Kevin WY Lee: The Invisible Photographer

Kevin WY Lee is a street photographer and the founder of The Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA), a street photography and visual documentary that features Asian photographers. In almost a year, he was able to grow the IPA community to over 70,000+ Facebook fans while pushing the art of street photography and visual documentation in Asia. Eric Kim had the opportunity to talk with Kevin about what inspired him to start The Invisible Photographer Asia and insights into his own photography.

Q: It is a great pleasure to have you Kevin. Can you start off by telling us a bit about your background?

A: Thanks. I was born in a little Pacific island called Fiji and was the only Chinese kid in my primary school soccer team. Moved to Sydney later on and got a degree in Design from College Of Fine Arts. I’m now based in Singapore.

I founded Invisible Photographer Asia (IPA) in 2010 as an advocate for street photography and visual journalism in Asia. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone that has followed and supported IPA. I also double as a Creative Director at SPOON, a boutique creative outfit in Asia.

Q: How did you stumble upon street photography and visual documentation as a means of expressing yourself?

A: I worked in art direction with commercial photographers first and had never thought of taking photographs myself. My interest initially was in films and motion. I once wrote a script and almost made a feature film with a notable director, but didn’t happen. Film making these days is more about economics than art.

I decided one day (quite late in life) to buy a still camera and try taking photographs myself. It was a Nikon FM2. I realized thereafter that I took decent photographs and that I enjoyed it. I could be creative, visualize, originate and at the same time tell stories. The interest grew steadily from there.

Q: Who are some photographers who have influenced your work and your interest in photography?

A: I draw inspiration from everywhere: design, music, films and people I meet. But a few names in photography would be the usual: Bresson, Alex Webb, Trent Parke and a few other Magnum photographers. The guys at In-Public are also great. I like Junku Nishimura, a friend and street photographer in Japan. I also learn something new each time we feature a photographer and his/her work on Invisible Photographer Asia.

Q: Which gear and equipment do you use to help achieve your photographic insight?

A: My current primary cameras are a Leica M9 and M4. These cameras are basic, simple and quiet workers, like an ox, like me. My main lens is a 35mm. But I use a 28mm or 24mm when I need to. I also have a Mamiya 6 for big squares when I’m up for it. All rangefinders.

Q: You state that, “I’m a bit of a loner and a quiet observer. I’m intrigued by daily street theatre – the surreal, absurd and masquerades be they faces, places or interfaces.” What is your approach when you are shooting on the streets.

A: I don’t have a particular approach. Most of the time, I’m wandering around quietly observing. There are different things that intrigue me when I wander. It may be a person, or a series of people interacting a particular way; it may be a place and the way light is defining its environment – anything really. If I find a particular place curious enough, I return again and again before moving on.

I like being close enough, and I prefer invisibility as a photographer. People often mistake being invisible as being sneaky or hiding in the shadows somewhat, but it’s not. It’s about being calm, quiet and unassuming; trying your best not to influence or affect the scene and subjects while photographing. Close enough for me is near enough to make for a meaningful, well-composed photograph of the subject and his environment.

Looking at my photographs, they tell me I am a bit of a surrealist, but I guess most street photographers are in one way or another.

Q: The Invisible Photographer has only been around a year but has built an immense and engaged following. What is the mission statement of IPA and can you describe the thought process that went behind the name?

A: We’ve never written a mission statement. We love street photography and visual journalism and strive to be strong advocates in Asia. Hopefully that in itself will drive what we do and where we’re going.

The name came about because it reflected my preferred method of photography, i.e. being invisible, and because IPA as a platform strives to bring visibility to the work of emerging or if you prefer, less known, photographers in Asia.

Q: Describe the Asian street photography scene.

A: Healthy, vibrant, growing and hopefully catching up with the wild West in the not too distant future. But I have to admit, there are a lot of photographers in Asia taking street portraiture more so than what I would on a school day call pure street photography. I guess these days, there is street photography, and then there is good, purist street photography.

Q: What is your favorite photo-essay featured on IPA?

A: My favorite is always the next one we’ll be featuring on IPA, so do click back often to find out.

Q: How do people in Singapore feel or react toward street photographers? Are the laws pretty lax when it comes to street photography or stifling?

A: Pick up a pebble in Singapore and throw it in any direction. You’ll likely hit a tourist with a camera. Singapore is a tourist state, so people here are generally used to people carrying cameras and photographing on the streets. Some are shy though and I once did get threatened with a curse by a hokey street voodoo man.

With regards to laws, I haven’t heard of any street photographers getting arrested for using a telephoto lens yet.

Q: What is in the future for The Invisible Photographer Asia?

A: Hopefully more visibility with your help and support.

Q: What are some personal photography projects you are currently working on?

A: I’m observing and shooting the streets of Singapore at the moment, whilst pondering a few short projects. This will take effort and a long time if I eventually want to put a book together with strong images from cover to cover. I’m also exploring some motion photography possibilities.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring street or documentary photographers who want to get their voice heard?

A: Edit, edit, edit. Photographers are known not by what they shoot, but by what they show. You can shoot anything, any way you want, but I recommend being tight and discriminate with what you select and show to the world as your serious photographs.

Spend more time criticizing your own work, not others.

Share your work via social media or otherwise, tastefully.

Keep bios and captions simple. Let your work speak for itself.

Thank you Kevin!

-Leica Internet Team

To find out more on Kevin’s work, please visit his personal website: www.kevinwylee.com. To learn more about Invisible Photographer Asia, please visit the website, invisiblephotographer.asia, and connect with IPA on Facebook, www.facebook.com/invisiblephotographer, and Twitter, @InvisPhotogAsia.