Tiffany Luong’s photography, video and interview series “What We Inherit,” began as an inquiry into her grandparents’ immigration story from China and evolved into a study of intergenerational pain and healing.
One of the first things that stands out in Tiffany Luong’s documentary and commercial work is its ability to show the many layers of human emotion. While her commercial work often takes a joyful view of families in their best light and most candid moments, Luong’s new personal project goes a bit deeper. It’s a means to better understand her complicated relationships with her parents, their difficult history with her grandparents, and lessons towards raising her own children.
“This is a story of redemption,” she tells The Luupe, “for the next generation and a glimpse of the continuing journey toward reconciliation.” We speak with Luong to learn more about the project and the ongoing balance, and her dedication to go deep into the nuances of visual storytelling and human spirit.
The Luupe: We’d love to hear a bit about the origins of this project. How did it start?
Tiffany Luong: It depends on which “start” we want to use! I have been (off and on) trying to do a family narrative history on my grandparents for the last 10 years. My grandmother is now 99 years old and my grandfather is 100. During the course of this decade, I have made slow progress due to language barriers, a decline in their health, and just my own nearsightedness that I would have enough time. Chinese families hold a lot of secrets and don’t talk about difficult events.
The Luupe: What helped to drive it into a full fledged series and video?
Luong: Molly Menschel, a former radio producer and prominent photographer in the documentary family community and her father, Neal Menschel, a photojournalist with a long storied career. They were leading “Close to Home,” a workshop for photographers who wanted to create a multimedia piece about their family. Feeling burned out from the pandemic and the cognitive dissonance of editing lots of happy family photos on my computer screen while my own children were clamoring for my time, I felt that it was a good season to put a pause on client work and finish a personal project for my family.
I intended to use old family photos, but to make a long dramatic story short, I could not gain access to the images, and my poor grandparents with their hearing and mental acuity on the decline, could not understand what I wanted the images for and my uncle, who is their primary caretaker was initially helpful until my bribery stopped working. All that to say, is that I had to shift my character focus.
The Luupe: Where did you go from there?
Luong: Because my main question was trying to understand what we inherit and as we assimilate, what cultural traits we let go of, Molly and Neal suggested I interview my parents. This is how it became an identity project about the lived experience of intergenerational trauma, and hopefully how not to keep passing this down.
The Luupe: You mention intergenerational trauma, which is such a key piece of this work. But you also describe it, in the video narration, as being about honor…
Luong: I wanted to make sure I treated my subjects (my parents) with sensitivity and care. To honor their pain—without sensationalism or revealing family secrets—in a compassionate way that showed that they are people doing the best they can.
I also wanted to be careful not to have them relive any trauma in my interviews with them, help them look back to take note of where they came from and recognize that they could leave lots of emotional baggage in the past.
I wanted to allude to a lighter ending since the beginning is so dark, and to “save face” so that any Chinese person watching my piece would not be holding their breath for 5 minutes!
The Luupe: The concept of “redemption” is also such a big piece of this work.
Luong: A family friend told me ten years ago that “God will not waste your pain. He will redeem it.” It’s pretty much taken me this decade to understand redemption as “it was worth it to suffer,” but it gave me hope to hold onto as I continued to forgive and be hurt by my parents. In “What We Inherit,” I also conclude that my children are the redemptive generation, that they don’t need to carry as much of the burdens the previous generations did.
The Luupe: How does this work make you think about your own role as a parent?
Luong: Intergenerational trauma usually lasts three cycles. My mother broke the cycle of physical abuse, and I feel like I’ve been actively working to break the cycle of emotional abuse my entire life.
I don’t think I could have made this work at any other time in my life without having gone through this healing process of establishing healthy boundaries and becoming an emotionally healthy person through extensive pre-marital counseling, long conversations with my sisters and supportive mentors and peers in my church community.
The Luupe: Your commercial work is so different in vibe and tone, yet still deals with representations of family. Do you see this project relating to that work in any way?
Luong: This project is nearly the opposite of the happy, functionally cohesive families depicted in my portfolio, which is why I was a little afraid to show it to begin with. But on that note, I am always interested in the truth of the story, and am wary of stories that seem too saccharine. I feel that this project illustrates the yin and yang of life. It reminds me that parenting is about everything that happens in between the joy and struggles of raising children.
The Luupe: It’s interesting to think of how that balance plays out in your larger creative practice.
Luong: I hope it shows that I can work with difficult, nuanced topics with great sensitivity, and I hope to do more editorial work that explores familial wounding and healing. In my research, I also learned that sociologists have presented the antidote to intergenerational trauma is to return to one’s roots to really figure out who they are. I definitely see an angle in commercial photography for highlighting and celebrating culture that gets passed down through the family line.
The Luupe: We’re intrigued by your use of the Mary Oliver quote: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy … Joy is not meant to be a crumb”
Luong: A recurring theme in my work is joy. Joy is the notion that despite the strife of life, there can be an undercurrent of contentment. I also see in some Chinese families (especially in the way I grew up) that situations that might typically invite praise or celebration are met with neutral acknowledgment, if anything at all.
There’s a lot to say to someone who did something wrong but not much to say to someone who did something right. Mary Oliver’s poetic line “joy is not meant to be crumb” is a great reminder to allow space for hope and optimism, especially because my parents experienced so little of this joy. I think mindset and framing things positively are so instrumental in having harmonious working relationships with people. Showing up, celebrating their wins. It makes letting people in worthwhile and life a little sweeter.
The Luupe: Love that! This is very personal work, but is being presented for an outside stage…. what do you hope “the public” will take away from it?
Luong: When I was doing research for this project, I read a study detailing how intergenerational trauma in Asian families was the least studied, mostly due to lack of willing participants. I consulted another friend who produced a radio series looking at Asian stories, and she told me that she would work on a story for a month and then have to discard it because the subject rescinded consent.
These notions align with the unresolved mental health issues that impact AAPI communities. I hope that by sharing my family’s story, it helps to normalize vulnerability as a way through to inner healing, and then to familial healing. I know that sounds simplified, and in no way do I mean to say this as an overgeneralization for people in abusive family units who are working hard to keep emotional boundaries. As I’ve seen in my own experience, a lot of conflict from an aggressor stems from misunderstanding or incomplete understanding of self.
The Luupe: That’s a great way of putting it – “normalizing vulnerability.” Thanks so much for your time and inspiring work. Any final thoughts you’d like to close with?
Luong: To wrap it up, there’s a quote from Confucius that I had to cut from my final narration. “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”