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Life in New York’s Chinatown—Unscripted

Photographer Thomas Holton goes behind closed doors of one immigrant family.

“I had dinner with the Lams last night. It was probably the 300th time,” says Thomas Holton, a photographer who’s been documenting one family—mother Shirley, father Steven, and their three kids, Michael, Franklin, and Cindy—for 13 years.

Holton first met the Lam family in 2003 while accompanying a housing advocacy organization on home visits to immigrant families around New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood. He was a graduate student looking for a way to photograph behind Chinatown’s closed doors—and to explore his own Chinese heritage (Holton’s mother is Chinese, his father American).

While most of the families he met were wary of return visits after allowing him to photograph them once, the Lams welcomed him into their tenement apartment on Ludlow Street with open arms. Shirley, whose kids were two, five, and six at the time, invited him back for dinner. “They chose me,” he says.

He slowly became part of their lives, bonding over Shirley’s home-cooked meals. Holton was reminded of family dinners with his grandparents and cousins—all of whom spoke Chinese. “It felt strangely normal to be lost while other people spoke a language you didn’t know,” he says.

A typical afternoon would involve Holton showing up after class, going with Shirley to pick up the kids from school, and shopping for groceries. Back at the apartment, she would cook and he would entertain the kids—also giving Shirley and Steven some time to catch up when he got home from work. Holton was like a nanny, he says, or an uncle.

Holton prefers to take his time as a photographer. And there is little that will make you slow down like spending time with the same family, mostly inside the same 400-square-foot apartment, alert for fresh moments to reveal themselves. His early pictures reflect the energy of the time—the kids were small and things were chaotic in the small space. The family all slept together in one communal bed.

He took a break for a few years though remained in touch. When he started photographing them again in 2010, things had changed. The boys had become teenagers. Steven had lost his job during the recession and Shirley had taken a live-in job caring for an elderly woman. She lived there with their daughter, Cindy, while Steven and the boys were on Ludlow Street. The air was tense. The bedroom had been reconfigured with bunkbeds, each separated by sheets as a way to create private space.

The tone of his photographs changed too. But rather than approach the story in a straight documentary style, Holton chose to pull back. “There is something about being [in] the home with them for a few hours—boredom kicks in, something natural occurs, the right light, right position,” he says. “As a photographer, I think it’s really amazing what a quiet, nuanced, melancholy photograph can say,” he says. “I don’t want to put the whole story in the picture. It is a narrative; one photo leads to the next. As kids got older they became more involved in screens, wanted to be alone. They became calmer, more reflective.”

Fast forward to the present. One of the sons is now in college and the other lives in the Ludlow Street apartment. Steven and Shirley are divorced and Steven has his own apartment in Jersey City.

Holton is taking another pause from photographing right now—”I learned to let some time go by to let the narrative flow,” he says—but still brings his camera along on his regular visits with them, just in case. And now when he does photograph, his focus is mainly on Cindy, who is “a willing accomplice” he says, even though “right now she’s just like ‘whatever’—a totally sassy, snarky teenager.”

Life has changed for Holton too, over these past 13 years. He got married (Cindy was the flower girl at his wedding), and he became a father. And what has he learned?

“I’ve discovered life is messy. It’s unscripted. I thought I would be better able to understand what it’s like to be a Chinese immigrant, but the Lam’s story really is about family. I think why it resonates is that many people can relate to it regardless of race or region. It’s about a family trying to do their best for their kids. ”

Thomas Holton’s photographs of the Lam family have recently been published as a book, The Lams of Ludlow Street. You can also see more from the project on Holton’s website.


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