Name: Emily V. Tan
Where do you live now? New York
Industry: Journalism and Photography
What does it mean to you to have a voice? Not be afraid to go for what you want and work hard to get there.
How did you find your voice?
While I was born in Manhattan, I grew up in Jersey City, N.J. Growing up here in the 90s was interesting because it feels like the complete opposite of what the city is today. It wasn't necessarily the safest place to be and didn't have the food scene, cute shops or even nightlife it has today. But growing up in Jersey City taught me a lot about strength, resilience and the grit to not be afraid to go for what I want and also the drive to work hard to get it.
I was definitely that child who kept diaries that eventually turned into journals. Not only would I write about the monotony of everyday adolescence, but I also started to create stories, poems and even plays. I even attempted to write my first novel at 13. It was something about a group of sisters who drew power from gems, which their evil estranged brothers wanted to steal from them. I don't know where that came from, but it was fun until my family's computer crashed. And a year of writing disappeared.
What event or series of events helped you find your voice?
My parents took me to the Philippines for the first time when I was seven months old. Even though I don't remember that moment, it was clear that they wanted to introduce me to my Filipino culture and family there as early as they could. Growing up, I was not only taught Tagalog and my mother's dialect, Ilocano, but I was also raised to be proud of who I am as a Filipina and an American. And that shows through in how I move in the world today, especially in light of the rising attacks on the AAPI community. Through photography, I've been documenting the rallies and protests that have been taking place in the city -- not just to have them recorded as a moment in history but also to share the strength as well as the pain and suffering my and other marginalized communities have been enduring through images.
As I've gotten older, I realize that I'm more of an empath than I thought. I try to see it from all sides, which also stems from the journalist in me, but I deeply care and am considerate of others. Whether it's through journalism, photography or a simple conversation with another, I do my best to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable.
How did 2020 help you refine/redefine your voice?
2020 was definitely challenging. But I took last year as a time to figure out how I wanted to use my voice. I took time to see how my voice can not only help others but also be intentional in offering that help -- whether it be to a community or one other person. I'm hoping that this self-reflection will give me the energy and strength to bring that to fruition in 2021. 2020 also made me realize that I'm much more resilient than I thought I was, and that it's OK to follow my own rules.
Whose voice are you influenced by?
My mother’s voice: she always told me to fight for what I believed was right. She was raised in a small town in the Philippines and arrived in the United States in her early twenties. She was on her own: she had to adapt quickly and stand up for herself. I think her fighting spirit and ability to express her voice in any situation comes from her mother. My grandmother had her own business: she was the town butcher. She had 8 girls and 3 boys and taught them all to be strong and fearless. When I was a kid, my mother was a full-time working nurse, but she always made sure to be there as "Ma." She showed me that we can overcome the challenges we continually face in life. She also taught me to be outspoken even in scary times. I really learned a lot of important lessons just by looking at her going through life. Still today, I love debating with her. And I think we are learning a lot from each other.
How has your voice influenced others, particularly those in your community?
I have a background in journalism and to me, my role is to document everything. History is being made every day, even in small actions. While I enjoy the writing aspect of the job, I have always loved photographing people. The quietness in their actions is beautiful, and there's power in the nuance in how people move through life. It can be a touch, a look, a sign: they are so many things to capture. This year, I took to the streets and joined many anti-Asian hate protests. I felt like it was my turn to tell my story. In March this year, I took a picture that went viral. So many people wrote to me after seeing it. I really felt that I was reaching people and making an impact.
Another project I would like to mention is my series Double Take. The idea was to look at how people express themselves and how impossible it is to make the exact same expression twice. All the portraits are in black and white on purpose because I wanted people not to be distracted by skin color. Instead, they can focus on small nuances, similarities and differences. The feedback I got were really positive. Several people told me that it was the most diverse show they have seen in a long time, and that meant a lot.
Where will your voice lead next?
The pandemic pushed me to reevaluate my work. My passion is to photograph people but for more than a year, the occasions to take pictures have been really rare. So I'm revisiting projects from years ago that were not finished. In addition, I am working on a few brand-new projects. Check out my Instagram in the next few months to learn more. I am pretty excited about them!
About Emily Tan
Emily Tan is a journalist, photographer and project manager based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She loves exploring different parts of the world with a cup of coffee in one hand and her camera in the other.