Photo project aims to restore respect to Asian American and Pacific Islander names

Creator of “Call Me by My Name” project says AAPI people being misnamed is “the expense of living in America.”

(Janessa Ilada) Elaine Lee, aka Yi Ling, one of the subjects of photographer Janessa Ilada's "Call Me by My Name" project for AAPI Heritage Month.

Janessa Ilada started her photography project with a simple idea: Having the courtesy and decency to pronounce someone’s name correctly.

The project, “Call Me by My Name,” was sparked by a conversation with a friend.

“We were talking about how someone had butchered our names and [how] people mess up my name all the time,” said Ilada, who is Filipina American and a Salt Lake City-based photographer. “This one particular time, I remember thinking, ‘Why is this always a thing?’”

She said she spent the night thinking about how “Asians and Pacific Islanders never get called by their actual names.” Instead, they are often given Anglicized names, or a shortened nickname.

(Janessa Ilada) Sothea Soumphonephakdy, one of the subjects of photographer Janessa Ilada's "Call Me by My Name" project for AAPI Heritage Month.

“People have always considered Asian and Islander names as unusual, funny or strange, but the reality is it’s only like that because we’re in places where we are the minority,” Ilada said.

For the “Call Me by My Name” project — timed to mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May — Ilada took portraits of 103 Utahns who identify as AAPI. They range in age from 3 to 60. Each portrait lists the person’s full name, along with a caption that tells the story behind that person’s name.

Some excerpts:

Vilaysouk Betty Viradldo-Keomounmany: “I’ve learned that my name doesn’t need to be ‘easy’ for the sake of others. I have learned to be empowered by my name and embrace it.”

Trung Tham: “I remember wishing I had an American name, because I thought it would bring me closer to being ‘white.’”

Makenzie Kanani Alohaonalani Lock: “As Hawaiians, we believe that names are the most powerful part of you. They carry the presence of your ancestors, tell stories, pass on traditions and provide love and protection.”

Emilio Manuel Camu: “For me, it’s so important to call each other by our names and learn the history and cultural significance associated with them, especially as we continue to nurture our communities.”

Kelly Asao: “As Asians, we are so used to people butchering our names or giving us unwanted Anglicized nicknames. But I’ve learned to correct people who mispronounce my name. To honor myself and my family by demanding that others respect my name.”

Ilada chose her subjects from people she knew in Utah’s AAPI community, with help from the advocacy group OCA Utah, and through word-of-mouth.

This is the second project Ilada has done to mark AAPI Heritage Month. Last year, she took her subjects, AAPI women and children, out to the Bonneville Salt Flats to take their pictures in their heritage attire to “kind of take back our identity,” she said.

Last year’s project was sparked by the horrific string of hate crimes committed against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those included the stories in New York of an elderly woman who was hit in the head 125 times, or the woman killed when she was pushed onto a subway track in front of an oncoming train. In Utah, Asian Americans were sent threatening letters, and a Filipino food truck was vandalized.

For this year’s project, instead of having her subjects dress in heritage attire, she asked people to wear whatever they wanted to. “I wanted to show a diversity of AAPI personalities and have people come as they are,” she said.

Ilada calls herself a “hobbyist photographer,” but she said she finds the medium of photography more direct, forcing viewers to interact directly with the subjects.

“They always say a picture is worth a thousand words,” she said. “If I use a photo, people will actually look and listen to what I have to say or write.”

Many AAPI people put up with the nicknames and substitute names as a form of assimilation, Ilada said, “to make it easier to get by, especially working among our peers who aren’t used to being around people who don’t have Western-sounding names.”

Within AAPI communities, she said, “everyone seems to have the same understanding: At the expense of living in America, we will never be called by our actual name.” That essentially disassociates people, creating a sense of distance to make the majority feel more comfortable,” she said.

“I wanted to break that stereotype and talk about it, how people felt about being given a name by their family, but then feeling like they couldn’t actually be called by those names,” she said.

While photographing her subjects, they made connections over their shared experiences of having their names butchered or not respected. Ilada said she thought, “How many more [people] who haven’t participated will look at this collage and think, ‘I feel the same way, too, and I’m really glad this existed.’”

The title of the project, “Call Me by My Name,” has become what Ilada says when she’s introduced to new people who casually ask what easier-to-pronounce nickname they can call her instead of her actual name.

The project’s importance extends beyond AAPI Heritage Month, Ilada said — as the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans has put a spotlight on communities that are often overlooked.

“We have always been here,” she said. “But we never felt like we had a place before and there wasn’t a platform for us to be able to express how we really felt.”

Ilada’s portraits in the “Call Me By My Name” project can be seen on Ilada’s Instagram account, instagram.com/jness.wanders.

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