Wing Shya on Photographing 90s Hong Kong and Working with Wong Kar-wai

By Erica Martin, December 6, 2017

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"To be honest, I didn’t choose it,” Wing Shya says of his exhibit’s name, Acting Out, as we sit inside Shanghai Center of Photography a few days before its opening. “But I like it very much, because that’s my philosophy. I like to keep moving, I like to keep changing.”

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Arguably Hong Kong’s most celebrated photo artist, Shya began earning this rebellious reputation while working as a set photographer on Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film Happy Together.

Having zero experience in the norms of set photography, Shya followed exactly none of the guidelines of the job (like shooting actual scenes from the movie), and spent his time instead seeking out honest off-camera moments between co-stars Tony Leung and the late, great Leslie Cheung – lying in a car, smoking, sipping water and staring at the sky. Arranged in a collage format for Acting Out, they reveal a precious intimacy between the actors that feels raw and authentic.

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Shya went on to work with Wong on In the Mood for Love and several other movies, and he’s also perpetually in-demand as a commercial photographer for high fashion shoots. He has a tendency to irk the people who hire him, however.

“You’re always supposed to show off the clothes, but sometimes I don’t, and I make the brand really upset,” he says with a grin. “I crop them; I don’t show the logo. But it’s all about creating that situation and that mood; the composition and the light.”

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Shya remains a sought-after talent despite (or perhaps because of) this good-natured refusal to compromise, which allows for his genius in depicting atmosphere and genuine emotion in his work. One of his techniques for achieving this is inventing backstories for each actor in every shoot, though he never reveals what they are to anyone other than the models themselves.

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He explains: “I’ll say something like, ‘For this scene, these are your clothes, this is your room, this is your bed. You’re so bored today, so you go over there to smoke and then you come here to try on your clothes, because tomorrow is your wedding, and you don’t want to get married.’”

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This helps him capture similar moments of honest emotion that are much more engaging than an obvious pose, his way of mimicking the intimacy and authenticity of the shots in-between scenes he first captured on the set of Happy Together.

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“I realized that this kind of not-acting is more interesting than the acting itself,” Shya says. “Because when people are acting, it’s finished; they’re no longer thinking about it. But when they are waiting and preparing for something, I think that’s more sexy sometimes.”

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Sexiness is a major factor in Shya’s aesthetic, and much of his high fashion work in the exhibit is centered around beautiful women, including a striking few shots of Maggie Cheung with teased-out hair and a playful demeanor. 

But in every case, the women appear empowered and with agency – there’s something about the immediacy of the emotions they display that feels different and more respectful than in most fashion photography, allowing them to resonate as complex characters with rich interior lives.

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That Shya excels at evoking such authenticity makes sense when he reveals that the stories he invents for his characters and models are drawn from the extensive research he conducts in whatever city his shoots are set. This began in his hometown of Hong Kong, where the city’s chaotic vibrancy first inspired his unique aesthetic.

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“I love the extremely strong, contrasted colors of the late 80s and early 90s,” he explains. “When I moved back to Hong Kong from Vancouver in 1991, I thought ‘Wow, this is so noisy!’ People talked too loud, and the colors – they were so crazy.”

“I was out on the street most of the time, because my apartment was too small, so I would go out every night and spend a lot of time talking to the youth who hung out there. I picked up a camera and I thought, well maybe I’ll just shoot it noisily, with lots of contrast, because this is what Hong Kong is.” 

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In an effort to focus on more independent projects, Shya’s latest endeavor is a sci-fi romance feature film set in Chengdu, which he’ll begin shooting on location later this month. His keen eye and voracious appetite for capturing authentic emotion on film, which is vibrantly on display in Acting Out, will no doubt lead the cinematography of such a project in uncharted new directions.

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“These past couple of years, I’ve gone back to fine art, because I want to make more of a statement,” he says. “But I find it boring sometimes. I don’t want to set my career on anything. I don’t want to limit myself; I’ll do whatever comes to me. At the end of the day, if I feel happy and excited at a shoot, why care about where my name ends up?”

Until Jan 10, Shanghai Center of Photography.

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