We are not the Virus
How Reinhardt Kenneth, a fashion photographer of Asian (Chinese-Indonesian) descent, discovered by the late Franca Sozzani of Vogue Italia – felt the absolute need to speak up while Asians all over the world are being discriminated against and blamed over a global pandemic.
Tell us why you deemed it important to work on this project?
When I first got into photography, I was highly inspired by the fashion editorials the late Franca Sozzani (who, interestingly enough, discovered me on Instagram when I was 16, before she passed away a few years later) and Steven Meisel would create for Vogue Italia. The photographs would not only be artistic and glamorous, but also often times they spoke on current world issues and matters. This was the kind of art I wanted to create early on in my career.
As a fashion photographer of Asian (Chinese-Indonesian) descent, I felt the absolute need to speak up, while Asians all over the world are being discriminated against and blamed over a global pandemic. Ultimately, I want my art to leave an impact not only esthetically, but also culturally, socially and spiritually. I wanted my voice to transcend through my photography, giving a voice to the voiceless and a platform for those who are facing xenophobia to speak up on. I wanted my photographs to be pillars of empowerment, as a form of protest out of kindness and compassion. Personally, I believe that art is not only healing, but it also breaks boundaries between different beliefs, language and culture. Due to those circumstances, I chose to create art out of horror, to speak up for Asians everywhere, regardless of background, language barriers or experiences. It was highly important for me to create and orchestrate this project to emphasize that, yes, there is a global pandemic, but hate, discrimination – and xenophobia are much bigger viruses than COVID-19.
Hey, even the COVID-19 virus doesn’t discriminate. What makes it right for us to play God and blame the whole Asian race?
Can you share some of the stories of friends and peers who have encountered discrimination during this global shutdown?
I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories, from young children being shoved down for coughing in public to the news reporting hate crimes in the likes of the stabbing of a two-year old. One of my high-school friends who’s in New York stated that she has been harassed verbally for “spreading the coronavirus.” Yes, a lot of people are losing their jobs and may react irrationally and find it easy to blame a stranger for contracting a virus strictly based on their looks, but hey, the virus does not have a face. Our beautiful Asian physical qualities have nothing to do with the coronavirus. This proves that hate is a big mental virus.
What do you hope people take away from your photos and your video?
My shoot was never a big f**k you to COVID-19, the government or any country. It was a big middle finger to the negative human behaviour arising from this virus. In times of survival, a lot of people show their true colours, and unfortunately, many of them promote hate, blame, xenophobia, selfishness, privilege, irrationality and discrimination, which are contributing to nothing positive to our society. I wanted to create a near-future post-COVID-19 apocalypse, not to glamourize the virus, but as a reminder that, if we don’t come together and do our part to flatten the curve and end the discrimination, this could very possibly be our future. I purposely chose two empowered Asian women as the high-fashion survivors of the apocalypse, to show that we are not the virus. These faces aren’t the faces of someone who is contracting coronavirus, but the faces of fearless, beautiful and powerful individuals who are coming forward to remind us, that if we don’t do our part, then we might really end this world for good.
What has been the public’s reaction to your project?
Fortunately, I’ve been getting a lot of very positive engagement from this shoot. It’s not rare that in the sea of heart eye emojis and “YASSSS” comments, that I get empowered by comments of audiences feeling empowered to share their stories or supporting the message. One comment that made me cry goes something like, “I love this a lot, but hate the fact that this shoot has to be created.” As much as I love these photographs, I really wish we didn’t have the (pretty primitive) tendency to be discriminatory and play the blame game in an era of pandemic.
Although, there was one person who felt like the promotional video (created by the amazing Randy Vu) was a jab toward President Donald Trump, since it features a short clip on him calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” or the “Kung Flu.” I wanted to clarify that this shoot was never an attack toward him, but more toward his poor choice of words. Yes, what he said might be harmless, but many racist supremacists out there might feel motivated (for the wrong reasons) to be even more racist when the President uses that tone of diction. Another person mistook my message of compassion and kindness as “calling social distancing evil,” which I definitely do not support. I believe that we should all be as selfless and responsible by keeping our distance physically, but do remember to be kind to others and call/text your loved ones.
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⚠️ HATE IS A VIRUS ⚠️ I personally wanted this video to be surreal;in the sense that the visuals were the world we were creating but with audio of what's actually happening right. the "world" we were creating was a near future apocalypse caused by, not the COVID-19 itself, but our selfish human behavior destroying everythibg. I wish this was a fictional dystopia we were creating. the fantastic @therandyvu did a phenomenal job producing this, highlighting the very terrifying & disheartening xenophobia that's happening right now.we might all be hurting from this pandemic,but remember that even with the social distancing,to be as human as possible.love thy number&treat each other with kindness.one more thing, this virus does not DISCIMINATE! why are we doing that? it's sad that in 2020, ALL Asians worldwide have to face the extremely ignorant discimination. WE ARE NOT A VIRUS, HATE IS A VIRUS, ONE THATS FAR WORSE THAN THE CORONAVIRUS ITSELF! Photography & Creative Direction: @reinhardtkenneth Special thanks to @havencitymarket for the Hospitality Producer: @bangthomasbang Fashion Stylist: @michellewustylist Campaign Supporter: @mkhanabusa of @uprisers.world Fashion: @thearchshow , @dianamputri , @weareuprisers__ , @imngo , @jzj_zlatko , @realkennethbarlis , @romaintheveninparis & @thegregorykara Lighting Director: @lumis_memorie Make Up Artist: @eiko_1115_watanabe Hair Stylist: @carisadoesbeauty Videography: @therandyvu & @joestrange Models: @meilivzheng of @mazzamodels & @priscillaxns Photographer's Assistant: @jenna_nikole & @rieannon #ThePhotographicSense #HateisAVirus
Tell us how COVID-19 has affected you professionally, financially and emotionally.
I’m very fortunate that I’m a creative person. Yes, in some ways COVID-19 might harm parts of my life, but I haven’t been this creative, motivated and unbothered by the outside world as I’ve been the last few weeks. I’ve been so productive, and thankfully, the healthiest I’ve been both physically and emotionally, thanks to the lack of distractions, obviously. However, I do miss being around my loved ones; although, if anything, I’m heavily in contact with them now more than ever.
How do you think people’s view of life and perception of what is truly important will be affected after weeks of self-isolation?
This pandemic has really flipped everything upside down. New York is asleep, Disney is no longer magical and Paris is no longer romantic. Suddenly, staying away from your parents and elderly people are acts of kindness, and hugs and kisses are deadly. This, to me, is a strong reminder that we are just specks of dust in this universe, we are so small and powerless, compared to the wonders of nature, and one outbreak could possibly wipe us out if we are not careful.
It’s a reminder that this life is truly a valuable gift. It makes every single simple moment and acts of kindness so much more valuable. The fact that Earth is doing so well (25 per cent less pollution in China, the country who produces 30 per cent of the Earth’s pollution, the waters being clear in Venice, Italy, etc.), and that the virus started from animals are a reminders that it is our job to contribute to the health of the Earth, or we, too, will be treated like viruses by the planet’s “antibodies.”
One more thing that I hope people will understand is that there’s no point in hate and discrimination, and that love and compassion are the best cure.
Walk us through a typical day prior to COVID-19 and how your daily routine is now that you are in self-isolation.
I actually work from home, unless there’s a photo shoot, obviously. So this self-isolation is a pretty similar routine to my pre-quarantine days.
I wake up around 8 a.m., do my morning prayers, check on my phone, stretch in my room, make my bed, go for a morning walk/run, take my morning shower and all that jazz, put on moisturizer, make myself some brunch (yes, I combine both meals) as I watch an inspiring video (or a Studio Ghibli movie), sanitize everything and do my dishes (even better now than ever), get some work done up till dinner time, get a little more work done, call my family and friends, watch a movie or play video games, sometimes over wine (currently playing Pokémon Shield and Animal Crossing: New Horizons), do my nightly prayer and get some rest (after I go through my phone again, obviously).
Obviously, pre-quarantine I would go out some days to do meetings, lunch or dinner, coffee or matcha runs or to grab a drink with friends. Those parts of my life have vanished, at least, hopefully, until June – ha ha.
What will be the first thing you will do once the ban on staying home is lifted?
As cautious as I’ll be (yes, I will be sporting designer face masks and gloves), I’ll most likely see my friends and family again. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll probably party and socialize, like I just turned 21 again. Plus, I’d love to start travelling again; hopefully, Japan is a possibility at the end of this year. All good things aside, the most important thing is to spread kindness and compassion, and triumph hate, but this time physically, without social distancing.
I hope by then, not only do we beat the COVID-19 pandemic, but we beat the xenophobic pandemic as well.
Reinhardt Kenneth is an Indonesian fashion/celebrity photographer, based in Los Angeles. Through his dynamic and fantastical work, Reinhardt always tries to leave a deeper message in his photographs, whether it’s empowerment, awareness or compassion. As a self-taught photographer since the age of 14, the 1997-born artist hopes to not only create aesthetically pleasing images, but, leave an impact on the audiences’ lives. Reinhardt has previously been featured in Vogue Italia, the Louvre’s Digital Exhibition, Art Basel Miami, LA Art Show and many more.
“Leaving my mark, one shot at a time”
Photography & creative direction: Reinhardt Kenneth Special thanks to Haven City Market for the hospitality
Producer: Thomas Bang
Fashion stylist: Michelle Wu
Campaign supporter: Michelle K Hanabusa at Uprisers World & Hate is a Virus
Fashion: Special thanks to The Archives & Showroom, featuring looks from Diana Couture, Michael Ngo, Kenneth Barlis, Gregory Kara, Zlatko Jovanovski, Weird Brain Creation, Roman Thevenin Paris & The One&Only UPRISERS
Lighting director: Summer Wuerthner
Makeup artist: Eiko Watanabe
Hair stylist: Carisa Arellano
Videography: Randy Vu & Joe Rojas
Models: Mei Li Zheng at Mazza Models & Priscila Natalina
Photographer’s assistants: Jenna Nikole & Rieannon #ThePhotographicSense
Interview by Michelle Zerillo-Sosa