The Lams of Ludlow Street Follows a Chinatown Family Over Almost 20 Years

All images by Thomas Holton. Used with permission.

“My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your instincts and your heart.” says photographer Thomas Holton in our interview with him about his project The Lams of Ludlow Street. “If something ‘feels’ right to you as a curious and engaged photographer, keep making work and pay attention to the narrative you want to tell.” This is part of the motivation behind the series, which is currently part of a larger exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. In a way, Thomas’ answers reflect him trying to find his tribe–something all of us suffer from in some way or another. And like any good narrative, he shows that life is a series of ups and downs.

Editor’s Note: This interview was done by former staffer Julien Matabuena. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was taken over by Editor in Chief Chris Gampat in December 2018. The answers in this interview reflect this. Thomas is also giving a talk about the project on the 16th for all those interested.

Phoblographer: Hello, Tom! Please tell us about The Lams of Ludlow Street. When and how did this project start?

Thomas: The Lams project began in 2003 when I was lucky enough to accompany a local housing advocate on her weekly visits to local Chinatown families. I was interested in seeing life behind closed doors and to learn more about the daily experiences of the residents. I am half Chinese and had relatives living in the area but never fully felt “as one” with the neighborhood or the culture. So what began as a documentary-based photography project evolved into something much more personal.

“It has been incredibly interesting because I have seen their family go through so many changes and ups and downs and realized how “normal” that is for families throughout the world. Life is not so easily scripted so I learned so much about how challenging life can be for everybody, myself included.”

Phoblographer: Please tell us about the Lams, especially Cindy. How did you meet them? What made you decide to put the spotlight on them?

Thomas: I first met Cindy in 2003 on the home visits with the housing advocate. She in the youngest of the three Lams children and is now 18 years old. The day I first met them, the mother (Shirley) was very welcoming to me and invited me to stay for dinner after I had visited a few times. I had met several families up to this point but none had invited [me] to stay longer than a few photographs much less stay for dinner. My weekly visits became a ritual which has continued to this day (with a few breaks and occasional interruptions). I very much look forward to saying “hello” every week or so.

Phoblographer: What’s the experience like, following a family and documenting through photography their lives over the years? How were you able to gain their trust?

Thomas: It has been incredibly interesting because I have seen their family go through so many changes and ups and downs and realized how “normal” that is for families throughout the world. Life is not so easily scripted so I learned so much about how challenging life can be for everybody, myself included. I think I was able to gain their trust by being committed to seeing them every week and not being simply satisfied with accomplishing my goals as a photographer. We became friends and learned so much about each of our lives by simply talking and being honest with each other.

Phoblographer: What message were you trying to convey with The Lams of Ludlow Street?

Thomas: That life is a series of ups and downs and never perfected scripted no matter where you’re from.

Phoblographer: Could you share with us any memorable story or stories you have while shooting this series?

Thomas: Cindy was the Flower Girl at my wedding which was amazing and a reminder that life is funny. There I was getting married and the little girl from my “photography project” was walking down the aisle as our flower girl. How strange and beautiful!

Phoblographer: What’s your favorite image from this series? Please tell us about it.

Thomas: I have several favorites but one is “Supergirl”. Cindy did not have the easiest adolescence with her parents breaking up, she moved between Chinatown apartments constantly sleeping somewhere else every week and just basically having a challenging High School experience. So the image of her wearing a Superman shirt I love because I know how tough she is and how difficult her teen years were at times.

Phoblographer: Currently, you have three sets of photos for The Lams of Ludlow Street on your website. Do you intend to continue this, perhaps sometime in the future?

Thomas: Yes! I am still making new work now. Life doesn’t just stop because the Lams book came out so I continue to see them as much as I can. Two kids are off in college so my image making has been sporadic of late but the holidays are coming up, so most of the family should be around.

Phoblographer: What advice could you share with other photographers who also want to pursue long term projects such as yours? Perhaps how to find their subjects, how to gain their trust, what other things to remember, and the like.

Thomas: My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your instincts and your heart. If something “feels” right to you as a curious and engaged photographer, keep making work and pay attention to the narrative you want to tell. To meet people I recommend to go knock on doors, make many phone call and always smile. You always need to have some image to show to help
people understand your ideas so keep some on your phone or create a website as well.

“I have several favorites but one is “Supergirl”. Cindy did not have the easiest adolescence with her parents breaking up, she moved between Chinatown apartments constantly sleeping somewhere else every week and just basically having a challenging High School experience. So the image of her wearing a Superman shirt I love because I know how tough she is and how difficult her teen years were at times.”

Phoblographer: Now let’s talk about you. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

Thomas: I am half Chinese and half American and originally from New York City. The Lams work was originally an exploration into what life was like in Chinatown because I felt detached from half of my identity so that is what drove me to investigate the neighborhood and luckily meet the Lams.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

Thomas: My father was a photographer so I grew up surrounded by the medium and began making my own work in high school and then college. I enrolled in a few summer photography classes and decided to pursue photography after graduating from college.

Phoblographer: What inspires you?

Thomas: I am inspired by thoughtful and personal photography projects where the photographer is clearly lead by their heart and minds.

Phoblographer: What subjects do you like photographing most?

Thomas: I enjoy photographing people the most because of the shared experience we had together that would not have happened if it wasn’t for my desire to make photographs. Photography is also an excuse to go out and engage in the world and experiences new moments…it is way too easy to stay at home and watch TV.

Phoblographer: Please tell us about the gear you use nowadays.

Thomas: I am currently using a Nikon D810 with a Zeiss 35mm lens.