Representing the creative future

Photographer Alexandra Leese on the power of saying no

British-Chinese photographer Alexandra Leese on empowering the female body and navigating the pressures of the industry

“Art is about starting conversations that we absolutely need to have,” stresses photographer Alexandra Leese. It’s a way of transmitting the ideals and the problems that come with quotidian life into the sublime, causing a stir to its viewer, be it admiration or repulsion. It forces them to think and contemplate. For Leese, the intention of her work is just that, creating a commentary that reflects the zeitgeist, through the repeated motif of nudity that occurs across her work. In doing so, her images harbour a philanthropic quality, questioning: “how have our bodies been used against us to make us believe a certain way about ourselves?” Governed by the rhetorical framework, her images transcend a simple fixation with the body in nude, rather, they challenge the ulterior intentions of those inflicting the gaze, as a tool for both power and capitalism.

Photographer Alexandra Leese on the power of saying no

It was amongst the bustle and the coveted pastel houses of Portobello Road market that Leese bought her first film camera, little knowing that her impromptu purchase would later end itself to a career. Somewhere in her late teens and studying for her foundation year at Chelsea College of Art under the illusion of becoming a painter, she secured herself a Flex 35mm camera, a contraption that would change the course of her life and deviate from a childhood love of drawing. Raised in Hong Kong into a household that championed and appreciated art, Leese got her creative footing through her taste for portraiture. Her penchant for documenting the world and its people around her was only heightened, following her move to London with her sister at the ripe age of 12.“The fact that I’m half-Asian living in a multicultural household and moving from Asia to the West, has given me a unique experience. It channels the way I see and respond to the world. From a young age, my eyes were opened to different perspectives.”

Under the encouragement from her tutor during her foundation year, Leese’s talent with the shutter button was further cultivated during her enrolment at UAL’s London College of Fashion to study Fashion Photography. “I wasn’t quite ready to go into the working environment just yet so it was good for me to find my footing as I’d only just discovered photography the year before,” she notes, heralding her years of study as invaluable. While it’s no secret that the meaning behind a fashion image is simply regarding the clothes, following her graduation and doorway into fashion photography full-time, she experienced the coaxing sway that comes with the elementary years in the industry. Ushered along by its hurried pace, “I was led down a commercial route where I didn’t feel like myself. I felt pressured and influenced by people around me to be a certain kind of photographer, and I think I lost my way a little in terms of my style and who I wanted to be.”

“It’s difficult not saying yes to everything until you really know who you are and you start trusting yourself and your work.” – Alexandra Leese

Acknowledging her frustration and the growing void between herself and the lens, Leese began to recognise a greater responsibility at play through her photographs. Rather than capturing a moment in time, she longed to capture moments of humanity through the nakedness of the body. “I can’t pinpoint a specific moment when I began to explore nudity,” she offers, questioning herself at the same time. “Gender norms have always really frustrated me. I exist in this artistic bubble where everyone thinks in a similar and more open way. But growing up in Hong Kong where people seem to have more conservative views  I often felt more confronted with it.” A judgmental assumption paved the way for Leese to not only tailor her niche, but find her purpose. That’s not to say she felt apathetic towards her commercial introductions, rather, her strength in returning to the promotional parameters came from learning to say no sometimes, albeit a difficult feat in the early stages of entering the industry. “It’s difficult not saying yes to everything until you really know who you are and you start trusting yourself and your work.” Finding that trust with herself, Leese now straddles a portfolio between editorial and commercial work, where each image carries a responsibility be it for a brand or herself. Instead, each photograph is underscored with an appreciation and empowerment of the human body.

She contemplates her passage through the industry. “I think this is what you learn over time. Being pressured by others was the most important mistake I ever made. But it would not be who I am today, had I not made that mistake, because I now so much more sure of who I am.” From her seminal photo-project Boys of Hong Kong, a zine of images examining the depiction of masculinity in China to her more recent involvement with Alexander McQueen’s rebranded line MCQ, joining the democratic technology-driven label and platform that places precedence on collaboration.“I think it was a really fresh and new way of approaching a campaign; it was very much about the collaborators, as much as it is about the brand. There was a lot of substance and a lot of freedom in it and it brings out the best in the people you’re working with if you give them the freedom to be creative. At the end of the day, that’s your dream job as a creative isn’t it? You want to be hired for what you do best and be trusted for your vision.”

“Being pressured by others was the most important mistake I ever made. ” – Alexandra Leese

The resilience demonstrated throughout her career came into full fruition during the pandemic, where isolation necessitated by lockdown, forced her to renegotiate her relationship with the camera and once again question the intent behind her work, which in turn has lead to one of her most intimate and contemplative works to date. To borrow a quote from Judy Chicago’s essay on the function of art in the pandemic, she notes how “a great deal of art doesn’t matter.” She highlights the theoretical kind where university art programmes verse their students in technical jargon, to the mercenary kind that prioritises the price more than the content it conveys. Leese, however, provides the kind that does matter, pandemic or not. Propelled by the separation over the past few months, she set herself the challenge of revalorising the power of fashion photography in a moment of crisis, at a time in history where society is oscillating between craving fantasy and acknowledging reality.

Her latest project,  Me + Mine documents the power of the female nude in a photobook capturing women, shot via Zoom all across the world. Through a sequence of 44 portraits, she questions the evolving relationship of the woman and her body, seeking to empower each figure and create a safe place to take control and counter the patriarchal gaze. “They are supporting each other and uplifting each other. I wanted to do a project that wasn’t just for me, but also very much for the subject and the women to show that no matter our culture, no matter our background, we all have our own individual battles that are different, but we all have battles. And that’s the universal, bittersweet experience. It goes across cultures and it goes across the world. With proceeds donated to Black Trans Femmes in the Arts collective (USA), Trans Law Centre (USA), RASAC (Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre UK), Me + Mine tours the idea that diversity needs to be at every level.

“It’s through art we can create a reflection of what’s happening.” – Alexandra Leese

Switching the paintbrush of her youth for the camera of her adult life, Leese has fostered a space to tell a story of safety and of comfort for the female body. Regardless of her apparatus, as she sought her way through an industry that was at times as coercive as it was cooperative, she strives to create a platform that celebrates and champions difference; a place for the woman not to be judged, but revered at a time when community has never been needed most. “It’s through art we can create a reflection of what’s happening,” she summaries. “People who create are always going to find ways to create, even if you take certain things away from them. In the same way that humans started making art for the first time, they used charcoal from fire. There’s always a way to create.” As galleries and museums across the world wait nervously, stifled by the pandemic and with their doors still closed, through an online showcase, curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen posed the provocative question: “How can we think of art at a time like this?” Alexandra Leese’s photography provides a simple answer: how could we not?