Despite having worked as director Wong Kar-wai’s official set photographer and accumulated years of experience under his belt photographing strangers, landscapes, and countless celebrities, this legendary photographer still isn’t accustomed to being the focus of attention. With cameras turned on him at a recent press conference, he tells the room, “Feel free to ask plenty of questions because I don’t really know what to talk about.”
That’s Wing Shya for you.
Wing prefers keeping a low profile and to let his camera do the talking. Even though he’s always on movie sets and working with famous celebrities, he remains humble. “Everyone is busy filming the movie, and I’m there, crouched on the ground, trying to snap a few photos.”
On movie productions, there can be no interruptions when a take begins. It’s only after the director yells “Cut” that any photographs can be taken. As a result, what’s captured is the moment immediately following a take, a split second where the actors let their guards down and show themselves in a more vulnerable state. Wing loves to capture these authentic moments.
Wing says, “I like to document what happens after we wrap on set. People will often ask me, ‘Everything’s finished, so what is there left to shoot?’ But I pay them no mind and keep shooting.” Wing’s always ready on the side, waiting for the right moment – it’s this patience that has allowed Wing to capture his iconic image of Leslie Cheung in contemplation as the actor waited to begin a take. His understanding on the importance of waiting has also allowed him to document the honest range of emotions experienced by directors and crew members alike on various movie sets.
“I won’t try to overshadow the moment. I always try to make myself as ‘small’ as possible. I just enjoy the process of photography; I want to take in the atmosphere and people I’m photographing.” Wing confesses he won’t even look at photographs he’s taken in the past. For him, photography is about being present – it’s about witnessing the moment in real time.
Of course, the subjects, environment, and lighting aren’t always in ideal conditions. Often, Wing has to play around and experiment. “I like mistakes. So a lot of the time, I’ll just have fun and create something out of a mistake.” Wing recalls a time when he was faced with the challenge of shooting in an almost pitch-black room. After improvising and moving light sources around, he ended up taking a three-minute-long exposure. When the photograph was finally developed, he described the shot to be “beautiful, similar to shadows cast by tree branches.”
Wing’s affinity for making mistakes is linked to his love of authenticity. As someone who’s passionate about capturing genuine moments, Wing prefers using film cameras, seeing it as a medium that’s able to better reproduce reality. The inherent constraints of analog film limit how much his photographs can be manipulated in post-production. What’s initially captured with the camera will often be the final result. For Wing, this is infinitely more fascinating.
Sometimes Wing will design a narrative and a setting to allow his subjects to better ease into a certain mood. But according to Wing, more often than not, he won’t set anything up at all. Instead, he’ll just let his models chat with an assistant, and he’ll start shooting from the side. “When shooting different people, I’ll use different methods.”
These past few years, Wing has started photographing landscapes. Hazy, dark, and cryptic, his landscape photography is representative of the photographer’s own changing outlooks on life. Nowadays, when a day isn’t going right, he’ll embrace it as is rather than lamenting. “When it suddenly rains, I used to blame the weather. But now, I’ll work around the weather’s temperamental nature. I treat the weather as if were my girlfriend.”
For Wing, he sees many of his photos as a direct representation of his feelings at the time of capture. As life goes on, his photography changes with it. But to him, there’s never a need to look back and over-analyze the past – Wing lives and shoots in the present.
So when approached with the opportunity to organize a solo exhibition, Wing delivered over 10,000 photographs to Karen Smith, the curator of the exhibition, allowing her to choose which images to showcase. The exhibition isn’t separated by celebrity portraits or personal projects; it spans across different time periods and is difficult to categorize into a single, all-encompassing theme. When asked about this, Wing chuckled, saying, “Theme? It’s hard to paint this exhibition in a single color. If you want to talk about the theme, it would be reality.”
Wing Shya’s solo exhibition is currently on display at the Shanghai Center of Photography. He’s also recently released a personal photography compilation book, which is available for purchase here.
Event: ACTING OUT – Wing Shya
Exhibition Date: 11/8/2017 ~ 1/10/2018
Opening Hours: Tuesday ~ Saturday
Shanghai Center of Photography
2555-1 Longing Avenue
Xuhui District, Shanghai
People’s Republic of China