truong grew up in Ottawa, the child of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees. As a kid, excellence was mandatory, she says. So were piano lessons.  

"The internal struggle of growing up in Canada with traditional parents and the expectations of that [...] while trying to find out who I was in my adolescence created this huge angst inside of me."

Truong introduced herself to the two girls at the AGO and asked if they'd like to do a photo shoot. The results were inspiring, she says. "The energy was amazing," says Truong. "I thought, 'Why don't I just re-create images from my adolescence, because that's the feeling that I get from them.'"

Her series, A Floating Life, is the result — a family album straight out of Truong's teen years. Three actors (including one of her AGO muses, Jade) re-enact everyday scenes of quiet teen angst, the moments where she would feel the weight of expectation.

May Truong. Piano, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)
May Truong. 100%, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Finishing those photos, Truong says she felt driven to create more — so she continued exploring the world of teen misfits with The Outsiders, a series of photos and videos that re-casts the S.E. Hinton story everyone read in Grade 10.

May Truong. Fight, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

"The Outsiders, aesthetically, has always been a huge, huge fascination for me," she says, throwing back to the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie — one of her many Y.A. obsessions. "I love John Hughes films, The Outsiders, The Babysitters Club," she laughs.

I wanted to show Asian females as tough ladies. I didn't feel like there was a representation of that — I'd never seen it anywhere, unless it was like, a kung fu movie.- May Truong , artist

"I'd always aspired to this ideal of what it was to be fully North American," Truong says, a feeling that goes back to grade school. "I felt like I didn't belong in Canada because I was so visibly different. At school I was the only Asian girl in my class."

For The Outsiders, she says, "I wanted to take something that was so western" — as western as denim-on-denim and writing essays about Robert Frost — "and replace the white male characters with Asian females and have this normalized representation."

May Truong. Park, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

"I wanted to show Asian females as tough ladies. I didn't feel like there was a representation of that — I'd never seen it anywhere, unless it was like, a kung fu movie."

The fact that they're teens is also important. There's a reason why people are fascinated by coming-of-age stories, says Truong: "That time holds the most intense emotions. You're discovering who you are for the very first time — there are so many mistakes, and so many life things that happen, and I love every part of it. It's so complex, and it's so simple."

So when people see her photographs, Truong says she wants them to think of what they were like as teenagers — just like she did while creating the series.

"I want them to have their own personal reflections about how they grew up, their adolescence and what it feels like for them, whether they had any feelings of being an outsider or not belonging," she says. "How did it affect who they are now? Because I feel everyone has those moments, just at different ends of the spectrum."

May Truong. Walking Alone, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Tribes. May Truong. To Sept. 24 at Circa Projects, Hamilton, ON.  www.circaprojects.com

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