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Tom, Tom, Tom.

A little bit about being filipino, a little bit about being a creative.

This past week on Tuesday, before anyone heard about the awful shootings that took place in Atlanta, I had a small unfortunate run-in with the anti-asian sentiment that has grown in the past few months and years.

I had run out to pick up dinner for me and my girlfriend, and happened to get out of my car at the same time as another gentleman that was going to the liquor store next door to the restaurant I was stopping at. We were walking the same pace from the parking lot when I thought I heard him say something to me and looked over to catch his eye, and before I knew it, he started saying louder and louder, in an almost sing-songy tone, “You’re a Chinese motherfucker, you’re an asian motherfucker, you china motherfucker…, ” repeatedly.

I was half-shocked, a little scared if he was going to try something physical, but in the moment I actually started laughing because he was quite literally singing slurs at me, like a somehow-racist, musical-theatre fan! I got some separation from him as we each approached our respective doors, but he said it from the moment he saw me to the moment he went into the liquor store and I into the restaurant.

I wrote most of this article over the summer just for myself, but with everything that’s happening in the world I wanted to share just a little about who I am and how that gets reflected back in the industry:

My last name is McGovern, if you look at my tiny profile photos across the internet, you’d probably say I’m a white male. If you are more astute or if you met me in person, you could probably tell or I’d tell you that I’m not 100%.

I’m a Filipino-Irish restaurant, hospitality, and travel photographer, and I proudly let people know that, and definitely know more about my Filipino heritage & culture than my Irish side.

I grew up behind the counter of my mom and grandmother’s filipino store. I stacked bags of rice, pulled apart chicken meat for catering orders, rummaged through the closet to find the Filipino movie VHS tapes we rented, delivered lechon from the city to parties all over the place, and watched the kids I knew from school come in and attempt, usually successfully, to shoplift chips and “weird” snacks from the shelves.

I always loved photography, I even dressed up as a photographer for Halloween in the second grade! My dad was an engineer who always had some cool camera from work that I got to play with, and both my parents rarely forced me into giving that passion up for a more traditional career path and for that I thank them everyday.

My last name has for sure gotten me in the door or on the list, but I’m sure that I’ve gotten kicked out that same door, that same list, once art directors and agents and anyone else higher than me in the creative chain of command, have met me in person or realize I’m not 100% white male.

“You don’t look how I expected,”

“I thought you were going to be an old white dude,”

“What are you?,”

“Are you Asian?,”

I never try to hide that side, I’ll be the first to say that yes, I’m Filipino-Irish. Then the next line of questions or statements begin;

“Do you eat that gross egg stuff?,”

“My housekeeper was Filipino,”

“I bet your Mom’s the Filipino one, it’s never the other way around,”

“Is your mom a nurse?,”

(Most times this happens people go as low as they can on the totem-pole of careers to tell me how they know of Filipinos as a whole)

The meeting or shoot goes as normal as it can, usually with a few more statements or questions, I can tell by the end when someone is genuinely curious or when someone is just poking around the Asian issue.

I say my goodbyes, and when they choose to go a different photographer, but the same style as I shot, or ghost me and hire a creative that more aligns with their skin tone, their heritage, their values, I can question; was it my technique, was it my personality, or was it that surprise that I wasn’t as white as my name lied?

I don’t think white creatives ever have to think about that last one.

If you have a biracial friend, ask them what “side” they feel they are, if they are truly comfortable with you they will tell you both, if not, they will tell you whatever makes you the questioner least uncomfortable.

I’m a white man and have all the white privilege that comes with it to many BIPOC. I’m the Asian guy from one of those “poor,” “not pretty,” “ignorant,” “savage,’ asian countries if you are caucasian. I live in the middle, because I don’t belong to either, but am made of both. I’m made to pick a side but often enough it’s neither side that wants you, the lifetime of being the odd kid out on the playground.

In photography if you are Asian and a photographer, the first thing that comes to many peoples minds is the stereotype of the asian tourist, taking tons of photos, kind of creepy, never the casual yet rugged, urban-cowboy, white photographer that media portrays as the professional.

We can be and are professionals, but too often typecasts by the nature of our skin and heritage to so many people in hiring and producing spaces. Even with white allies, one change in management or manager and you can be right at square one again.

Examples from life:

  • Shooting a liquor brands social content for months until the agency adds a new account executive to the brand. From the first moment of the first shoot with the new executive;

“What are you?,”

“Do you even drink or does your face do that red thing?,”

“I bet you take your camera everywhere right?,”

I knew I’d never be shooting for that brand again.

  • I was reached out to by a Photo Agent, one of my career goals was to have an agent, being represented was one of things I thought had meant “you made it.”

They loved my work, liked my client base and the achievements that I had helped my clients reach, emails were great, then we had a Zoom call;

“I thought you’d look different,”

“Is this work all yours, or did you do this assisting for someone bigger?,”

“The lady that cleans our office is Filipino, she once brought in smelly fish,”

I never heard from the agent again.

  • Met with a brand in person, really thought I brought my A game, when talking about some other clients I had shot work for, the marketing team stops me and says,

“Did you really shoot that? We had a meeting with another photographer (male and caucasian)and they said that they had shot all the imagery for that brand?,”

I respond, “they may have done work too as they are a larger brand, but I have image galleries with thousands of images I have produced for them over the years from day one.”

“Oh alright that’s not what the other photographer said, hey is one of your parents something different?,”

They hire the other photographer.

So many of these and many other stories that I haven’t written about are experienced by BIPOC people everyday, but the most common response is always, “are you sure that’s what happened?,” as if our eyes and ears lie to us.

None of this is meant to be a pity party for myself or to say it wasn’t one of the many other reasons creatives get passed on that cost me any of these jobs and many more. But, someone who isn’t Biracial, someone who isn’t a BIPOC, won’t probably ever have that extra layer of self-doubt, that extra sensitivity, that little nudge of paranoia in the back of their mind.

Every time I give a client a quote and then they ghost me without negotiating;

Every time they ask about my background and stop responding;

Every time they say the project is being pushed but they’ll get back to me and never do;

Every time you are promised credit and it doesn’t happen because “they forgot”;

Every time they screw you out of money owed;

Me, and many other people like me, will always have that extra doubt thrown on top of the already existing reasons everyone has to face regardless.

I’ve shot three cookbooks and an award-nominated cocktail book, contributed covers and large portions of images to two other books, shot a multitude of glossy magazine covers, shot billboards, and I’m not new to the industry, but I still have to prove myself to white creatives every time.

My last name may get me that first email, that first DM, but after that I’ll never know if its the strength of my work or the race I wear everyday that keeps me from jobs.

“I use guys like him for large shoots because they just have a different look to their work, you know. They match up better with clients on set, and you know people like to hang out with people that are similar to them” (Referring to a a white photographer from Brooklyn)

When I was in my early twenties, I often visited a friends house just to hang out, 15 years on, most of the fun things and the video games and hi-jinx have faded into a single mass of happy memories. Otherwise, two distinct memories stick out in my head.

One day while there, his little sister had friends over, she came in to the part of the house we were and handed me the Asian guy card from a dating board game as if to say keep it, we will never pick that card. I laughed it off and was scared that if I didn’t take this card, accept it and go along, I wouldn’t have been welcome in that house. Imagine being in your twenties and scared of being not welcomed back to a friends house by a preteen girl.

The second memory I keep with me is later on, maybe a few months, maybe longer, times compress you know. The same sister asks me in the kitchen to say something in “Asian,” I am not fluent in Tagalog, or any other asian languages, but I work out some asian-sounding gibberish to say, she laughs and claps, I feel awful but the validation of this little sister keeps me in the families good graces for a little while longer or so I think.

Entertaining a little girl is different than landing a photography client, but maybe not so much?

Maybe I should lean into my Irish-side, deny my Filipino heritage, say I just like to tan rather than explain the color of my skin, laugh along with their jokes, entertain the producers and directors and agents so I can stay in their good graces a little while longer?

The restaurant incident from the start to this story doesn’t have a movie-ending. I don’t go into the liquor store, confront him, shame him, teach him a lesson; the crowd doesn’t clap, it ends how I imagine most stories like that end. My food isn’t ready, I wait around a little bit, and see the man from the restaurant’s windows leave with his purchase in his big truck and drive off.

I don’t even tell me girlfriend about this until the next evening as we are watching stories about the incidents in Atlanta and the suspect’s “bad day,” I think to myself about so many other people’s bad days and how that racism and anger affects and damages so many people who are just trying to live their lives.

I’m too proud of my Filipino heritage and culture, and I never see a place or time where it doesn’t “slip out”. So maybe I don’t need to pick a side, maybe people in this industry and everywhere need to stop choosing one for me; and if they do feel the need to choose, not let that change their minds about my work and my experience.

Tom McGovern is a Restaurant, Hospitality, and Travel photographer based in Virginia and soon Los Angeles. His work can be found online at www.tommcphoto.com and on instagram at @foodphotographer.

Tom is a Restaurant and Hospitality photographer based Los Angeles. His work can be found at www.tommcphoto.com and instagram @foodphotographer

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