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When the news first broke that victims of the Atlanta-area spa shootings included six Asian women, Sirui Ma had just begun working on the second edition of her zine, a limited edition photo book.
Called New York Street Style, Ma’s 2018 edition was a love letter to the effortless style of New York City’s Asian community – shot on an iPhone while roaming around New York City.
“I think there’s so much dignity in the way these people carry themselves and go about their lives,” Ma told Insider. “They really enrich the New York City life and culture through just having immigrated to New York; I think it’s really beautiful.”
Images of countless Asian elders going about their day— crossing the street, reading the newspaper, observing a flyer, taking breaks — filled her camera roll.
They later became her body of work.
But since her first edition first premiered, racial violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have skyrocketed.
For Ma, what began as an accidental documentation of street style for Asian elders in New York City, became a visual monument to the resilience of a community under attack.
“I just feel like immigrant people have this kind of endless tirelessness in their heart, but it breaks my heart knowing these people get attacked randomly or just laughed at,” she said.
People may think the elderly are more frail, less likely to fight back, and because they don’t speak English, may not report to the police, but they’re reporting to us.Russel Jeung, San Francisco State University
Last year, Stop AAPI Hate received 126 reported cases involving 60-year olds and up being physically assaulted, nearly five percent more than the Asian American population overall.
Ma often flashed back to stylish elders she captured, in their laid back attire: a Nike-sporting Asian woman who was already wearing a mask as she handed out pamphlets pre-pandemic. Or the elegant women rocking a blue button-up blouse lined with a Mandarin collar. She reminded Ma of her grandmother.
“She just came downstairs from her house for a stroll,” she told Insider. “She was just walking with a beautiful posture.”
Not everyone who captured Ma’s attention and the camera’s lens had a style that could be described as refined. Some of the elders she photographed were dressed in garments that encouraged comfort.
Ma thought back to the cobbler who had a tiny little wooden deck next to a grocery vendor in Chinatown. She captured his photo as he smoked a cigarette while gluing her broken shoe back together.
There was also an elderly man who pulled up to a shop as she waited for a friend, his old car filled with mostly personal items and plastic bottles.
In limited Mandarin, he told Ma he stayed active after having stomach surgery by collecting bottles around the city for nearly 12 hours every night. By 6am, he would drive to the recycling center to redeem his five cents per bottle.
The pair briefly became pals, spotting each other a handful of times since then. But the last time Ma saw the neighborhood canner was in 2019.
Ma worried about his experiences now as reports of attacks against Asian elderly go viral nearly every week. She kept the names of elders featured hidden from the public for their safety.
Russell Jeung, chair of the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University, told Insider, “People may think the elderly are more frail, less likely to fight back, and because they don’t speak English, may not report to the police, but they’re reporting to us.”
Stop AAPI Hate announced that verbal harassment (68.1%) and shunning (20.5%) were the two largest incidents reported as part of nearly 4,000 hate crimes registered last year.
The data represents only a fraction of what occurs in the day to day of Asian Americans and immigrants. Many incidents of verbal and online assault and harassment go unreported.
According to an Ipsos survey, 60% of Asian Americans reported having witnessed someone blame Asian people for the spread of COVID-19. Across the country, their communities have become a scapegoat for a global pandemic and the recession it created.
They’ve also become the target of racist attacks.
Ma told Insider the community elders she’s featured remain vulnerable.
“You would think that when we get old, someone would want to protect us right?” she adds. “People of color shouldn’t be dealing with this, people of color shouldn’t have to educate white people about not being racist, it’s their job because they created this system.”
As these attacks gained widespread attention, from Instagram posts to national news, like many, Ma felt hopeless, aimless. But, to the photographer, “it also just felt even more urgent to get it [the latest edition] out and raise as much money as possible.”
You don’t have to sell a sob story when you’re telling these stories. You can celebrate the beauty and celebrate the fact that they’re just like us.Sirui Ma
In support of civil rights charity, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the second edition of New York Street Style includes 40 new photos taken on Ma’s iPhone since the first release in 2018.
Since first discovering photography at an early age in Beijing, the art became a way for Ma to claim space for herself and her community amid Asian American erasure and violence. With the rise of attacks against Asian elders, screaming into the void of social media was not enough for the photographer.
She told Insider capturing photos of elders to told their stories without “submitting to trauma porn.”
“You don’t have to sell a sob story when you’re telling these stories,” Ma said. “You can celebrate the beauty and celebrate the fact that they’re just like us.”
While the zine keeps the individuals photographed anonymous, this second collection of images displays how Sirui sees her community, which is not defined by its trauma, but instead shows pride in its heritage and resiliency.
“I think of the way immigrant communities enrich our lives. We need to hold each other, and we need to really appreciate one another because, you know, a place like New York City or London is not the same without its diverse population,” she said.