How did winning the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu award in 2011 affect your work as a photographer?
Initially, I felt a little pressure to do well and make better works. I also felt that if I were to experiment and do different things, others might think that they are stupid or frivolous, and that I’ve lost it.
Ultimately, there was also the pressure to live up to other people’s expectations.
But after some time, the pressure and excitement subsided, and I realised that my work has to go on, with or without the award. I told myself that the award should not have any bearing on how I work.
Fifty years down the road, no one will look back and say, “That’s Sean, who won the award in 2011.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not slighting the award, but I don’t want to be remembered by it. I want my work to be remembered, and to be remembered because it is good.
Previously you had a project, Method, where you cross-dressed as a woman, complete with a persona named Shauna. How did you conceive this project and what lesser-known details can you tell us about it?
I started to work on Method in 2007 in Cambodia, when I was there for a workshop. For the first three days, I had no idea what to shoot. On the third night, I went to pray at the balcony and I woke up the next day with the idea of immersing myself in a role. First, I tried to be a tuk-tuk driver. Then, I tried to be a construction worker. Lastly, I settled on Shauna. Shauna was different because it was an actual person, not an occupation. This means that I had to make physical, emotional and mental adjustments. This is a type of risk that I like to take. When I was dressed up as Shauna, I didn’t talk or make any noise. Standing in the red-light district in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I had people who tried to pick me up but most of them left when I did not respond to them. I also had an assistant nearby to make sure that I was safe, and to ensure that nothing got out of hand.
I continued Method in Singapore. My dad felt awkward and conflicted about the whole experience since I would dress up at home and head out. There was one occasion when some people didn’t want to get into the lift with me. I didn’t expect their reaction to be so extreme, to the extent of not even wanting to look at me.
Coming back to Homework, how did your parents react when you first asked them to pose for you?
They were not as natural as they are today. At the start, they were asking a lot of questions and were very self-conscious about being in front of the camera. They were also not comfortable with touching each other. It took about one year before they were at ease with the process.
Are there any gender stereotypes that you imply with Homework?
I don’t think about that, actually. If it comes across that way, I am definitely not thinking about it consciously. When I’m shooting, I just try to recognise what I have in my mind. I am looking for a feeling, and I can recognise it in the viewfinder when I see it.
In fact, when I shoot, it is a race against time because I don’t want to tire my parents out. My heart is always pounding and I try not to be conscious about shooting.
How has your relationship with your parents changed, looking at before and after you starting shooting them?
Before I started Homework, my relationship with the family was relatively close, and it was definitely not a fractured relationship.
After embarking on Homework, the relationship that I have with my family is definitely different, although there is no major shift or change in the way we interact. They know more about my work now and we are able to talk more about it. They are also more involved than before.
I also share with them more openly about my work, and they will give me suggestions. For example, they have been telling me to send my prints to New York, and take some risks.
Most recently at the Singapore Biennale, someone who was installing my work said they don’t understand what I was trying to say. I felt a little upset by that, but my dad said, “What do they know about your works?”
I’m curious about what your parents think of your work. Do they understand it, in a way that, say, the person at the Biennale did not? Or are they comfortable with not understanding it, thus your father’s comment?
I have never really tried to test if they understand my work. Honestly I think that maybe they do not. But that’s okay for me. If anything, I think my dad gets it more. But I’m not sure. Having said that, I talk to my mum a lot about my work, and I go into deep detail, and she listens and responds. So I think I just explain it to them as best I can, not so much because I want them to understand but more because I want someone to talk to.
My father was probably saying, “Who is this guy? What does he know about art?” I believe he was trying to tell me to ignore the guy. I think the guy was just giving an honest opinion, but my dad was being protective of me.
How did you come up with the concept for Homework?
I was in Arles, France to participate in a photo festival. Unfortunately, I didn’t win. But my dad messaged me, which was something he seldom does. He said not to give up. Right at that instance, I thought to myself that I should photograph my family and make it part of my life.
Typically, Asian parents are not comfortable showing their bare bodies in front of the camera. How did you convince your dad to do that?
My dad is usually shirtless at home, so that’s his ‘natural’ state. He’s generally comfortable not wearing clothes in front of the camera.
Have you ever considered shooting your parents nude?
I have thought about it and decided not to because I find it too intrusive, and I know they would not be comfortable. I have raised this idea to my mom before and she said she wouldn’t be comfortable. If my parents don’t feel comfortable with what I have in mind, I won’t shoot it.
Do you plan your shots ahead or are they spontaneous?
Ninety percent of the time I plan my shots, and the remaining ten percent I might try something new on the spot. The most spontaneous thing I ever tried was to make them wear a pig’s mask, which I had at home but I didn’t know what to do with it.
You seem to be fascinated with hands, as a lot of them are shown in your works. Why?
I’m fascinated with the idea of my parents touching each other, so the hands play a big role. To me, hands can comfort you, but they can also inflict pain. That is interesting to me. Also, using one’s hands is the most direct way to touch someone.
In Homework, the subjects most depicted often are your parents. But once in a while, your sister plays a cameo role too. Do you plan to showcase your sister’s profile in future projects?
Actually, I’m slowly removing the shots of my sister from the series. She was involved in some shots, but she wasn’t that into it. I want Homework to appear consistent, that’s why I’m removing those shots.
Why do you think that your sister does not belong in this series? She is a member of the family too.
My sister is very important to me. She is responsible for me having like a social life. And she is very much a part of the family. Perhaps I don’t want her to be part of the series at this stage.
One reason is that my parents care less about how they look.
So when I shoot them, I can concentrate on purely how the images feel to me. My sister is still young. I know that she will be a lot more concerned about she will look in my pictures. So if I photograph her I have to make sure that she thinks she looks beautiful. This can be distracting.
Do your parents hang any photos from Homework at home?
Yes, but only one. It is a collage of photos where we engaged in a staring contest. In the instant that someone laughed, I took the photo. This collage is the only one that my parents like to be displayed at home.
Will Homework be a running series, or do you have a timeframe in mind, when you will stop working on it?
I plan to keep shooting Homework as long as I can. I may take some time off, but if a picture comes to me, I will shoot it.
Complete this sentence: “In ten years, I hope Singapore will be …”
A place where more people will realise the benefits of silliness and find ways to help themselves to confront their own realities with passion and love.
To purchase a copy of Two People by Sean Lee, please visit:
The portrait of Sean Lee was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.