Nicole Ngai on the Responsibility of Representation, Collaborative Photography and Shooting Intimate Moments with Friends



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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Becoming


Filed under: photography
Nicole Ngai is a Singaporean photographer who lives and works in London. Her work focuses on the interpersonal relations within the photographic exchange and the various forms of intimacies uncovered through the lens via a post-colonial gaze. She has worked with London fashion labels Art School and MMRMS Studio and has been featured in publications such as The Face, i-D and It’s Nice That.

With soft yet brilliant colour palettes and bracingly honesty idepictions of femininity and queerness, you can tell that a photograph has been taken by Nicole from a mile away. Her images are lucid, heady and feel like treasured keepsakes. Speaking to us from her bedroom on a warm summer afternoon, we discussed the artist’s inspiration, her ways of seeing, and how she makes images collaboratively.



¹ Fallen Angels, directed by Wong Kar-wai
1995

Tell us about your selection of works and how you put them together. When you’re encountering an artwork, be it a film, image of a piece of music, what is it that pulls you in first? This could be how it makes you feel, or its story, or how it was made.


Generally I’m drawn to moodpieces. I've always liked really dark, brooding stuff. For example, I picked out Wong Kar-wai’s film Fallen Angels for this interview. Many people consider Wong Kar-wai’s best film as  In The Mood For Love, or Chungking Express right? But Fallen Angels is my favourite because of how dark, sexy and moody it is. It’s a film that’s the epitome of style and coolness. I’ve always liked stuff like that.

Shuji Teryama's Pastoral: To Die in the Country is another film that’s always in my references. I love the grotesque, things that are disturbing and erotic but presented so beautifully.

² Pastoral: To Die in the Country, directed by Shūji Terayama
1974

On that note, something that brings together all the works you’ve picked out for this interview is how they illicit this very immediate visceral response from their viewers. Does that immediacy or that reaction draw you in? This is especially because viewers are not reacting to a pure sensorial overload, but emotionally and in response to the atmosphere created.


For sure. I love strong imagery, and I’ve always had a very personal and consistent taste. I think that atmosphere overflows into my work as well.  
³ Two Figures, Francis Bacon
1953

There are some recurring motifs and colours that I notice you’ve gravitated towards using, including but not limited to textiles, knots, and soft hues. What role do elements such as motifs and colours play within the image-making process for you, and what do you constantly find yourself drawn towards capturing and recapturing?


A lot of my work focuses on the blurring of boundaries and the juxtaposition of hardness and softness, masculinity and femininity, power and vulnerability.

I'm really interested in intimacy and exploring intimacy through the lens of camera. I'm also interested in the idea of boundaries. If you think about intimacy, intimacy is also a boundary between the outside and the inside world. I think this is why I enjoy Francis Bacon’s work so much. The human figures in his work are so fleshy, and flesh or skin functions as an obvious boundary between our outer and inner worlds.

As a fashion photographer, I enjoy capturing the textures of fabrics. I find myself particularly drawn to sheer textiles. Folds and wrinkles, which are considered imperfections in clothing, are also an intimate sign of something that’s been touched and worn. There’s this Polaroid picture I took of my two friends where they’re both looking out the window. They’re both wearing these sheer dresses, and the image is framed by these sheer curtains as well. There was this strange contrast between being outside and indoors as well. Indoors, it was an incredibly intimate space. It was just the three of us, and it was a really hot day. I wasn’t wearing any pants, and it was still fucking hot. Beyond the room, it was really bright outside. You could even hear people in the next garden having fun. It was this contrast between the headiness of the interior space within which we were shooting, and the outside world. It’s not just about this quality of translucence, though. I read this text once that really encapsulated this perfectly. It was iridescent, and it’s one of my favourite pictures.

Another feature in my photographs would be the consistent use of familiar models, I work with my friends and try to establish a good relationship with my subjects. My subjects are people that I always go back to. They’re all really important to me, and they’re mostly my friends.

If you think about intimacy, intimacy is also a boundary between the outside and the inside world.

⁴  Honeymoon, Nicole Ngai
2019



This is probably as close as we can get to talking about visual style. Some of the works you’ve picked out are incredibly iconic, be it in terms of how they portray a distinct kind of sensuality or how they parse fragments together. Within the context of your practice, how significant is developing a distinct style or your own ways of seeing? What sort of possibilities has this opened up for you?


I've been taking pictures for about seven or eight years now, and at the start, I think what a lot of people do is that they copy their favourite photographers aesthetically. From there, you start to figure out what you like, and what you don't like. When I started studying photography at university, I started thinking about photographic theory more. This is how I developed my style. Right now, my aesthetic is formed by how I think about photography.

My personal philosophy is that photography is dialogue. Susan Sontag has written extensively about the violence inherent to photography, but I really disagree with that. Photography has traditionally been associated with uneven power relations between the photographer and their subject. In my photographic process, I work to decentralise this power dynamic by collaborating closely with my models. It’s just a different way of approaching photography. It’s about the sharing of energies. The picture, of course, is the outcome of that. Yet, it is the process that’s most important to me.

It’s about the sharing of energies. The picture, of course, is the outcome of that. Yet, it is the process that’s most important to me.

When we look at a photograph, the process of shooting the image isn’t something that viewers are always cognisant of. You’re incredibly embedded into the entire process of making your images, and this extends even to being in the darkroom and developing your own images. The process of snapping an image is usually quite fast-paced and it can almost be instantaneous. Taking your time with getting to know your subjects and developing your own images slows it all down and allows for certain moments of stillness. This seems to be quite an intentional choice on your part, and I was wondering if you could tell us how important these slightly quieter moments are to your practice.


In terms of slowing down, I take my time with my images and a lot to do comes down to the process of shooting on film and the camera I use. I use a Mamiya RZ67, and it’s huge. The camera itself only has ten shots per roll, so you have to be really precise. You have to know what you want, and you have to communicate that to the model. It’s important to have these contemplative, intimate moments. I also handprint my images in the darkroom. It’s one of my favourite parts of the post-process, and it’s integral to the look of my images.
Amanda, Nicole Ngai
2019


⁶ Ruoyi and Wenchu, Nicole Ngai
2019

Given the context of everything that we've been talking about, what does it mean to you to depict someone authentically?


I'm pretty confident in saying that the photographs I’ve shot of my good friends are very true representations of them because I know them so well. I see them every day, and I know what they’re thinking about. I can tell what’s on their mind just by reading their body movements or facial expressions. It’s so sappy, but I do romanticise the act of taking a picture. I don’t mean this in a weird fetishistic way. In general, I think that you have to be a little bit in love with someone in order to take a good image of them, and that's why I'm so picky with my models. I’ve been on sets where the model has just been assigned to the shoot, and if I don’t vibe with them, I just don’t end up growing very attached to the images taken. Ideally, you need to have an appreciative and loving gaze. With the film Blue Is The Warmest Colour, I think they really nailed that loving gaze. It was spot on.

I think when you do portraiture, you have to approach it with empathy. You need to understand person you’re taking a photograph of, but you also need to understand the wider socio-political contexts of the time. There’s a lot of responsibility in representing someone, and this is especially so when you work in fashion. Fashion is still seen as the arbiter and standard of beauty. It’s still seen as something aspirational. I shoot a lot of female, POC (people of colour) or queer bodies, which are inherently quite political, so this something that needs to be approached with care and sensitivity.

You’ve been working with amazing models, publications and designers — all of whom have been pushing back against the idea that beauty can be standardised as monolithic or one-dimensional. Tell us about your experience with working in such an interesting and dynamic space, especially one where people are reclaiming and redefining these ideas on their own terms.


My approach to photography grew from my experience of working on a lot of big fashion sets and being very detached. That’s just not how I like to shoot. Even when I’ve made a beautiful fashion picture, sometimes I end up not feeling anything towards it. That's why I started doing more intimate sessions. That probably came as a reaction to how detached fashion can sometimes be.

I do like aligning myself with brands who try to deconstruct beauty ideals in their own way. One of the brands that I’ve worked with, Art School London, was one of the first few labels to really put queer or trans bodies on the runway. That was really important, and I’m drawn to working with labels with a strong vision like Art School or MMRMS Studio.

I do like aligning myself with brands who try to deconstruct beauty ideals in their own way.

Art School SS19, Nicole Ngai
2018

Art School Volume One, Nicole Ngai
2018

Red Mirror, Ryan McGinely
1999

On that note of being embedded within the process, and considering your choice of Ryan McGinely’s Red Mirror, I wanted to get your thoughts on self-portraiture and where that fits into your practice. 


I think it's something I definitely want to incorporate. I haven't done a lot of self-portraiture. To be honest, I’ve never been confident with my appearance, which is why I’ve never done any formal self portraits. When I’m shooting someone else, I appreciate them so fully. However, it’s so much harder to do that when the lens is on yourself. I suppose the act of self-portraiture is an exercise in looking at ourselves closely, honestly, but compassionately.

This year I’ve been growing to feel more comfortable and confident with my feminine energy. Right now, I’m taking a lot more selfies and nudes just on my phone and I think that’s quite empowering. I definitely want to explore self portraiture in my work when I feel ready.

When I’m shooting someone else, I appreciate them so fully. However, it’s so much harder to do that when the lens is on yourself. I suppose the act of self-portraiture is an exercise in looking at ourselves closely, honestly, but compassionately.

¹⁰ Amanda, Nicole Ngai
2019

¹¹ Tatyana, Nicole Ngai
2019

You’ve talked about how important it is for you to create safe spaces for your subjects to feel comfortable and at ease. What does that sort of safe space look like for you, and how does that facilitate your working process?


I've been a model myself, and I know what it feels like to be put in makeup you don't like or clothes you don’t like. You just feel a bit shit. I know what it’s like to be on set with people you don’t really know or people you don't really vibe with.

There are photographers who just keep shooting, and you don’t get any feedback from them. As a model, you’re sat there thinking, “Am I doing this right?” That’s why I try to be as communicative as possible when I shoot.

It’s important to me that my subjects like what they’re wearing, and that they like how they look. That’s a form of safe space between photographer and sitter. I think this comes back to thinking about collaboration and representation, and how the models are a big part of the image making process for me.

It’s important to me that my subjects like what they’re wearing, and that they like how they look. That’s a form of safe space between photographer and sitter.

Personally, where are you at in terms of your relationship to photography as a medium, and will we be seeing you dabble in or experiment with moving images more?


I've tried moving image, but I’m not as drawn to it as photography. Instead of exploring moving image, I want to explore and experiment with different photographic techniques. There's just so much more to learn with analogue film, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.




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