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An Interview with London-based Photographer, Steven Lee

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

I first met portrait photographer, Steven Lee, at a Malaysian student event known as Impact Stories by UKEC in London some 3 years ago. He has been in the photography scene since the 90s, working on documentary and travel photography. His projects include several coffee-table books, initiating the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards, which is an annual international portrait photography competition since 2009, and co-founding KL20x20 Photo Festival and EXPOSURE+ PHOTO with Nadirah Zakariya, which 2nd edition will be held in KL this September.

It was only weeks before the pandemic had severely struck the UK when we first met. We kept in touch online since then, but not until recently, I discovered that Steven is a mutual friend with my neighbour, James Quah, who is a professional dance photographer. What a pleasant surprise! After learning that Steven is back in Malaysia for some of his commitments here earlier this month, we arranged to meet up at LOKL Cafe near Masjid Jamek, for a conversation on both the photographers’ experiences and careers in photography. You may have read our previous blog entry about James’ stories and perspectives, which centres around his passion in multiple genres and how he fights for his creative ventures in our Malaysian society that prioritises financial stability. My conversation with Steven focussed more on comparing the photography industry in London and in Malaysia, and highlights his rather uncommon experiences dwelling in photography there. So without further ado, let’s get to know Steven better:

Euan: How did you start photography?

Steven: I have always been intrigued by cameras, the technical stuff- like how it works, and fascinated by the prism in SLR cameras. Back in my school days, people used to join clubs. Photography and Camera Clubs were popular. I obviously joined them and went on outings to gain experience. But of course, it was just a side hobby, as you said, with Asian perspectives, not many parents would actually encourage their children into it as a career choice. Euan: At what point in your career did photography become more of a focus?

Steven: It was in my late 20s. I wasn’t in Malaysia anyway. I was overseas, my parents weren’t around me. Perhaps that made things easier. We were quite independent as a family anyway. And a lot of it was my own initiative. I started off doing wedding photography, which is a genre in which practical skills are learned through experience.

Back in those days, being in a foreign country, you just had to promote yourself, build your portfolio and leverage on referrals. Once you do a shoot, clients would spread the word for you very effectively, and you just build on from here.

I ran a small gallery in London back in 2013. My neighbour was Jimmy Choo! The area had a lot of boutiques and designers, and I had the opportunity to photograph lookbooks every season. And then Fashion Week came and I photographed backstage at London Fashion Week. And that went on for a few years. I read books by photographers I admired at that time to find inspiration from their careers, how they got their signature styles and even how they started their own journeys, which then inspired me to create my personal books.

Euan: Would you say London has a better environment that encourages this sort of art?

Steven: Not really, I think the community here is really supportive now. The colleagues I’m working with on EXPOSURE+ PHOTOS are extremely supportive. Over there, you are pretty much on your own, and it is much more competitive. There are hundreds of photographers who are all excellent in their crafts, so how do you prize yourself? It’s all about trial and error there and some good luck.

Euan: What surprised you the most about the community in London, or the community in Malaysia?

Steven: Back in the UK, there are many colleges that offer photography as a degree course, while in Malaysia, you most probably get to do modules only. The focus and emphasis are different. So every year, hundreds of graduates with BA Photography enter the market in the UK, competing for jobs and holding their own exhibitions. Their courses teach them not only technical photography skills but also entrepreneurial and marketing knowledge. They enter the market prepared. Whereas here, schools might teach technical skills like lighting work, some marketing skills here and there, but there’s not much knowledge about developing their career and business as an artist. So it’s a different landscape.

Euan: Having experienced the competitive environment in London, have you ever felt like your race is an issue?

Steven: No at all. I think race even gave me an advantage. I didn't face any racial discrimination.

#Interlude: To justify, I had to ask that question about race because an incident took place just the day after I met Steven back in London in 2020. By 8 March 2020, Coronavirus was a huge thing in Asia and it was starting to impact the UK. On that particular day, I unintentionally caught eye contact with a random guy at a bus stop near Hyde Park. He came close to me, spat in my direction and walked away, mumbling something about ‘China’. I was left speechless, too shocked to react, which in hindsight, I should have fake coughed at him. I was fortunately not harmed, but the fact that this took place by a main road in the morning was disheartening and alarming. I didn’t even want to imagine what could happen to anyone else at night. Racial discrimination does not happen to everyone nor does it happen every day. Yet, it is no stranger to Asians in London, from my personal observation and experience. However, on his point on how race could be an advantage, I could relate to the statement too. When I was in the UK, I tried venturing into the modelling industry. Having met many British photographers who also wanted to experiment on photoshoots with me, I couldn’t help but ask them if they have worked with many Asian models. Most of them responded that they hadn’t, and me having Asian features was an additional pulling factor to work with me (on top of my ‘not-bad’ modelling portfolio, I hope). It’s all about building a diversified portfolio these days. I am also proud of having done shoots with photographers from a range of countries like the UK, Pakistan, Italy and Poland, just to name a few. They all gave me different perspectives with their respective range of experiences when we worked together.

Euan: Coming back here for projects like exhibitions and photo awards, what kind of lessons are you bringing back here through your experiences in London?

Steven: The thing is, I never really organised such events back there, all I have is what I have observed and experienced at other festivals. My co-founder of EXPOSURE+ PHOTO and I went to Europe last year to visit festivals, hunting for ideas and discussing how we can apply them to the Malaysian audiences.

But the structures and financing they have there are very different. In Europe, they are very keen on art, especially in Italy, music and art are inbred. Over here, people mainly go for the aesthetics and technical competence, so the understanding of visual arts is different from the West. But I see it changing as the years progress. And we just have to keep pushing the boundaries.

Steven is now preparing for his EXPOSURE+ PHOTO 2023 Festival that will take place across several venues in Kuala Lumpur, which will take place in September this year. When asked about the main challenges, funding and budget are still a headache. That might remain one of the most concerning aspects in the creative industry in Malaysia, where resources and returns in the artistic scene are not easily guaranteed.

Steven’s photos radiate a beautiful light of humanity. The visuals carry rich story-telling elements that narrate beyond time. I wanted Steven to take a portrait of me but we ran short of time. It would have been such an honour. But, Steven will be back in September for his events, so I am definitely not worried. For more info about Steven’s work: Steven Lee Photography- KL International Photoawards-

Text by

Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement 22/23.

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