We stopped by the Chatham Square Library last week for photographer Thomas Holton‘s talk on his 13 year project, The Lams of Ludlow Street.
Holton started off with a photo from the first day he met the Lams, a Chinese family of five, living in a 350 square foot apartment on Ludlow Street. The black and white image features the three Lam children, at the time ranging in age between 2-6 years, propped up on individual stools, surrounded by coats in plastic hangers across the kitchen sink in their small, tenement apartment. For a year Holton shot in black and white, but he soon shifted to color.
Raised in New York City, Holton was born to a Chinese mother and an American father. Although he was close to his mother’s side of the family, Holton felt disconnected to his Chinese heritage. “I was the only one that didn’t speak the language,” Holton says, “I was always a bit lost at the dinner table.”
He discovered photography at the age of 15 and credits his father, who was a freelance photographer himself, as one of the reasons why he’s in this field. He remembers traveling with his dad while he was on assignment and for a time, Holton thought that the key to taking amazing pictures is being in exotic, far away locations. “One of the things I learned from this project is that’s not necessarily true,” he said.
While studying photography at SVA, Holton reached out to the University Settlement about an idea to photograph families in Chinatown. “When you’re walking around Chinatown what do you see? You see apartments,” Holton said, “What’s behind those doors?…I really wanted to get behind closed doors, see what life is like in Chinatown.” While working alongside the Settlement, Holton met about a dozen families and recalls most, if not all of those meetings lasting 20 minutes. “I was able to take a couple pictures and that was it. So yes, I was getting behind closed doors but what was happening was very limiting.” Then he met the Lams.
The family invited Holton for dinner. A few more dinner invites later, a sixth chair at the dinner table was propped up and Holton was there once a week. He was even put on the list of people allowed to pick up the kids after school. “I didn’t think it was gonna turn into a 13 year personal project,” Holton said, “What started off as a traditional social documentary project… turned into a much more personal exploration of their life, as well as my own my Chinese heritage.”
Holton’s photographs (now a book) tell an important narrative that is often overlooked. The Lams of Ludlow strips itself of the outsider’s common perceptions and examines the honest reality that immigrant families face all over the world.
Although the family has gone through many ups and downs — the parents divorced, the kids grew up and are struggling with adolescence — Holton is close to the Lams to this day.
Aside from other projects and managing a family of his own, Holton is also a photography professor at The Trinity School. He advises his students to immerse themselves in their work, “I always tell my students to look at your work, grow with your work, live with your work and kind of let it go on like an adventure.”