As the coronavirus began to make it's presence known in the US, Asian and Asian Americans all over the country began experiencing harassment and abuse related to the coronavirus. In Connecticut, photographer Mike Keo had a personal experience with it when a member of his family was targeted. So he decided to do something about it. He started an online campaign fueled by photographs he shot in his studio tagged with the meme: #IAmNotAVirus. The idea is simple. Each participant shares three #IAM statements about themselves, their interests and their passions, such as: “I am not a virus. I am a Masters of Social Work student, a mental health advocate, and a healthcare worker.” Click on the faces below to meet the people in the pictures.
We emailed with Mike recently to ask him about the campaign and how others can get involved.
Tell us how #IAmNotAVirus got started and what you hope to achieve with the campaign. It seems like it's grown exponentially and evolved since you first started it as a portraiture project.
“I am a father, a gardener, and a storyteller.” Hello! My name is @mikekeo and I am the one behind the camera.
Mike Keo: In the first week of March, my sister in law was called Corona. Before sending our oldest child to pre-K, my wife and I reminded him that he was as American as anyone else and that he belonged.
This portrait campaign began in my studio as a protest and response to the growing racist attacks against perceived Asians. It was important for me to put faces and voices to our neighbors, first-responders, teachers and grocery workers that happened to be Asian or Asian American. The photos were taken without masks and without fear, hurt or anger. It was a celebration of who we were. We wanted to show that we are deeply ingrained into the very soul of America — that an attack against us is an attack against your own neighbor.
Our vision and mission has resonated with many people. We have received stories from around the world and received support from outside the Asian diaspora. We are deeply humbled by the response.
This is all about community building and bringing diverse communities together. Can you tell us how the Twitter campaign has made an impact outside the Asian American community and what that has meant to you?
Mike Keo: It’s been amazing to see so many communities rally behind us. Including Not In Our Town, Re-Imagining Migration, UCONN SSW and Alumni, GLSEN and The Newark Ohio Pride Coalition. Our campaign was built around storytelling and seeing one another as individuals. In this time, we want to remind people that Asian Americans have always faced systematic racism with the Exclusion Act, forced internment, as well as a lack of both resources and widespread representation. We were also aware that everyone, regardless of race, is carrying their own trauma and that our black and brown neighbors have been afraid for their safety because of the culture around us. We believe listening and hearing one another can help us unload our hardships and feel more connected, especially during this time when we are all asked to shelter at home.
My wife and I emailed our son’s teacher, Jill, and asked her if we could donate books that featured positive representation of Asian Americans for storytime. Miss Jill wrote back that she’d be sharing Bee-Bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park with all her (pre-K) students. During the zoom call, with other students, my four year old lit up because there was a rice cooker and he has one too. He was so excited to share what noise it made and to help make our dinner that night.
You have talked about the power of speaking out and not staying silent about xenophobia and racism. Can you talk about the power of the "I AM..." statement in the face of racism and why you took that approach? It's very powerful. Not only does it put a positive spin on the hashtag, but it also highlights the diversity within the Asian American community itself and the idea that we are all in this together.
Mike Keo: During times of crisis we often don’t have the words to share how we feel. The #IAM statement is a list poetry prompt. I was a Kundiman fellow and poetry is still very dear to me. I wanted people to be able to include what they loved about themselves while they were taking extra precautionary measures because of racism. No two statements are the same and it shows how diverse our community truly is. It also showcases how traits and passion are universal and we have more in common.
Since social distancing started, you've had to put a pause on new portraits in your studio, but you have so many projects revolving around the #IAmNotaVirus campaign. Can you tell us about your other plans, I think there's a blog, videos, a podcast?
Mike Keo: We are working on programming that can empower leaders and members of the community to directly impact not only the Asian diaspora but all members of their community to better navigate this increasingly globalizing world. This includes curriculums and books that include Asian Americans into our classrooms.
We have a blog that shares Asian American stories that are intersectional that you don’t often hear. One of our features, Vicheth, is a Cambodian American farmer who grows (among many crops) greens native to Syria and Egypt [on her farm in Connecticut]. She talks about how joyous people are when they see something so familiar from their home countries.
Our podcast highlights experiences shared by Asian Americans working in professions where they rarely exist. These stories allow a younger generation of Asian Americans to imagine themselves confidently in any space. It also enrichens the larger community to be able to hear a unique perspective that may help them navigate the diversifying workplace.
We are planning a wellness week in June that aims to unravel the stigmas of mental health within the Asian community so they can have tools to face adversity.
In a few words, what would you like to see happen because of this campaign?
Mike Keo: We envision a future in which the Asian diaspora is heard and seen. Our mission is to empower the individual to see their individuality as an asset and help them to apply their unique personal experiences to strengthen their community in an increasingly diversified landscape.
Finally, how can members of the Asian American community participate in the #IAmNotaVirus campaign? How can other communities participate and stand in solidarity with your campaign?
Mike Keo: Asian Americans can send us any photo of themselves (and family) that sparks joy for them. We ask that you include your three "I Am" statements and if you have a story to share, please send that as well.
For example: "I am a Rubik's cube enthusiast. I am a dog lover. I am an advocate for equal rights."
For our supporters that are not Asian we would love to hear from you too. Please send us a photo holding a sign that says #IAmAnAlly and your #IAm statement.
It can be sent to mike [at] iamnotavirus.info.