Lee Wei Swee, the photographer of this “Karma” issue, belongs to a new generation of artists who no longer differentiate between aesthetics and ethics. Between two photoshoots for Antidote, he discusses the principles of his collective and spiritual photographic practice, which centers a deconstruction of the gaze as a foundation for new forms of representation.
ANTIDOTE:How has your background influenced your unique practice of fashion photography?
LEE WEI SWEE: I grew up in Switzerland with my father – a two-time immigrant – who is Chinese from Malaysia, and my mother, who is Swiss-Italian. My father made a point of being a model citizen – he didn’t have a criminal record, always spoke French at home, etc. – and my creative identity may have developed as a counterpoint to his situation, by appealing to the strange, to friction. As an Asian person, I did not experience direct discrimination or violence, but I always felt that I was not considered a peer, that I was not “culturally identical” to the people in the village of the district of Vaud where I grew up. My academic path was quite conventional in a way and did not go against my parents’ wishes: I studied photography at the ECAL in Lausanne, a great school, but one that I found, at the time, to have a hyper-normative relationship to photography. The work I do today is not at all representative of this school. After my studies, I worked in a landscaping company for a while to pay for my equipment, then I went to Antwerp, Belgium. I was impressed by the experimental relationship to fashion that pervades this scene, where a lot of young designers come together around a rather different, kind of “cracky” vision. My time in this city was very influential on my photography.
Nigina Sharipova: Dress, Mugler.
How was your desire to become a fashion photographer born?
When I was 16, a friend of mine gave me a DVD set called Work of Directors. It included commercial work and music videos by Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Chris Cunningham, among others, as well as the making ofs for each of these works. This series made me aware of the power of the video, of the possibility of alluding to many subjects in the span of three minutes. It was my first prompt. Afterwards, at ECAL, I discovered SHOWstudio, founded by Nick Knight, and loved his collaborations with Björk and Alexander McQueen. ECAL wasn’t really geared towards training fashion photographers, but discovering his vision – his ability to bridge the gap between fashion and art – and his work for Yohji Yamamoto and Marc Ascoli in the 1990s, was an eye-opener. It became clear to me then that fashion photography was a medium that could allow me to combine a lot of different practices, like “mini-operas,” requiring the intermingling of several skills: decor, make-up, nail art… This approach really spoke to me.
What gives you the energy to get up in the morning?
My job, first of all: meeting people, shooting. And above all, to infuse more spirituality into my work and to contribute to redefine new codes of representation for women and sexiness in fashion – especially as a straight male photographer. Luxury should no longer be an affirmation of social superiority. We’ve gone from the “century of the self” to the “century of the selfie,” and this has had positive impact: it allows underrepresented populations to learn to love themselves.
And what keeps you up at night?
Anything that has to do with politics! The need to strategize about creative impulses takes a lot of energy out of these important issues, which many people in the fashion industry are trying to expand on at the moment.
Maartje Convens: Body, Mugler.
How did you come up with the photoshoots for this issue and its theme, “Karma”?
I wanted to create a relatively experimental, organic process, where everyone’s voice would be heard on set. It’s essential for me to do away with hierarchies, with the kind of author position you’d find at Cahiers du cinéma, which doesn’t really make sense to me anymore. I prefer to work around group energies. It’s almost like a Buddhist precept: the quest for ego abandonment. On set, the idea was not so much to lay out this theme explicitly, but rather to create a relationship of respect, of non-objectification, to make sense of the photoshoot in the process, rather than in the result. As Björk rightly explained in discussing her collaborations with Michel Gondry [who directed eight videos for the singer, editor’s note], happiness does not lie so much in the success that their videos might have had, but rather in the energy and effervescence of the creative process.
Is there a shoot for this issue of Antidote that had a particular impact on you?
Yes, the one with Béatrice Dalle, with whom I felt a connection very quickly. We discovered our common musical tastes and energies. I wanted her to have fun on the photoshoot and she did!
You talked about bringing more spirituality into your work. How do you implement this?
It’s about thinking about fashion and beauty as offerings, and about deconstructing the photographer’s gaze. I realized that I had to rethink some of the more obvious reflexes of photography. Phoebe Philo, for example, had a great impact on me when she argued for a desexualized female gaze. It is only in the last fifteen years or so that we have deconstructed the way of looking that John Berger summarized when he wrote: “Men dream of women, women dream of themselves being dreamt of.” When I photograph a woman, my priority is to make her the recipient of the photograph. This shift in the gaze appears essential to me for our generation. It seems to me that we are much more inclined to deconstruct this gaze, to think of creation as collective action.
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