Photography isn’t always about what we see in front of us, but a medium of expression for what we have inside. The conceptualization of thoughts and feelings fabricated into light forms can be cathartic in the best of times. In these days of uncertainty, we have to explore what is hidden within, in all sense of the word. In this interview, I speak with photographer Suki Lui about her experiences and work. How she approaches her art from conceptualization and exploration of life experiences to production of photographs.
What were some of your early experiences with photography?
My parents do not have any art or photography background. They were refugees from rural China who came to Hong Kong in the 1970s. They did not own a camera or have a family photo album either. They only possessed one photo of themselves from their life before coming to Hong Kong.
Having the chance to have a photo taken was thus a very precious experience for me. I remember all early family photographs were taken by relatives or our neighbours. They then sent them back to us when the films were developed. It was in fact a very intimate act and it was how people connected with each other back then. The other early experience that I can recall is my father enjoying taking my mother, me and my four brothers to have a proper family portrait taken at photography studio once every couple of years – those traditional family portraits where everyone sits or stands formally just like those you normally do for school year book. I remember the family portrait was taken in a studio with an English rural landscape backdrop which I believe had not been changed for more than a decade. This association of photography with intimacy and relationships has stayed with me.
I started taking photos at sixteen. My early experience of taking pictures was not very structured; it was only a way for me to record daily moments I spent with friends and family. The early photographs I took were all with the analogue cameras I had been given: disposable cameras, some toy cameras from Lomography like LC-A 35mm film camera.
What does time mean to you and how does this definition affect your photography?
I believe the concept of time is always at the back of my mind when taking photographs. Henri Cartier Bresson and Saul Leiter were definitely some of the early influences on my photography. Capturing ephemeral moments was one of the main objectives of my early photography practice.
I am also sensitive to time in that I am sensitive to changes in light. Capturing particular light is one of the most important elements in my photography.
Also, using film instead of digital data forces me to reflect carefully on the particular moment I am capturing when pressing the shutter. I also enjoy spending time developing films in the darkroom alone. I enjoy the focussed concentration and having full control over my work process; it is in fact very therapeutic. Awareness of the amount of work required to develop analogue photographs helps you to cultivate an attitude of carefulness and meticulousness when taking photographs.
As a creative, what is the importance of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone? Do you notice a difference in the quality of your photographs when you’re comfortable versus when pushing yourself?
I think it is important to not let yourself stay in your comfort zone. I find it tedious to constantly work on the same style unless the process is intended to help me advance my technique. I think a lot about my work and the possibility of developing new techniques by working differently. My experiences teach me that I can always discover new things which surprise me when I step away from my comfort zone.
My ongoing photo series About Dream was a new challenge to me. My photography is usually portrait-oriented. Working on About Dream let me have chance to pay more attention to my surroundings and mundane objects instead of people, and allowed me to explore new ways of playing with light.
Do you plan most of your projects or do they grow into one as you take more images? If planned, what is your process like?
I do plan some of my photo projects. It depends on the nature of the project. For commercial works, it is necessary to make a plan beforehand. I do research, which includes finding visual or literary materials, as well as having conversation with friends (this is particularly important). Apart from that, I find it very useful to discuss with my creative team (if I am working in a team). However, in my experience no project works exactly as planned.
By contrast, most of my personal projects mostly start from one image or idea before developing into a coherent project. I think the process grows quite naturally. In fact, I believe it is sometime essential to let the process lead the way.
Are there any long-term personal projects you’re hoping to explore or are currently working on?
Yes. During my masters studies in London, I started working on a project which explores modern consumerism by focussing on how signs are manipulated and meanings are created and played with in the process of consumption. With my background as the only daughter in a relatively conservative family, I realized how different expectations for every aspect of life have been placed on me. Female experience is thus a central subject matter for me. In this project, by recontextualising mundane objects juxtaposed with female models, I intend to reflect on the stereotypical way of representing women in modern consumerist culture.
How much of yourself do you put into your photographs?
I frequently take self-portraits, but for me this is less about myself and more about capturing a particular moment in time and reflecting on broader themes of change, intimacy and gender.
If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself to have the confidence to go to places and situations where I might not feel entirely comfortable, but which would help to push my practice further.
Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
I would say it is important to stay with people who help and support you to create, whilst opening up yourself to work with different creative people. Most importantly, I think, you have to be honest to yourself and pursue what you care about and find interesting.