Charmaine Toh from Objectifs sits down for a chat with Sean Lee, winner of the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu photography award. Sean recently had a solo exhibition ‘Homework’ at Objectifs Gallery in June 2011 and also teaches at the centre. He will be part of at ‘Imagine Malaysia’, a group exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art from 6 to 28 August 2011.  

CT: You started out with a Basic Photography class at Objectifs in 2003 when you were still studying in junior college.  When did you know you wanted to pursue photography as a career and what prompted that decision?  

SL: I knew I wanted to make photography an intimate part of my life the day I started my first photography class [at Objectifs]. I was completely hooked. I remember classes were every Monday. And at the end of each class, I would be waiting for the next one the following week. It was pretty intense.

I decided to make photography my career because I wanted to spend most of my time in a day either thinking about it or doing it. But photography for me is much more than a career; I think it is something quite close to my heart, something that gives me much joy. It is most of all a privileged space where I can have the freedom to express and create.

Everybody Knows You Cried Last Night

CT: Well, we’re certainly glad you decided to go for it! This has been a very exciting year for you – you’ve had solo exhibitions at Objectifs in Singapore, Le Petit Endroit in Paris, and Galerie Tamago in Barcelona. And on top of that, you were selected for the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass and won the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu photography award! What has been the impact of all this exposure?  What are you working on now and what’s next for you?  Any hints of what you’re planning with the prize money?

SL: For a long time, I have felt that my exhibitions and opportunities abroad were kind of shrugged off at home. Even when I was selected for the Prix Decouverte in Arles it felt like no one had noticed. But winning the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu gave me a sense of validation from the local arts community. So it meant a lot for me. I was quite uncertain of my chances prior to the results. To say that I faced tough competition would be an understatement. It feels nice to be appreciated.

Whenever I get the chance to showcase my work overseas, the feeling is pretty immense. In Europe or the States, good photographers are a dime a dozen. But to think that they like my work enough to give me a chance, to me that means a lot. I am a 25-year-old kid in Singapore you know! Sometimes I think back to the days when I first started out – I really never for a second thought that I would be having these exhibitions. It is truly a wonderful feeling and I feel quite blessed. 

However, the important thing for me is to never put these things, these so called successes, so much at the forefront of my life that it displaces the truly important and the truly magical. The most crucial thing is to always make work that we are concerned about and genuinely interested in. The fact that I can be doing the work of expressing myself and just ‘creating things’ is in itself something quite special and privileged. 

Right now I am making new work, and I am hoping that it turns out well. As for the prize money, I will tithe a portion, give my parents what I promised them if i won, use some to repair broken equipment and invest the rest.

Soli Deo Gloria from the Homework series

CT: I’m sure your parents will be glad to hear that! Given that this body of work was so intertwined with your family, how has its production and exhibition affected them? Especially the high profile that it’s received with the award?

SL: Actually it has made them quite happy. They are very proud of me and are now more open to being photographed than ever before. They are pretty amused at seeing themselves on the various articles in the papers and magazines but I think it makes them feel something special. Some neighbors and shop-keepers at the markets they frequent have asked them about it after seeing the papers and they will come home and tell me and we laugh about it together. It’s kind of amusing.

Sean with his family at the Homework’ exhibition opening at Objectifs in June 2011.

CT: I enjoyed the HOMEWORK series very much myself. And what struck me the most about it were the intimate and almost voyeuristic moments with your family. Sort of funny, yet uncomfortable at the same time. I particularly loved Soli Deo Gloria, which was extremely powerful with its undertones of the crucifixion. What was the response when you exhibited this series in Europe? Do you think a European audience would receive the work differently from a local audience?

SL: Actually I am not sure if a European audience would receive the work that differently from a local one. I suppose everyone receives the work in their own way. It is not something that I think about. But response in Europe has been very good. Most of the audience seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the work and even after the opening night, there were people coming to see the works everyday. This was especially true in Barcelona and Paris.  

What I am looking for ultimately is continuity. That there are things that will follow after every exhibition, and so far this has been happening in Europe for me. Very often one thing leads to another, from a gallery exhibition to being featured in a Festival, to being published. I think this is a good sign, because it means that different people are interested in my works and that I am relevant.

One of Sean’s newest works.

CT: I know that you’ve been invited to show at Emergent-Lleida, a photo festival in Barcelona in October.  Congrats and all the best for that.  Thanks for your time and I’ll see you at the opening at VWFA on Friday!

This is the first of a series of chats we have planned to introduce our fans to some of our local photographers and filmmakers. If you have certain artists you would like to hear from, feel free to suggest them to us!