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Shoot For Equality


By Jee Leong Koh, 13 September 2017

(Cover photo: Yoshi Matsuzaki)

For Yoshi Matsuzaki

Shoot me, I asked the young bartender at Dorothy’s. Recognizing my tank top from social media, Yoshi had confided, in a tone that was alarmingly confident, his aspiration to be a professional photographer. One confidence invited another. I told him my secret wish to be shot in the nude before my body went irretrievably downhill. I was looking for Mapplethorpe, whose name sounds like a flower and a bullet. Yoshi and I sealed the deal by downing shots.

Life is not one big hill, but a series of hills, said my young graphic designer friend, who thought in pictures. When I go running in Central Park, I number the up slopes—1, 2a, 2b, 3+, Final 4—to divide and conquer them. But under all the ups and downs is the topographic fact of Manhattan island. From Battery Park, it goes slowly and unequally up to the top and then it drops precipitously down to Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

I was shot into my mother and I have been dying ever since. To shoot is to take revenge on my father. My poor father, who shot his lungs to pieces with cigarettes and flooded his feet with water the heart cannot get rid of.

To be photographed is to be killed in a real sense. The person is shot into the past, mummified. JaireRemyW, who directed the shoot on top of People’s Park Complex, had me slather myself all over with body moisturizer. Not posing oil, it would look too slick. Only now do I realize that I was covering my body with embalming fluid.

The word “firearm” sounds so much more dangerous than the word “gun.” But you’d prefer to be fire-armed than to be gunned down. Shoot me, if you can. I’m not holding up my hands. I’m hiding a snub-nosed firearm somewhere under the rainbow.

Before going to Greece last summer, I handed over my flip-phone for a smarter one. I kept shooting myself shirtless in the mirror of all the hotel rooms, I told my young art historian friend. She had read Teju Cole’s defense of Instagram against the charges of narcissism and commodification. She can’t believe, she said, that he’s so uncritical of corporate power. I haven’t read Cole but I imagine that he desires creative self-expression and decentralized documentation. In other words, I imagine he is like me. He wants to shoot, and not to be shot.

Put down the flag. Take off the top. And you’re left with the wingless animal, afraid and shivering.

The M16 assault rifle entered U.S. military service in 1964. I entered Singapore’s National Service in 1988. Eye pressed to the rear sight, sweat soaking the grip, I learned that I was a poor shot. The foxhole slowly filled up with blank water. I could kill anyone only if I got close and emptied the magazine.

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK’s Financial Times and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. He is the author of three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. Born and raised in Singapore, he lives in New York City, where he heads the literary non-profit Singapore Unbound, dedicated to the struggle for freedom of expression and equal rights for all. 

Around mid-July 2017, Koh triggered some discussion around appropriate attire for the gym. There was nothing literally indecent about what he wore that day, but several other gym users thought otherwise; as is wont to happen now that people are easily offended by, well, just about everything. The incident inspired a photo shoot, featuring Koh, by Yoshi Matsuzaki, with art direction by JaireRemyW. This haiga, in turn, responds to the incident and photo shoot.

For details of the tank top incident in Singapore: