13 01 2015
By Bella Capezio
When I first saw Sean Lee’s self-published ‘Shauna’ (2014) I leafed through the pages and caught glimpses of a lady boy within the dark tones of the book. But it was not until I realised the woman featured in the images was the photographer himself did I look at the book again from start to finish carefully considering each image. I became intrigued by what would compel a photographer to suddenly take hold of such a character, to turn the camera on himself as he explores what it means to look and feel more feminine, and what it means to integrate himself into the seedy underworlds of Cambodia and Singapore. When I got the opportunity to probe Sean about his experiences face-to-face at this year’s Angkor Photo Festival I found his responses humble and considered. After many years playing this role, forming friendships with other lady boys Sean Lee has developed a unique insight into the differences between actor and director, between curiosity and necessity.
Sean’s work echoes the conceptual curiosity of Sophie Calle blended with the self portraiture of Cindy Sherman; he built his ‘Shauna’ character not as an anthropological study of ‘transgenderism’ but as a personal and cinematic study of obsession, curiosity, gender bias and persecution.
B: At a basic level your imagery speaks to me about identity and sexuality, how did you deal with the process of self-portraiture and some contentious issues surrounding your approach?
S: I found it liberating, because I don’t have the burden of documenting other people’s lives, who I am to do that? If I was to approach this as a man I could be initially seen as a potential client, and it would be a story from the outside looking in. I wanted to commit to ‘Shauna’ and to do that I had to uncover different feelings from within, and this was very much about knowing myself, allowing the transformation to happen and taking full responsibility.
Another reason I focused the camera on myself was because I would not have to deal with the grey and complicated areas of gaining or taking advantage of other people’s positions in life. If my work was only about others and my images got published then it would personally become very complicated. I was conscious of that and the aftereffects, of what moral repercussion I could feel after. So sticking to self portraiture I came to recognise what it was to lose yourself in a character and create a story from my perspective, not about difference, not about equality but about human emotions we all have the capacity for – longing and loneliness.
B: ‘Shauna’ was not initially shot for book form, what were the reasons you decided to self publish this series in a photobook almost five years later?
S: When I was young I never imagined compiling this work into a book, for then it was just pictures. Years later I realised it was very important to give the story some final form. If you imagine someone writing a book they do not begin at the very first page and continue writing in a linear fashion right until the end, the series took many forms for exhibitions but completing a final form for others to view was also for me some closure to a time that was very informative and transformative. When you make the book you have to accept that this is one of the many possible narratives that could translate to audiences and each individual who views it will have their own interpretation of it.
B: Some people consider this approach to photography commendable while others see it as trickery, how can you explore social or political issues visually while not solidifying any concrete answers? How can photography be a useful tool to investigate complex ideas?
S: When I realised I could get into this space of a character, it became another form of understanding, unlike reading a book it is felt from within, there is something redeeming from performing well and committing yourself. I didn’t know how I would be received, or what I would find out before I began the work, because if I already had the answers I probably wouldn’t have started. Transforming into Shauna demanded a huge commitment and responsibility, so it goes beyond acting, it seems to be that whatever people say I have to accept, including the criticisms and stigmas that may be placed by society… I know that this book would be received differently if I was transgender, or homosexual, or a woman trying to be a man, and I don’t know how people will react, but I do know that if anyone speaks to any one I worked with through this project they wouldn’t have anything bad to say. Dipping in and out of character I always had the chance to reflect. There came a point when I felt so comfortable as Shauna that the project was not progressing; the only other option at that point was to go one step further and actually sleep with a client – I couldn’t do this either so I had to stop.
B: Shauna is a very personal work, what philosophical considerations were made during your time portraying Shuana?
S: Photography leading life or life leading photography: when photography leads life, you can find yourself documenting lives that are far more disenfranchised than you are, because you need a story and photography is leading that life. But when life leads photography and you are in a unique position and you have a camera you then feel you are not making compromises and so it feels more natural. I can give you an example, in making this work Shuana and five years later making the edit, in this work I am trying to perform in a story that I direct. I asked myself: ‘would it have been possible to really know them, to know what it would be like to be born a male and spend your whole life feeling like a woman?’ I was never in the position where I had to sell my body to live, my life has been about learning, and playing but their youth is a commodity that can be sold, so for me to say; ‘I understand what it is like to be a lady boy’ is hypocritical and untrue.
It was a complicated situation, obviously, but what I felt during the time I spent as a lady boy with my friends who were lady boys and what I wish to convey is more a story about empathy, because even though I don’t know completely what it is like to have to sell your body for money, I do know what it is like to be lonely. So when I compiled the work I tried to make the series about longing, while incorporating images about friendship because friendship is an important aspect of any community that is often ostracised by others. I get the sense that everyone is looking for someone.
B: What are you excited to be working on right now? Do you plan to publish any books in the near future?
S: Right now my family work is very personal and as long as they continue to live I will continue to photograph them. So maybe in ten years, I don’t want to be in a rush, I want to take my time because I can see how time effects the work, and also if I want to make a book, I want to make it when I know I will not visit the work again.
B: Are you shooting images of your family specifically for a photobook?
S: If I came up with the idea first and knew its final outcome was a book I would be too concerned with the images and where they go. I don’t want to be in the position where I don’t shoot something because it doesn’t fit the form I have in mind, so I want to be in a position to shoot whatever I please, and then after many years I will be engulfed with sea of images, and then maybe I can make many little books. Now I print everything I like and put it on the wall let it flow from there.