The 2023 Lenscratch 1st Place Student Prize Winner: Christian K. Lee
It is with pleasure that the jurors announce the 2023 Lenscratch Student Prize 1st Place Winner, Christian K. Lee. Lee was selected for his project, Armed Doesn’t Mean Dangerous, and is currently attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago working towards an MFA in Photography. The 1st Place Winner receives a $1500 cash prize, a $250 cash prize and a seat at the New England Portfolio Reviews from The Griffin Museum of Photography, a $750 Gift Certificate toward portfolio printing at The Image Flow, a $500 Gift Certificate from Freestyle Photo Supplies, a seat at the Exposure Reviews from the Los Angeles Center of Photography Workshop, a $1000 Gift Certificate towards a Santa Fe Photo Workshop, a mini exhibition on the Curated Fridge, a collection of books from St.Lucy Books, a collection of books from Yoffy Press, a collection of books from Kris Graves Projects, a collection of books from Zatara Press, a one year subscription to Aperture Magazine, a review session with Hamidah Glasgow, Executive Director of the Center for Fine Art Photography, a year long mentorship with Aline Smithson, a Lenscratch T-Shirt and totea feature on Lenscratch , a mini exhibition on the Curated Fridge, and a Lenscratch T-shirt and Tote. Needkess to say, we are so grateful to our amazing sponsors.
It is with particular pleasure we celebrate Christian K. Lee as the 2023 Lenscratch Student Prize Winner. We met numerous years ago at a portfolio review and knew immediately that Lee had a bright future in photography. He is a thoughtful artist and a keen observer of cultural and societal disparities. His project, Armed Doesn’t Mean Dangerous, has been a trigger for much needed conversations around gun ownership, in particular,Black gun ownership. He photographs his subjects and their firearms in a way that is direct, but not charged with an agenda. This important work is a collection intimate portraits that push back on stereotypes that reject that being Black and armed is dangerous and threatening. Growing up, Lee saw a positive, responsible side of firearms ownership as his father was an Army veteran and a police officer. As he states, “The point of this project is to recondition myself, and others, toward the more positive view of Black people and guns: to promote a more balanced archive of images of African Americans with firearms by showing responsible gun owners — those who use these weapons for sport, hobby and protection. I hope these photos bring that important point into focus.”
An enormous thank you to our jurors: Aline Smithson, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Daniel George, Submissions Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Linda Alterwitz, Art + Science Editor of Lenscratch and Artist, Kellye Eisworth, Managing Editor of Lenscratch, Educator and Artist, Alexa Dilworth, publishing director, senior editor, and awards director at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University, Kris Graves, Director of Kris Graves Projects, photographer and publisher based in New York and London, Elizabeth Cheng Krist, Former Senior Photo Editor with National Geographic magazine and founding member of the Visual Thinking Collective, Hamidah Glasgow, Director of the Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, CO, Yorgos Efthymiadis, Artist and Founder of the Curated Fridge, Drew Leventhal, Artist and Publisher, winner of the 2022 Lenscratch Student Prize, Allie Tsubota, Artist and Educator, winner of the 2021 Lenscratch Student Prize, Raymond Thompson, Jr., Artist and Educator, winner of the 2020 Lenscratch Student Prize, Guanyu Xu, Artist and Educator, winner of the 2019 Lenscratch Student Prize, Shawn Bush, Artist, Educator, and Publisher, winner of the 2017 Lenscratch Student Prize.
Christian K. Lee (b. 1991; Chicago, IL) draws from his experiences to utilize Art as an investigative tool. Christian’s goal is to create imagery that reflects the world in which he currently lives. His work has been exhibited internationally and has been featured in The Washington Post, NPR, Forbes Magazine and several others.
Armed Doesn’t Means Dangerous
“Armed Doesn’t Means Dangerous” began when I realized that I had only seen negative images of African American gun owners. I became curious as to why that imbalance exists. My goal is not to promote gun ownership, but to utilize it as a gateway to discuss larger issues in American society.
“There is a higher crime rate when people cannot work and earn,” says Chicago resident Angela Ross Williams. The 67-year-old became a gun owner out of necessity to protect herself from crime. Community members such as Angela inspire me to continue this work.
I want to show that gun ownership in urban communities are symptoms of bad policies and lack of resourcing, rather than an obsession with guns. The research conducted by The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence supports this claim, identifying the root causes of gun violence to be poverty and lack of opportunity, among other factors.
I noticed that there were more protests happening and I didn’t feel as motivated to cover them because I was mentally drained from Ferguson. I felt drained seeing black people die. I felt like the images that we see a lot of times that come from these protests really only show our anger and don’t get at the underlying issues that’s causing these problems in the first place. I wanted to really start creating work that got to some of the underlying issues affecting our communities and what happened was interesting.
I was living in Texas and I’m from Chicago, so I was really comparing the two places a lot. Then I realized, I never saw a black person depicted positively around a gun until I moved to Texas. At first, I didn’t even have something I was trying to say or something I was trying to prove. It was like, I know that I’ve never seen this, and I know that responsible owners exist in Chicago; and I wanted to go create those images. I realized that it was larger than Chicago. I had never seen responsible African American owners anywhere, so I wanted to go create those images that I wasn’t seeing and that was the origin of the project. Since then, I started doing my own research work, studying law, studying the constitution, and started reading books. I realized that there’s a lot more undertones for why this exists.
This work has gotten some attention in the photo world. What has the reaction been?
In many ways it has served as a vessel to spark conversation. I remember showing at an exhibition and a group of people began thanking me for working on the project. It was that kind of feeling that was like, “you get what I’ve been trying to say but no one has ever said it”. I have received countless emails from across the world of people thanking me or simply just wanting to learn more about American society. Even if someone disagrees with the work, I find that after a conversation they walk away more informed of why the work is being made from this perspective. I’ve had several people flat out admit that the work made them acknowledge their own biases. I think it’s powerful that an image can do that. The work has allowed for some powerful dialogue.
When I first met you, you were serving in the military. How does that experience inform your practice?
I began the project in 2021 and at that time I was completing my time in the Army. I served as a Logistic Officer and my exiting rank was as a 1st Lieutenant. I figured if the military felt that I was responsible enough to utilize a firearm to protect citizens, I should also be utilizing my rights to protect myself, family and community. That discovery coupled with the idea that, as part of my service, I had just moved from Chicago to Texas (two places where conversations around firearms are widely discussed) it was natural that I began to explore this as an art subject. I also think that the basic soft skills one learns in the army, such as how to make a plan and complete it, definitely applies to my practice. I feel more organized as an artist after my service. I received an Army Achievement Medal for some of my art which is ironic in the army because most people receive this medal for doing a great job at their assigned mission. This accomplishment was one of the reasons that made me resign from my position. It was a sign that I needed to take art more seriously and pursue it full time.
What have you learned on this journey so far? Anything you want to pass on?
This series has taught me that creating from your heart matters. This is one of the first times that I felt uncomfortable making work. This was because I knew what some reactions would be. I couldn’t help but make the work because I knew I was talking about my own personal experience. I didn’t wish to be born into a community with crime, destiny made it that way. As an artist I turned my lens to my community and I wish to tell the stories I want to be seen and told more. I want to encourage all artists to push past the comfortability level. I believe many times artists censor what or how they may create because they understand the audience the work will have to be presented in. I encourage everyone to keep their work in the purest form. I encourage you to create it just the way you envisioned it, the first time.
Do you have a mentor you would like to acknowledge or are there specific artists that have influenced you that you would like to send a shout out too?
I am a fan of any artist striving to share their own personal experience through photography. This includes photographers such as James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks. I also want to give a shout out to the countless photographers who document their communities but never receive recognition for their work because they were not granted the same opportunities. Their work is just as important. The work of Mary Ellen Mark really inspires me, I love how she can engulf herself into any community and walk away with a powerful image. Specifically, her portraiture is striking.
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