Spend 23 minutes with

Alexandra Leese

& Mo Mfinanga

 
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  • Published on May 19, 2019
  • Photograph by Maxwell Tomlinson
 
 

Alexandra Leese is a photographer and filmmaker who was born in Hong Kong. Despite leaving her homeland when she was 11 to live in London, the country remains as close to her heart as it is to her heritage. Her break out series, book, film, and exhibition, Boys of Hong Kong, cemented this synergy when Leese returned to make photographs to, “show diversity within Asian masculinity and celebrate their beauty.” It also forged our friendship.

Leese’s sensitivity to her subjects moved me to commission an interview with her for Dazed Digital. Unlike some photographers who prefer to speak in the language of visuals, Leese's words held up against the weight of her images and she has continued to intrigue and impress me. The empathy in which she approaches her subjects drills beyond simple aesthetics; she interprets ideas which others have struggled to do through words alone.

Ashleigh Kane, Arts & Culture Editor at Dazed

 

Just to let you know

Photographs with nudity are below.


 

Mo: What've you been up to lately?

Alexandra: I've been having a lot of meetings recently because the fashion season is about to start again. I've had time to reflect on what I did last season and had time to think about more personal work. Sometimes when you go, go, go you kind of don't know where you're at until you take a step back.

Mo: What have you realized through looking back?

Alexandra: I think this year has been about doing work that I really love and also doing personal work alongside my fashion work because I find that really grounding. I also find it important to your work as a whole because it allows you to remember who you are and what you love as an artist or photographer. Fashion is great, but sometimes you don't have the complete creative freedom so you need these personal journeys to remind you what you would do if you had that freedom. [laughing]

Mo: What are you looking to do within your personal work? Is it different from last year or are you refining premeditated ideas?

Alexandra: I'm still very curious about masculinity and exploring that more. I'm quite interested in the body at the moment, [such as] nudity and the power, symbolism, and politics that is associated with the body—and how its used to say so many different things. Like, what does it mean culturally? Women's bodies have been used so long for the male gaze and women are kind of taking back control of that, what does this mean and how are they doing that, and where does this leave men and all topics attached to this. Also, there's a kind of interesting relation between nudity and sex and how people immediately associate one with the other. It's like nudity must equal sex but actually it doesn't. We've made it such a taboo and when something's taboo it almost becomes a bigger deal. It's the most natural state to be in but we've created such a fuss around it.

Mo: I think as humans when we're told 'no' towards something we're naturally more inclined to explore that. Don't touch the stove because it's hot but you know you're going to. [both laughing]

Alexandra: It's interesting because of the shame attached to nudity and sex. Look at Instagram when they take down images because there's a nipple in it. I understand that there needs to be certain guidelines, but in terms of art and making the body beautiful, I think there's nothing wrong with someone seeing a nude body from a young age.

 
I think my fascination is with human beings and how we identify with ourselves and others.
— Alexandra Leese
 
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Sexuality
 

Mo: What was your concept of sexuality or nudity in your upbringing?

Alexandra: I always assumed the nudity thing wasn't an issue at all, but I don't think we talked about it as a topic—my parents are pretty chill.

Mo: Did you ever get the birds and bees talk?

Alexandra: I didn't really! I have an older sister who did that for me in a brief conversation, and a quick contraception chat with my mom, I think. [both laughing] So you grew up in Detroit, yeah?

Mo: Yep, my upbringing was relatively conservative since my parents are Muslim. But it's funny because when I was 4 my dad never told me to go away when he'd watch something like Scarface, so I grew up fast. [both laughing]

Mo: I want to talk more about your upbringing, though. In your formative years, was there anyone that indicated that you could pursue a creative career?

Alexandra: I was always creative as a kid. My parents have a creative streak; my dad is an interior designer and my mom was always really good at drawing. They're both into art and we'd go to exhibitions and grew up with art in the house. So I had an appreciation for it from a young age, and I was encouraged to draw and paint. I wanted to be a painter for a long time,  although I had a brief stint when I was a kid where I wanted to be a vet because I was obsessed with animals.

Mo: How long did that last?

Alexandra: [laughing] It actually wasn't brief! It was a few years and I'm still obsessed with them. I think my fascination is with human beings and how we identify with ourselves and others. I always say that if I wasn't a photographer, I'd love to study psychology or do something with the human mind since I find it fascinating. I used to paint and I went to Chelsea College of Arts on my foundation and I wanted to pursue a fine art degree but then I discovered photography and everything changed. I was a late bloomer, I guess, in terms of being a photographer. I wasn't someone who had a camera from day one.

Mo: I kind of feel like it's a happenstance with a good number of people. It can happen in your childhood or adulthood—by accident or not.

Alexandra: Yeah, I think that happens a lot with creatives. You find it and you're like woah, this is what I need to be doing.

 
 
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Boys of Hong Kong
I went in having an idea of what I wanted to find out and what I found was even better.
— Alexandra Leese
 


Mo: What do you find to be one of the most fulfilling attributes of being surrounded by creatives and involved in the creative world?

Alexandra: Being in this career and being surrounded by people who are like-minded, there is a strong sense of community but it's also very engaging all the time. People are trying to push boundaries and it's nice to be around that energy. It feels like you're part of something bigger in a way that means something and can inspire people and inspire change. Making work people can relate to is really important because you never know what that can do for someone.

Alexandra: I actually watched this amazing documentary called How Art Began. Anthony Gormley does the show and he takes you back literally to 50,000 years ago and you realize that people were making cave paintings before they could make paintbrushes. They would eat the charcoal from their fire pits and then spit out the black pigment onto the wall and create these paintings. It made me realize that there is almost this primal need to express ourselves and explore our existence in whatever way we can, and through doing so helps us understand and be ourselves more fully.

Alexandra: Some people can think that art is just a hobby or a luxury, but the documentary reinforces that it’s actually an integral part of being human. I went to the Tracy Emin show at the White Cube quite recently and I found it very inspiring mostly because of just how personal it was. She's putting her deepest self into her work for everyone to see and it makes it extremely emotive and powerful. There was a screening of a video taken a few years after her abortion where she's talking about this very dark experience. After the whole saga, she gave up everything and had a bit of a breakdown. She eventually went back to art but realized through this kind of earth shattering event that she couldn’t go back to just making anything; it had to mean something. So that was interesting to see—almost like art saved her in a way. There's a lot of art out there which are just pretty pictures and that's great—it works for some people. But I think, for me, the most powerful work is work that comes from a deeper place.

Mo: It's amazing that we have so many options now to talk and learn about the things that we both love and worry us. Art is the intersection of that, I believe. With that, it gives us artists the responsibility—if we choose—to champion that.

Alexandra: I think everyone perceives the world differently. So I think it's really important to try to stay true to your own perception because that is when you find you're producing work that’s most true to you. I think within my fashion work I try to do that. And within my personal work, again, it's the same but you can delve deeper. I start a lot of my personal work as an exploration of a topic but I don’t necessarily have the answers, so in doing the project I get to learn more. So it's usually things that I'm curious about or fascinate me in some way.

Alexandra: Essentially your personal work should be for you, not for anyone else. The idea is that by doing so you hope to create work that you're proud of but also work people can relate to and draw inspiration from. If it inspires someone to take action, or even spark a thought that wasn’t there before, then maybe you can start something quite powerful and the topic grows and takes on its own momentum.

Mo: For people who aren't familiar with your work, what’s a case that supports that idea?

Alexandra: I believe my Boys of Hong Kong project. It was about two different things: stereotypes towards Asian men and masculinity. I'm in no way saying that I was the one who instigated the movement, but it was released at a good time; a time when people were ready to start talking about masculinity and to make the changes needed, as well as a time where people were beginning to push diversity and broach this topic in a more powerful way. So it was received really well and it took on its own momentum and became part of something much greater. Getting people to just think and talk is important. I mean, conversations are powerful.

Alexandra: Just ask questions! I think the people who ask questions learn so much about the world or how things aren't or haven’t always been the way that we think they are. For example, the color pink, which is strongly associated with girls, was actually a color associated with boys 100 years ago… not sure that’s the strongest example I could’ve used [laughing], but when we ask questions we learn very fast that nothing is concrete, and most things are constructs that can be changed. Recognizing this ever-changing evolution of how we think is freeing in a way.

Mo: I think curiosity is the most dangerous yet beautiful thing we have. It allows us explore things that we normally don't which can lead to unfamiliar but exciting results. It's one of the biggest things I hope people remind themselves to be: curious. After all, photography is a curious medium.

 
 
Boys of Hong Kong

A series of intimate portraits presenting a spectrum of the city’s young men, aimed at dismantling stereotypes of Asian masculinity and celebrating the diversity of male beauty in Hong Kong.

 
 

Mo: I wonder if you've pursued a topic in your work that yielded results you didn't expect. If so, what's an example of that?

Alexandra: I think with the Boys of Hong Kong project I didn't know what to expect. In that way, it was a great surprise that it went the way that it did. I went in having an idea of what I wanted to find out and what I found was even better. I think one of the best moments was with the two youngest Boys that I shot. It's a small insight into the way that generation thinks and behaves. They were so open-minded and unfazed by certain things that older generations would of not been comfortable with, so that was really refreshing. They were so at ease being affectionate with each other, and unfortunately I think traditional notions of masculinity has not allowed  many men to feel safe being intimate with their friends in that way. Obviously that's a generalization but it’s still a huge issue that needs to be addressed, and those two boys gave me hope that this issue can and is being overcome in the next generation.

Mo: It harps back to what we were talking about earlier in how if you don't put a light towards something that should be inspected more, then it's going to stay the same. What do you feel like you're most excited about in your career right now?

Alexandra: I am excited about both my personal projects and my fashion work. I'm glad I can do both simultaneously and that they can bounce off each other while having the platforms to be able to do that. I want to keep pushing myself and create new and interesting work that surprises me and other people. What's really nice is that I've found a place that works for me and it takes a while to get there as a photographer or artist. You're always evolving and it feels like a weight lifts when you reach a place where you feel confident in yourself and your work while knowing who you are and what you want to say. I think that's what makes me excited about my future work—where that's going to take me.

Mo: Do you feel like you're more comfortable in the unknown than the known?

Alexandra: It's not comfortable but you're in this space where you want to keep creating interesting stuff so that you're evolving and pushing your own internal boundaries. I think that’s where you find the best stuff. Sometimes the fashion industry can teach you to stay in a safe place because maybe you get known for something and everyone wants to hire you off the back of that. I think that can make you think that you should stay in this box they want to put you in, but it's dangerous to yourself and your progress.

Mo: How do you feel like you're avoiding that?

Alexandra: I think it's always great to look at your work and analyze and reflect on it. It's nice to know what you can do better, what you like, or what you don't like. You might see something that inspires you and you want to bring a bit of that in, you know. It's kind of about analyzing your inspirations and your work. That's how I personally try to move forward if that makes sense.

Mo: Additionally, what have you recognized in your work that you want to hone in on?

Alexandra: If I look back on my work, I recognize that I really enjoy forms, bodies, people, and the way that you can compose them. Those things can take an image to a million different places. If I love something and it's working I stick with it while also pushing it further. Right now, I'm interested in composition and using that to make things more interesting.

 
 
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Mo: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced when you started off as a working photographer and is it still there?

Alexandra: When I first started, it was this whole chicken or the egg paradox. You're trying to get these commissions but you don't have the work to get the commissions. That was a challenge right at the beginning and obviously someone takes a chance on you and you go from there. It's not the same challenge now because I have a portfolio.

Mo: Who was someone that took a chance on you, and how was that experience?

Alexandra: I think I just started working with these really young magazines. I think it's so important to have that time working with young magazines when you first start out so that you can find your voice and figure yourself out before you're doing all the big stuff. You want to be in a good and confident place when you take on big jobs. I think when you're younger, you're striving to be the next big thing, but actually I look back on it and realize that it’s so valuable to have that time to grow first.

Alexandra: You need that time to figure out what you want to say with your work, what you love about it, and what you hate about. Only then do I think you'll then become the photographer you want to be, and that confidence and energy will attract the right work.

Mo: For me and maybe for yourself, I think there's an importance in gradual growth. As you said, it gives you time to marinate on the idea of who you are before you don't get the space to find that out. It's different if you lose sight of who you are at specific periods in your career than never knowing who you were.

Alexandra: I totally agree. Fashion is obsessed with youth and the next big thing, but don't feed into the sense of urgency. Relax and make mistakes so you can grow.

Mo: The context of that statement changes when you associate it with fashion because time is fashion's biggest enemy, which means that industry doesn't give much space for things or people to breath.

Alexandra: That's why it's important to do you. You can be on trend and then off trend before you know it. If you make work you love then that won't hit you as hard.

 
 
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Validation
 

Mo: How long have you been involved in the fashion world?

Alexandra: I would say about five years.

Mo: And how long did it take you to love it, and what did it take?

Alexandra: I think in any job you're going to love and hate it at some point and I probably will continue to love and hate it at various points in the future. But I am definitely at a place where I am most confident and started to really love what I do. [pause] I think previously I was trying to do work that I thought other people wanted from me, and that got me into a very stagnant place. When I started photography I felt like I had a really strong style and then I got into the industry and my mindset changed. I thought I needed to do this or that. I forgot what I wanted. I forgot how I created photos without that pressure of pleasing other people. I got to a breaking point where I was really unhappy and I took a break. This is when I did my Boys of Hong Kong project and put all my energy and focus into that. I did my own thing and was like, oh, this is who I am! I remember now! [both laughing] I forgot for four years!

Mo: What do you feel like people were expecting from you?

Alexandra: I think it was the pressure that I put on myself rather than what others put on me. When you first start out you're so eager and you're keen to look for validation through other people. Then it just dawned on me that it's a waste of time and that it’s never going to allow me to find out who I am and what I really love.

Mo: You kind of need that eagerness to then realize how unfulfilling that validation is. Jim Carrey once said something along the lines of, if you gave everyone the world a million dollars and all the fame, they'd still realize how unhappy they are. Sometimes you need all those things you want to so that you can be aware of the fact that, that thinking is arbitrary.

Alexandra: Totally! And you know what? You can tell any eager, young artist that it's not about that, but until they go through it and realize it themselves it's not going to be as powerful. You have to go through it, as you said.

Mo: I think of all the direct and indirect advice I've been given and I remember how common some things were, but how it all tasted different once I went through those things. You think that this or that won't happen to you, because [with a high pitch] I'm going to be different! [both laughing]

Alexandra: And that applies to everything. You end up getting it and going, I can now see the light. [both laughing]

Mo: Naivety is dangerous but required.

Alexandra: I don't know any successful person who has found success without making a mistake.

Mo: To learn from that is being self aware, though. If you don't have self awareness you'll be making the same mistake over and over again.

Alexandra: Oh totally. The more aware you are the more you understand why you make certain decisions. In that sense, you can change bad habits.

Mo: It's also very uncomfortable. Maybe that's why we sometimes make the same mistakes because it's uncomfortable to be self aware.

Mo: To round this conversation out, what do you feel is the purpose of your work right now?

Alexandra: It's to generate some sort of positive emotion. Whether someone's inspired by the colors, casting, composition, or able to relate to my work on a deeper level, it's part of why we create our work—to inspire people in different ways. But also to inspire and creatively satisfy myself.

 
 

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Q&A

 
 
  • Where can we follow you?

  • Website & Instagram
  • What's the last thing you texted?

  • She’s so perfect!! (my sister just gave birth to my niece today).

  • What’s the most on brand thing you do?

  • Watch GOT and then talk about it ALL the time.

  • What would your 13-year-old self be most surprised to find out about you now?

  • That I am no longer obsessing over the Backstreet Boys
  • What have you been listening to lately?

  • One of my best friends albums, Sen Am, by Duval Timothy.

  • What’s the theme song to your life?

  • ‘Juicy’ by Biggie (less theme song and more song that gives me life).
  • What are your favorite places in London and Hong Kong?

  • This changes depending on my mood, but currently Battersea Park and Sham Shui Po or Tai Long Wan.

  • What will your memoir be titled?

  • My Roommate is a Cat

 

Further Reading

  • Samuel Bradley
  • “Just be honest and acknowledge your contemporaries and do what you have to do.”