Photographers are gypsies at heart, travelling to wherever their work takes them, so it’s been hard pinning down Alexandra Leese for a long-overdue catch up. As far as we know, Alex – as she’s known to her friends – is basking in the glory of fantastic reviews for her recent exhibition Boys of Hong Kong, at London’s Red Gallery.
There are plans for the exhibit to reach our shores, but before that, read our chat below.
Tell us about the first professional job you had as a photographer.
When I first started out I always wanted to please others, which I’ve learned not to put over my own needs. It’s very easy to be sucked in to the glitz and glamour of fashion, so you must remind yourself never to take it too seriously, but always to stay true to what you feel is right for you.
When did you know you wanted to pursue photography as a full-time career?
I didn’t until I was actually studying it. I went to Chelsea College of Art in London to pursue a career in fine art and then I discovered photography, so I switched to the London College of Fashion to complete a BA in Fashion Photography.
I think every path you take informs your future to some degree. I found photography while studying at Chelsea – that was a huge turning point for me. The London College of Fashion was a great place to learn how to think independently and laterally, rather than inside a box – it encouraged research and analysis as well, rather than just taking fashion images for the sake of it. It helped facilitate a way of thinking that allowed you to create meaning and depth to images.
What challenges are faced by female photographers in Asia?
I’m not too sure now as I work from London mostly, so it would be interesting to hear this from those working there. A challenge I faced as a kid in Hong Kong, though, was the lack of support for the arts in education and society. I was very lucky to have incredibly creative and encouraging parents, and went to London where like-minded people surrounded me. I think there are many young creative minds in Hong Kong who are maybe not getting the right support both socially and educationally. I’d love to see this change.
Why are there so few famous female photographers?
I disagree. There are so many great female photographers these days. Maybe it’s different in Hong Kong. London is a melting pot of incredible female talent, and it’s being very encouraged.
What’s the most sexist thing you’ve ever heard on set, or regarding a job?
I guess the amount of Photoshop some clients want for jobs with women compared to that for men. I recently had a client who wanted to make this girl much thinner than she was, but I refused to do it – I don’t believe that achieves anything positive. Photographers, re-touchers, art directors, stylists have the power to change this warped perception of how women “should be”. It shouldn’t always be up to the client, if we all put our foot down. People don’t want this kind of imagery any more, anyway – there’s been a definite shift, and a need for something real and raw.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I love my job. It’s very satisfying being able to see something in your mind and then to create it. I also get to meet and work with some amazing and talented people. Not one day is the same as the last. The worst part? The ups and downs can be a lot of pressure.
Who are your most inspirational women photographers?
Nan Goldin is one of my favourites.
Tell us more about Boys of Hong Kong.
Boys of Hong Kong is 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. I exhibited in London at Red Gallery, Shoreditch in March, and the response has been really amazing. I didn’t expect it to connect with so many people, but it makes me happy to know this is a topic people are ready to discuss.
What are you working on next?
I’m figuring that out right now. I want to continue both fashion and personal projects, as I think they can complement each other. Figuring out a way to bring more “realness” and depth to my fashion images is my aim for the future, as well as working on more personal stories and eventually another book and exhibition.
Finally, what advice would you have for young women trying to break into the business or who want to study photography?
As clichéd as it sounds, stay true to yourself. Do things you love and care about, because that energy is attractive and you can see it in your pictures.