Olga Bubich talks with a Singapore-based photographer Sean Lee – the author of the award-winning story about a female character Shauna in whose body the artist “lived” for 2 years exploring delicate relations between reality and fiction in photography

Sean Lee

Sean Lee. From the private archive

Bleek Magazine: In “Shauna” project you explore the feminine part of your identity. How do you define the genre of the project itself? Is it your alternative autobiography? A fictional story?.. a narration “based on true events”?

Sean Lee: Actually for me there is no need to try to define the genre of the project. I never really sought to categorize it in any way. I suppose it is a little bit of everything. But what I would say is that all good stories are truthful even if they are made up. That has always been my concern in making work. I am not particularly interested in whether what is represented physically in images happened the way they did in fact. I am much more interested in the genuineness of the story.

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Sean Lee. The photo from the project “Shauna”

Bleek Magazine: What was the central motivation for you to start your journey of exploring “the Eve part” of yourself? What did you initially expect from this experience? Did your expectations prove to be true or false?

Sean Lee: I guess I wanted a way to put myself in the story rather than using other people as a subject. To write myself into the story. To make up a character and then embody her. Perhaps I wanted more control like how a director gets to decide what sort of actors or scenes to use, what characters to have in his film. Photography lets me make up my own world and live in it.

To be honest I did not know at all what to expect. I could not have known.

Bleek Magazine: What was the most challenging part of living Shauna’s life?

Sean Lee: There are times when I do not feel I am in character at all. Those are nights where I feel like I am doing a job – not really into it. Then there are also physical challenges. It is very difficult to walk in heels all the time and also wearing the wig can make you feel very very warm and uncomfortable and in a tropical country like Cambodia it can also make you go crazy.

Sean Lee

Sean Lee. The photo from the project “Shauna”

Bleek Magazine: Was it difficult for you to keep two roles together at the same time – to be Shauna and to be a photographer? Or this problem did not exist at all? Was it she who was taking the photos or you? And who was “you” in that case?

Sean Lee: To be honest this is very difficult to answer or to know for sure. Sometimes I take the images on timer, or a remote and that is a lot more conscious but there are times where I use friends or assistants to help me make those images or to press the shutter so that I can perform freely on the streets or in the bars and that is a lot more free. And then 5 years later when I began to edit the images with my editor for the making of the book that is a whole other process which to me is not so different from actually physically photographing all over again.

Bleek Magazine: Asking this question brings me to quote an interesting thesis I found in your interview for “GUP Magazine” when you said, “to act well is in fact to become”. Did you actually “become” Shauna or it was more like a theatrical play when Sean’s mind was present and you were always on the alert of what was going on?

Sean Lee: I think the best way for me to explain this quote is the next – we are all characterized by the roles we play. To play someone well is to try your best to put yourself in the shoes of another person. I believe that if we do that enough in a disciplined way we become influenced by the characters themselves. The stories we make up influence us as much as we influence them. Every thought and imagination has the potential to affect us if we let them.

Sean Lee

Sean Lee. The photo from the project “Two People”

Bleek Magazine: Two years is quite a lengthy period of time of living someone’s identity (even if it is a part of your own). Did you actually feel any changes of your (own) life views if you compare the first and the last days of Shauna’s? What did those 2 years of living a woman’s role help you understand about yourself, about women and photography?

Sean Lee: There are two parts to this. The first part is about the real world. What I learned was that I actually know nothing. For instance, I realized that I know nothing about what it must be like to be born into a set of situations where so much is denied to you, that you actually have to sell your sex and your body to survive. Where I come from, youth is a time of joy and learning and trying to talk to girls and hopefully fall in love. For them, it is not the same. Their youth, and their young bodies, are commodities that can be bought and sold for the sexual pleasure of a paying customer.

The other part is about the world of stories. Although I am not able to truly know or understand what life must be like for them, what I can do is to try to imagine, and from there, to find a way to empathize, to find a patch of common ground between me and them where we could stand together, no matter how small that patch may be. I think in the series, as a whole, there is enough of a sense of longing but also at the same time glimpses of friendships and connections. That was the small patch. My favourite images are the snapshots with friends.

Bleek Magazine: Where is and what is Shauna now?

Sean Lee: Shauna will always remain a memorable part of my life.

Sean Lee

Sean Lee. The photo from the project “Two People”

Bleek Magazine: Another important project of yours is “Two People” where you take very intimate close-up photos of your parents. It might seem different from “Shauna” but to me in fact they seem to share the same underlying goal – to examine closely another living being in order to get a deeper understanding of yourself. You observe others so intensely, at such a small (uncomfortable?) distance that they almost disappear in the course of this neutral (sterile) act of staring. Have you ever compared these projects and in which way do you see their similarity and differences?

Sean Lee: I began making the work with my family because my time as Shauna was not easy for them and yet they allowed me my space to explore my work. Now “Two People” has become my life’s work. I do not try to compare them. In “Two People” I photograph only my parents and only within my home. In this small space, I want to try to create a universe where there are only two people – One man and one woman. 

For me some stories are long and some are short and this happens to be a really long one. I think most of my work has always been about the small world – the realm of intimate personal relationships, ordinary people, daily life and little mundane things. Sometimes there is a risk of being too self-indulgent. But then again I do not see what is so wrong about being self-indulgent. This is the only part of my life where I can be truly self-indulgent. 

Sean Lee

Sean Lee. The photo from the project “Shauna”

Bleek Magazine: Which of these projects was more difficult for you to shoot? Why?

Sean Lee: I think every project is quite difficult to shoot but just for different reasons – that is all. There is no easy work I think but I am not burdened by the difficulty. In fact, I feel lucky that I still have stories I want to tell and things to wonder about. That is very precious. 

Bleek Magazine: How would you define the role photographic medium has in your life? Is it an introspective practice? An instrument of studying the world? A tool of artistic expression?

Sean Lee: When photography came to me it is as though I had been given new eyes out of which the world became a sea of possible images waiting to be made. But these images taken from the world must come together to form worlds of their own. This is what I try to do with photography – to make worlds, to make stories. The story is a home for images.

© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich