British Vogue’s September 2021 cover highlights the joy, burgeoning creativity and talent amongst the East Asian community. Shot by London-based South Korean photographer Hanna Moon at sunrise on the Thames, it represents a seminal moment for both the magazine and British history. Below, Vogue rounds up nine further East Asian photographers making headway in the industry, reclaiming and changing the narrative surrounding East Asian identities in the process.
South Korean photographer Minhyun Woo discovered photography in his late twenties, going on to shoot campaigns for Gucci and editorials for Vogue. Renowned for his distinct sensual style, Woo was tasked with photographing the historic cover for the September 2020 issue of the Korean edition of Vogue, which saw all 26 global versions of the magazine come together to celebrate “hope”. Woo’s take on the theme was a buoyant spectacle of love and joy, as he travelled to remote villages in the countryside capturing Korean grandmothers in the traditional hanbok. “Hope is the expectation of a new beginning, but we are also the hope of our predecessors and previous generations,” he says. “I wanted to pay thanks and respect the hope that previous generations have for us. My pictures are images of love and gratitude and [highlight] that every second you spend with others is special.”
Alex Leese has always been fascinated by the human condition. Outside of her work in fashion, her images are compelling anthropological studies. Take her “Boys of Hong Kong” project, which addresses stereotypes of Asian masculinity, and was captured by the 32-year-old shortly after returning home to Hong Kong from London. “I don’t think I felt ‘othered’ until I came to the UK when I was 12,” she reveals. “That shifted my whole perspective of the world, which has informed a lot of my work.” Her latest project, “Me + Mine”, is a series of nudes of women from all over the world shot over Zoom during the first lockdown – a salient exploration of self-empowerment and reclaiming one’s bodily autonomy. “Racism and gender discrimination is not new. Changing the narrative has to happen on all sides where we also redefine masculinity and understand men’s identity. Art is the most powerful way to change people’s minds, and that’s what drives me to continue doing what I do.”
Once an assistant to photographer Tyrone Lebon, South Korean photographer Hanna Moon has become a household name in her own right, shooting for brands and magazines across the world and hosting an exhibition with fellow photographer Joyce Ng at Somerset House in 2019. Titled English As a Second Language, it challenged ideas of beauty and style, exploring their respective cultures and otherness. “My work is quite honest, raw and in-between,” Hanna says. “I believe that any artist’s work should show their cultural identity. Each person has a unique universe derived from their experience and culture.” Moon’s first British Vogue cover with actor Gemma Chan is, indeed, a celebration of her community, though there is still more work to be done. “My motto is that change doesn’t happen in a second. You just have to keep pushing for it, and just believe in something, to practise it and then eventually people will see it. That’s what I believe. That’s why I don’t really voice [myself] in a very political way; I’m trying to do my part as an artist. That’s just how I am.”
As an only child, Joyce Ng developed a knack for observing others that has influenced her approach to photography and storytelling. “I like to focus on other people’s stories because I don’t like to talk about myself. That is, of course, one form of self-expression,” she says. Inspired by her home city of Hong Kong and “the bluntness of our words and manners and the ugly, vulgar and gritty things in everyday life”, the 29-year-old Central Saint Martins graduate’s work carries the raw edge and electrifying energy of the city. “At the heart of my art is my refusal to let go of my upbringing in the ’90s and early 2000s in Hong Kong,” she explains. “I grew up in a city of contradictions… questioning our complex identity.” Though her art is firmly rooted in her culture – including “Once In a Lifetime”, which captured Huang Luo women with their traditionally long hair – her work speaks a universal language that transcends cultures and borders.
There’s an impassioned sensitivity within Luo Yang’s images. The Shanghai-based 37-year-old discovered photography in college as a way to release her emotions. For her decade-long series “GIRLS”, she shot hundreds of Chinese women born in the ’80s in their natural environment to show that “girls are badass, self-aware, with a supreme sense of cool, yet also insecure, vulnerable and torn”. Her follow-up project, “Youth”, is equally exposing, as she focuses her lens onto women younger than herself in an effort to understand the new generation. “My work is a truthful reflection of my culture and environment and the lives of people I meet,” she explains. “Reality has the power to move people, and I want to truthfully present the lives of different women and generations in China, capturing precious moments of the ordinary people as they are. I hope that people can find comfort in my images and [that they] encourage them to respect every individual.”
In 2013, New York-based artist Ji Yeo used her lens to expose the brutal reality of South Korea’s cosmetic surgery industry with her raw portraits of women following invasive procedures. Eight years later, “Beauty Recovery Room” remains groundbreaking, exposing the painful truths of South Korean women who fall victim to extreme beauty standards aggravated by the Western gaze. “Having had plenty of beauty consultations myself, I realised the weight of plastic surgery,” she reveals. “I was upset, to say the least, at how women are judged by their looks and how that is socially accepted and encouraged. I wanted to give these women power and a voice through my art. Through the bluntness of my work, I wanted to bring awareness to these subjects because I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.” The 36-year-old continues to create provocative work focused on beauty ideals, including “Draw On Me”, where she invited the public to draw on areas where they thought she should get surgery, and “Somewhere On the Path, I See You”, celebrating all women and their bodies.
Born and raised in Malaysia, Zhong Lin grew up surrounded by diverse cultures that continue to influence her dreamy, surreal images. “Everyone interprets art very differently,” says Lin, who is now Taiwan based. “Someone commented that the women in my photos look frozen, immobilised and submissive. Is that a reflection of how I see women? Not at all. I think people see what they want to see and some see women in that way. I hope that people can see a different kind of beauty with an open mind and get positive vibes from my photography.” Already a prominent name shooting fashion editorials and campaigns, it’s Lin’s personal work that reveals her unique eye and prowess as a photographer. See her latest series, “Project 365”, where she took a picture every day for a year. “I really love close-up portraits as you get so many emotions from only the eyes. It’s amazing how a still photo can invoke emotion and thoughts in viewers.”
Cho Gi Seok
Before picking up a camera for the first time in 2016, South Korean photographer Cho Gi Seok was a set designer and art director, having graduated with a graphic design degree. “[Eventually] I wanted to capture what I envisioned through set and art direction myself,” he reveals. Inspired by nature, East Asian culture and his own childhood growing up in Seoul, the 29-year-old’s work melds the serene and the surreal as he plays with distinct motifs such as childhood toys, flowers, and school uniforms. Lately, his work has nodded to the digital landscape with projects centred on the concept of coexistence. “I’ve been focusing on this idea since 2011, and I started to visualise it in 2018,” he explains. “I wanted to explore the duality of coexistence, whether between two ideas such as nature and technology or [within] relationships.”
Capturing intimate moments amongst Chinese youth, Beijing photographer Wang Wei’s images roar with colour and energy, eliciting a whimsical sense of liberation and freedom. “I think being young means being yourself fearlessly, following your heart fearlessly,” he says of his “Young Wild & Free” series, which chronicles the lives of his friends (and is appropriately named after Snoop Dogg’s 2011 track). Elsewhere he provides snapshots of China’s buzzy youth culture in projects such as “Hot Summer Nights” and “Fly Me to the Moon”. Shooting strictly on 35mm film, there is a welcome intimacy and honesty in his work.