Lanna Apisukh: Permanent Vacation
This week we have been looking at the work of artists who submitted projects during our most recent call-for-entries. Today, Lanna Apisukh and I discuss Permanent Vacation.
Lanna Apisukh is a portrait and documentary photographer based in New York City. Her work explores people and their relationship to place, culture and identity through bold, colorful stories she strives to create in her images. With a background in skateboarding and gymnastics, Lanna draws inspiration from the dynamic individuals and communities she photographs. She’s a regular contributor at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine covering food, fashion, business, life and arts.
Follow Lanna Apisukh on Instagram: @apisukh
Welcome to Permanent Vacation, a portrait of my parents’ lives as Asian American retirees and senior citizens living in the Sunshine State. Though my Mom and Dad immigrated from Thailand to the US over forty years ago, I’m continually fascinated by the way that they have adapted to the American landscape and Florida culture in their own unique way. From their bright colorful activewear to where they shop and what they eat, it’s clear that their sunny, suburban environment has shaped their cultural identities.
From the seashores to the suburbs, this ongoing project (evolving in 2019) offers a glimpse into my parents’ peaceful yet highly active lives as seniors, while broadening the ideas of aging and our sense of place and belonging in the world.
Daniel George: Tell us how Permanent Vacation began. What was it that sparked your creative drive—leading to this project?
Lanna Apisukh: I always knew my parents were unique characters that would make great subjects for a story. I remember a friend once telling me “Your parents are reality TV gold!” This was years before I even picked up a camera and when they worked in the kitchen at Thai Delight, a tiny Mom & Pop’s restaurant the two of them owned and ran for nearly 25 years. It was very popular among the Longwood and Lake Mary locals in Central Florida.
Once they retired from the restaurant business, I began visiting them more since they were available to travel and do fun leisurely things. Naturally, I began making images with them to record our memories whenever we went on family vacations. I have loads of photos from our trips to the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and state parks in California. But it wasn’t until I came home to visit in 2019, that I’d begin building out this body of work I like to call Permanent Vacation, a portrait of their lives as highly active, retired seniors living in the Sunshine State.
I began shooting through rolls of film with them that year during one of our weekend stays at New Smyrna Beach, Florida – about 45 minutes away from where I grew up. My parents took me there a lot as a kid since it was our local beach. We always love being by the ocean so it was the perfect setting for a shoot. After seeing how those images resulted and how fun it was to be together making images, I knew I was onto something.
Since that trip, I’ve been documenting my parents every chance I get, especially now that they are older. My Dad is approaching 81 years of age in October and my Mom turned 74 this year. Time feels like it’s slipping away and I want to be able to spend as much of it as I can with them while they are still very active, and this project enables me to do that.
DG: I am always interested in the dynamic between artist and family members, when they are the subject of the work. How do they respond to being photographed? Would you say that this is a collaboration, and are they eager to participate?
LA: It’s definitely a collaboration and it has been exciting to discover that photography would be a special way for my parents and I to connect with each other.
Growing up, my relationship with my parents was very loving and supportive yet complicated. Since I was born in America and they came to the US as Thai immigrants in the 70’s, naturally there were some cultural clashes in our household plus the generational divide which made it hard to understand each other at times, especially as a rebellious teenager! I wanted to creatively express myself in certain ways (through music, skateboarding or how I dressed) and I don’t think they really understood any of that at the time. As we’ve grown much older, we’ve come to understand each other better. I’m also more curious about their young adult lives and what it was like to grow up in Thailand and come to America as immigrants.
As far as participation, one of the most exciting things about photographing with them is that they share the same passion and enthusiasm with image-making as I do! They are both as obsessed as I am with photography and use their smartphones to record everyday life which has made the shooting process with them especially enjoyable. It’s like they get why I do it. My mom actually has a really great eye, and will point out things she sees or make comments on how to compose a scene. It’s really cute. My Dad is also an avid photographer; he photographed my brother and I all throughout our lives and continues to document everyday, but more so with a point and shoot or smartphone. He frequently posts pictures on Facebook of my Mom’s cooking, the gardening progress in the backyard and their daily routine. He’s big on documenting.
DG: In your biography you write that your background as a gymnast and a skateboarder inspires your work. As a lifelong skateboarder myself, I am certainly able to identify how it informs the way I think—particularly regarding social structures, the physical environment, etc. Could you expand on the relationship you see between these experiences/activities, and what you’re doing with this work?
LA: Gymnastics and skateboarding is a huge part of who I am and certainly has influenced my photography, my work ethic (practice! practice! practice!) and the subjects I’m drawn to. It’s positioned me to be naturally curious about subcultures, dynamic communities, individuals walking to the beat of their own drum and people that are performing at high levels like the elite athlete I once was. I’m also interested in exploring the relationship between people and the environments they live and work in and how place can shape identity which is largely what this project is all about.
DG: I am fascinated by your exploration of cultural identity, and how you are visualizing the ways in which the “palm tree filled suburban environment” is influencing your parents. Talk more about this, and how you feel that this transformation is manifested in your photographs. And what do these photographs reveal to you (about your parents), perhaps even beyond the visual?
LA: When I was a kid growing up in Central Florida, I thought going to the beach on weekends and wearing shorts everyday of the year was a pretty normal thing. But after living away for years in Seattle (where I did my undergrad at University of Washington) and now residing in New York City, it does feel like culture shock the first couple days I come home for visits. Like it’s 80 degrees in December and everyone is wearing yoga pants and flip flops to pick up groceries at Publix!
I think living away from Florida has made my eyes more fresh to what I am seeing now and especially how my parents have changed over the years – how they’ve gracefully aged, how they’ve adapted to Florida suburban culture, it’s fascinating.
Through photographing them, things have come more into focus like they way they dress (mostly bright, neon athleisure wear and sunglasses) and even what they eat, which lately has been a lot of Longhorns Steakhouse and all-you-can-eat buffets since they can get a “good deal” as seniors. It’s funny how much they have embraced suburban food because before they retired, they owned their own restaurant for over two decades and had excellent reviews written in newspapers about their authentic Thai cooking.
I guess they are just happy to be served for a change, even if it’s coming from a metal tray with heat lamps over it. The mall of all places, has also impacted their lifestyle. They go there to shop, socialize with other retired seniors and walk laps around the mostly vacant Seminole Towne Center mall which is where they get their steps in each week. It seems weird but mall-walking kind of makes sense in Florida when it’s too hot and humid to exercise outdoors. I guess what this project has really revealed to me is that they are truly happy in Florida and really living their best lives and I see it even more now as an adult and especially through my photography. Maybe it’s the bright Florida sunshine that gives them so much energy and zest for life? Either way, it brings me a lot of joy to witness them as retired seniors at leisure as I know they worked very hard to get to this point.
DG: You mention that this work is ongoing. How do you see it evolving from here?
LA: So long as my parents are physically able, in good health and willing I think I’ll be photographing this project for a while. We all love the magic of image-making (it’s what bonds us) so I’ll be doing this for as long as I can. As for how the project will evolve, I’ve started shooting with them in different environments and locations. I’ve photographed them here in New York City during the height of Omicron which made for interesting visuals as they wore their face shields the entire time. We also had a family trip to Niagara Falls last month and that was an incredible backdrop for photos. I’d also like to travel to more places abroad with them. My goal for next year is to visit them in Thailand and make some portraits with them in Bangkok and on the beaches in the Gulf of Thailand where they have a second home. I’ve been meaning to do that for a while now, but the pandemic slowed things down for the project so I’m definitely ready to make up for all that lost time.
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