Natalie Coughlin and Nathan Adrian are best known as world swimming champions — Coughlin as a 12-time Olympic medalist and the first woman to swim the 100-meter backstroke in under a minute, and Adrian as an eight-time Olympic medalist and a top freestyle sprinter for the U.S. national team. On a recent Saturday morning, they dropped those identities for a lesser-known one.
“Being hapa — that’s a big part of my identity,” Coughlin said, as she and Adrian each sat for a portrait by photographer Kip Fulbeck at a makeshift studio in Oakland.
Fulbeck started photographing people of mixed racial heritage in 2001. Hapa, a Hawaiian word for “part,” has been adopted by some as a way to describe themselves. After each sitting, Fulbeck asked participants to hand-write responses to the question: “What are you?”
It’s a loaded question that each person already was confronting on a regular basis. It was meant as a provocation.
This eventually became the Hapa Project, a collection of the words and images of more than 1,500 volunteer subjects from across the country, most with partial roots in Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. In each spare, luminous frame, a person looks directly at the camera. Each subject has no name, no clothing, no jewelry. All that accompanies is what people write about themselves.
Recently Fulbeck tracked down the original participants, reshooting and reinterviewing them for a new book titled “Hapa.me: 15 Years of the Hapa Project,” released this month in conjunction with an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A.
Photographing subjects without identifiers like clothing and names “takes away a major source of external supposition and judgment about the subjects in terms of their ethnicity, paternal/maternal lineages, social class and cultural adherences,” sociologist and curator Cindy Nakashima writes in one of five essays included in Fulbeck’s new book. She describes the empowerment that comes from being able to answer the question “What are you?” in whatever way one wants.
This stripping away, Fulbeck said, was a conscious artistic decision, one to put the agency in the hands of his subjects.
A lot has changed since Fulbeck started the Hapa Project. In 2015, one in seven babies was multiracial or multiethnic, according to a Pew Research Center study released last year. That’s up from 10% in 2000 and 5% in 1980. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the multiracial population as a whole will triple by 2060.
Fulbeck has seen his Hapa Project exhibited worldwide, including in 2006 at the Japanese American National Museum. The photographer is now a professor at UC Santa Barbara, and his work has been shown at the Getty Center, the Smithsonian and the New York Historical Society.
For his Hapa Project update, Fulbeck not only revisited past subjects but also included new ones — mostly non-famous people, but with a few artists, actors and athletes like Coughlin and Adrian thrown into the mix.
Coughlin, 35, grew up in Vallejo, Calif., which includes some of the most racially diverse ZIP Codes in the country.
“Even though I look white, my mom’s side is Filipino, and the culture was always around me,” she said.
Adrian, 28, who describes himself as German-Irish-Chinese, has cheerfully answered fans’ tweets about his background: “Half Chinese #hapapride.”
“As a kid growing up in rural Washington, when they told me to check one box, I just checked two anyway,” he said. “Yes, I’m a mix. And as time goes on, it just gets more normal.”
To Fulbeck, 52, this signals a sea change. He is half Chinese, half English-Irish-Welsh. Growing up in Southern California, he was picked on — by his white elementary school classmates and by his Chinese peers at the local Chinese cultural association.
“Back in 2001, we did not talk about hapa, and there was very little space for mixed-race people to fit in,” he said. “It meant something to them to be recognized.” Some people were in pain. He remembered one shoot with a woman who sat for hours not touching pen to paper.
As a kid growing up in rural Washington, when they told me to check one box, I just checked two anyway.
Now Fulbeck sees strength in numbers, and proud role models. Shifts in popular culture can make the general public more open to conversations about race and he welcomes that. He is optimistic about the fact that multiracial people are more common and more settled in themselves individually, but he’s pessimistic in the societal shift that came with the exit of Barack Obama and the entrance of Donald Trump.
“There’s apprehension that whatever gains we have made are being or will be erased,” Fulbeck said. “And anxiety about the victimized white male being legitimized.”
In other words, not everyone likes the browning of America.
Critics say that Trump’s actions — aggressively deporting immigrants of color, playing to white racial anxieties and demonizing Mexicans, Chinese and Haitians (to name a few) — reflect these fears, which have taken the concrete shape of White House policy.
But if you look through Fulbeck’s new portraits, the then-and-now diptychs, you can find equally concrete reminders of the fight against the “for me, not you” way of thinking.
Fifteen years ago, one Hapa Project participant called himself “queer Eurasian.” In that photo, his eyes are alert, serious. In the new photograph, he looks into the camera with a relaxed gaze and the hint of a smile.
“Love is love,” he writes. “My parents were only able to marry because in 1948 the California Supreme Court became the first state Supreme Court to rule that banning marriage between people of different races was unconstitutional. When my husband and I were denied the freedom to marry, we sued the state and won at the same California Supreme Court.” His parents were there as witnesses on his wedding day.
When comparing the early Hapa Project photos to the more recent set, Fulbeck finds the evolution from child to adult to be the most revealing. The project is an ear to what the youngest multiracial citizens have to say now about race relations, shifting identities and who belongs in America.
The photo shoot, which was open to the public, drew exuberant remixes of American immigrant identity: Japanese-Guyanese, Filipino-black, Hawaiian-Lebanese-Scottish, Trinidadian-Korean-Jewish-Swedish. This was the multicultural Bay Area, of course, but Fulbeck has photographed people coast to coast, from Honolulu, Seattle and L.A. to Chicago and Boise to Syracuse and New York City.
One confident, flippant teenager wrote, “I’m a Japanese Jew: a latke-sushi roll.”
Coughlin, the Irish-Filipina swimmer, wrote, “I eat corned beef with white rice. #hapa.”
Taken together, all the photos and statements reveal “the archetypal mixed-race themes of acceptance, rejection, marginalization, authenticity, choice, privilege, projection,” Nakashima writes in Fulbeck’s new book. The project resists the rigid codification and categorization in the history of photography.
What you’re left with on each page is a face, a few words and a surprising amount of wisdom.
One boy’s adult self feels fortunate to have grown up between worlds.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was to soften the border between the two,” he writes. “That’s what love is, ultimately.”
Writes one blue-eyed young woman: “When I was little I wrote that I am a person, and now that I’m older I can’t think of anything better to say.”
There are calls to take responsibility, to be on the front lines, to speak out, to get each vote counted. “In dangerous times, it’s important to stand strong in who you are,” writes another participant. “I’ve never felt more fierce.”
In the beginning, Fulbeck said, it was about getting individual voices heard. “Now it’s about trying to get a collective voice heard.”
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‘Hapa.me: 15 Years of the Hapa Project’
Where: Japanese American National Museum, 100 N. Central Ave., L.A.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, ends Oct. 28
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