Representing the creative future

“It’s fiction but it could be reality”: Sirui Ma on fashion photography

Entire libraries have been filled with reflections on how to turn talent into a career but sometimes it only takes a single conversation to get it

Sirui Ma always looks for closeness and connection. She just happened to have found the artistic medium best suited to that need. The London-based photographer slowly entered the fashion industry while studying a fine art degree in New York; a process of trial and error which she believes is the best way to discover yourself anyway. By trying out different practices and career paths, she solidified what it is she likes so much about photography: the ability to instantly capture even the most fragile moments. This results in a desire to create characters that the viewer can instantly relate to, images that feel like documentary snapshots, fragments of life in a frame.

Her work is commissioned by brands like Nike, Gap, Stüssy, and MCQ, but like most fashion photographers, she continues to heavily invest in her personal work, as well as independent publications and designers. Here, she explains how to balance those two aspects of our sector, as well as her education and view on the importance of inclusion and diversity.

Sirui Ma's first photographs

When did you discover your interest in photography?

It was always present ambiently in my life. I lived with my maternal grandparents from the age of two to four. My parents were journalists and stationed in Kenya, so I got to know them through photos. When they picked me up and brought me back to Beijing, they showed me all these photos of their life in Kenya. So I reconnected with my parents through photography.

Also, my parents always had little cameras around, just in case they needed images to accompany something they were writing about. When I was six or seven, my dad gave me a small digital camera, and I started taking pictures of friends and children in the neighborhood. It’s really cute to look at them again, and see kids from a kid’s angle. That was my first hands-on experience.

“I don’t think people should come out of high school and know what they want to do for the rest of their lives.” – Sirui Ma

Are you able to define what it is that attracts you to the medium?

I am able to directly translate what I’m seeing and show that to other people. That’s harder when there are different layers to a practice. With styling or painting, it takes more to get a message across. Photography feels much more direct.

You’re describing a skill here. Was that trained or do you think you have an innate talent for it?

I definitely have a natural inclination to it. But I’m also still working on it. The more time you spend doing something, the more of a voice you find. Maybe we shouldn’t expect to get into something and immediately see results. It’s discouraging to see other people shoot to astronomical success in the snap of a finger. In reality, for most people, that’s not the case. There is lots of experimentation and failure.

“School felt like a supplement to a career that was already developing.” – Sirui Ma

Can you tell me more about your education? 

I dropped out of my art degree in New York after three years. I felt the need to really focus on one thing. I applied to two photography programs in London. It was a bit of a shot in the dark, but I got into both, which I felt was a sign to restart and focus on one subject. Being an older student, I felt I was in a different place. The other students were really still in their fun phase. I don’t think people should come out of high school and know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. It was good for me to have those three years of not knowing, exploring, and then going into it knowing what I wanted. Because I had that experience, I really maximized the facilities. That was the most important thing. I created a workflow where I went in, did my schoolwork, and then left to do my professional work. School felt like a supplement to a career that was already developing. Having the structure of school is very helpful when you’re exploring. It felt like a safety net. Just having the support network of technicians that you can ask questions and advice.

Albion, MCQ

In art school, the financial reality is easily pushed to the back of your mind. When did you start thinking of your practice as a professional pursuit? 

I am a hustler by nature. I didn’t have a lot growing up, so in the back of my mind, I was always thinking: how can I live off this one day? Both of my parents were the first to get out of their small towns, the first to be college-educated of their siblings. They always wanted me to work hard. And living in Queens, New York City you are really confronted with the reality that you have to do what you can to make money. It was both my upbringing and my environment.

“Figuring out what you don’t like is just as important as figuring out what you do like.” – Sirui Ma

Your parents have traveled around a lot, living in countries with an immigrant status often leads to a strong need for financial stability. Was that present for you?

My parents weren’t always behind me pursuing this. My dad is still hoping to push me towards architecture or tech. He’s always trying to slide in something else “just in case”. Obviously, he’s worried about my stability and my future. But my grandfather was a painter and a calligrapher, and my dad picked up painting as a passion. It boggles me that he can’t see that even though he has a stable job, there is something else he loves so much. He also wants me to want that stability that comes with a 9 to 5.

When were you introduced to fashion?

In highschool, I did a lot of things to look good for college applications. You have to prove that you’re motivated. I did styling and casting assisting. That gave me a sneak peek into the fashion side. I think it was mostly about trying out a lot of different things. Figuring out what you don’t like is just as important as figuring out what you do like.

It was very gradual that I realised this is something I wanted. At one point I wanted to become a painter or fashion designer, but then I sat behind a sewing machine and thought “absolutely not.”

"The Sea"

What are some projects or experiences that helped solidify this decision? 

I really enjoy it when you feel that the person who hired you understands your work and trusts you to do something. I recently shot the campaign for MCQ, for example, and the team was very laid back and hands-off. They let me do my thing and gave me what I needed to make the most of the shoot. I really enjoy that. Sometimes, especially at commercial gigs they really micromanage you and it doesn’t feel like there is trust. You should hire people because you have seen their work and trust their ability. Otherwise, why would you hire them? If you’re not sure of me, why don’t you do it yourself?

“You can’t hold on to what has already existed until now and expect something new to be created. A lot of people in fashion aren’t necessarily creative people. So it can be hard for them to see that. When they deal with creatives, they don’t know how to guide them.” – Sirui Ma

Can you give more insight into the reason why this happens? Why is it so difficult to obtain creative freedom? 

It happens when there is a huge team and there are too many people in the chain of command. You have to check everyone’s box. Or say it’s a larger brand, then there are lots of steps of approval. Often, there is tension between what the brand has been up to until now versus the evolution they want to see by hiring new talent. You can’t hold on to what has already existed until now and expect something new to be created. A lot of people in fashion aren’t necessarily creative people. So it can be hard for them to see that. When they deal with creatives, they don’t know how to guide them.

Do you have any advice on how to manage those tensions?

It’s best to not take it personally. That is just how certain people are in this industry. Commercial jobs are a bit more “traditional” and come with less creative freedom. At the end of the day, you are hired to give them what they want. Make them happy, you don’t have to claim that work as the pinnacle of your creativity.

You mentioned how your father completely separates work and passion. You are trying to combine the two. Yet your practice seems to divide itself once again in the commercial work you feel less passionate about and the creative work that might not pay as well.

This dynamic is very present in photography. I won’t always get jobs like MCQ. That is an ideal scenario. I wish I could have it every month. I guess it’s about accepting that? No matter how bad it gets, I would rather be doing this than holding down a traditional 9-5.

“When you trust everyone to do their job, it’s a very smooth process.” – Sirui Ma

How does a commercial project usually develop?

For example, at MCQ, a friend of mine was an art director for the collection. She saw the clothes and thought it would be a great fit for me because of the general aesthetic and inspiration. Then I was invited to choose a stylist, so I brought in Calvin who brought in Dan. It’s usually this type of domino effect when you curate a team for a project. That’s so important because when you trust everyone to do their job, it’s a very smooth process. But when there isn’t trust, then comes the micromanaging and nagging.

Sirui Ma for Gap
Sirui Ma for Gap
"Red Lantern"
"Red Lantern"

This process feels very informal. I imagine communicating with everyone was more spontaneous, that you didn’t have to worry about sounding professional in every email. Is that how projects usually go for you?

A lot of fashion stuff does come through people you know. It’s about a network. Most of my friends are in the creative industries. It’s natural and normal that these things happen through more casual encounters. You usually refer a friend for other work too. It’s about knowing and understanding each other’s work so you know who is compatible.

“It’s such a negative stereotype, if you’re famous you’re allowed to be a nasty person. Why would you want to embody that?” – Sirui Ma

Then comes the day of the shoot. How do you usually feel?

I’m always pretty nervous before shoots begin. I don’t really sleep well. Once we get into the groove of it and I understand the dynamic of the team, it feels more natural. It’s always the first look or two that are really about feeling it out. Seeing what the model is like, how you can communicate with them. How do they respond to your cues? Can they be natural in front of a camera? I always ask the models I shoot with to embody a character in their head. So, I’ll be like – Imagine you’re tired waiting for a bus. Imagine you’re running late. For me, that makes the job easier.

The photographer is often perceived as a solitary figure, an observer, but in fashion, they need to be really good communicators and team players.

For sure. There might be a point where you become so big that you become more solitary, because people know what to expect of you, and you’re regarded highly enough that you know you can say something and it works. But I really believe in the importance of being nice. I don’t understand why people need to be nasty and unpleasant. It makes everyone’s time worse. I’ve heard so many horror stories of bigger names just being unpleasant. It’s such a negative stereotype, if you’re famous you’re allowed to be a nasty person. Why would you want to embody that?

"Red Lantern"
"Red Lantern"
"Body/Language"

Do you think it might be stress that causes people to behave in that way? 

But then you put stress on other people and transpose it onto them, people who might not have been stressed at all before they interacted with you, or worse, people who are already stressed enough with their own work. Imagine it’s an intern’s first day and they encounter you like that ‒ it just leaves a horrible impression. Then you’re normalizing that that is acceptable behaviour, that they should expect that going forward.

“People always say, the more you show personal work, the more likely it is to get hired to recreate this kind of work.” – Sirui Ma

What do you think it is about your work that people like?

I think my work feels natural. There is a relationship. I’m either really close to my subjects, or I’m invisible, a fly on the wall documenting someone’s life. It feels…

Intimate?

I think so, I hope so.

"Eastlogue 'Bronx Riviera'"

Is that something you bring to your more commercial work? Does your voice remain unchanged no matter the context?

The sense of a relationship or intimacy is definitely something I love about photography. It’s almost like you’re creating fiction. I want to do that through all aspects of my work. People always say, the more you show personal work, the more likely it is to get hired to recreate this kind of work.

“I feel like the older I get the more aware of my identity I become. As time goes on I become more conscious of who I work with and the power I have in creating teams.” – Sirui Ma

It’s interesting that you use the word fiction, which feels opposed to the realness and rawness of emotions you’re aiming to display.

For me, it’s about embodying a character. Just like an actor can become someone else in a film. It’s the same with photography. You have this rapport with the model and the viewer needs to relate to them. You have a very real relationship with the character that person is becoming in front of your lens. So it’s fiction, but it could be reality. I want it to be so well executed that it feels real.

You recently wrote about your limbo identity and how it influences your practice. I would like to ask about how that applies to navigating your career. How have you experienced your Asian identity going into this industry? Diversity has become an important topic, but only very recently.

There’s two things, being new in the industry and also being young. I feel like the older I get the more aware of my identity I become. As time goes on I become more conscious of who I work with and the power I have in creating teams. I think about how I can make them more diverse and inclusive. I consciously choose people and women of colour.

“I wouldn’t want to be in an industry where I don’t see a future.” – Sirui Ma

On social media more specifically these debates have really opened up. As we speak, multiple labels are posting about Asian discrimination specifically. What is your perception of that online debate?

I feel that even with the Black Lives Matter movement, these moments of “suddenly we have to address this issue” kind of fade out. I feel like this will definitely be the same. I want to see more long-term engagement. You can use a black model once, but are there black people on the team? It is still just a desk full of old white men. That impacts what is being pushed out. To accurately represent someone in an image, you need someone who gets it behind the image.

There are definitely limits to the power of representation, which is a difficult conversation to have in fashion because we’re all about image. 

But I’m hopeful. That’s why I’m still here. I wouldn’t want to be in an industry where I don’t see a future.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

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