Making Your Own Way in Analogue Photography: A Conversation With Wing Shya


Renowned photographer Wing Shya is a master of conveying stories and emotions through his work. Starting as the stills photographer for Wong Kar Wai on his movies such as Happy Together, In The Mood For Love, and 2046, he soon also found himself working in fine art and fashion editorial photography. Now an icon and an inspiration to many, we were delighted to talk to him about his journey into photography, the highlights of his career so far, and what he has in store!

Credits to Wing Shya

Greetings Wing Shya! Can you introduce yourself and tell us what have you been up to recently? I saw that you shot the Korean musician RM for 032C and Pharell Williams for another publication. What was your process for these shoots and did you use film?

My name is Wing, and I'm a photographer based in Hong Kong. I did a few shoots recently, with one of my recent ones being shooting Pharell for a Chinese magazine called Modern Weekly. I’ve been shooting a lot of film recently but these two projects specifically gave me so much time for it so I requested to do the projects on film rather than digital.

Usually, I use two or three kinds of cameras. I use a medium format camera like a Pentax or a Fuji and also a 35 mm. I normally use 3-4 cameras at the same time because I don't want to change the film and I don’t have an assistant so I usually have a lot of cameras on me. I have a collection of film stocks from over a decade ago that I have cold-stored from Fujifilm, Kodak, and other brands. I also have friends who respool cinefilms so I have been using those as well.

Looking back at how you started your career, you studied in Vancouver but eventually came back to Hong Kong. Can you tell us more about this time in your life?

I studied graphic design in Hong Kong before I went to Vancouver, so I graduated in graphic design and got a diploma, then I wanted to further my education so I went to Vancouver and studied Fine Art. I thought my career would be in graphic design so after graduating I just wanted to come back to Hong Kong. At that time not many people studied art, so I thought maybe it was a good opportunity to work in the field of arts and graphics. When I came back to Hong Kong I started with graphic design at the very beginning, like a lot of album covers, and doing some magazine layouts and covers as well. I also designed logos for movie posters. I enjoyed doing art direction, not just for magazines but also for albums.

I know that you also worked at a radio station. So how did that lead to photography?

I started at the radio station because I have a friend who was a famous DJ and singer. So he asked me to join because he was my classmate before I went to Canada, so we have known each other for many years. Then he asked me to join the radio station where I was the in-house graphic designer. At that time they needed so many things, from stickers, promotional materials, tickets and generally anything that required art. After work, we still had time to do other work so that's where I mostly did my freelance jobs. Since there were so many artists visiting the radio for interviews or mini shows and concerts, I eventually found myself being assigned to take behind-the-scenes photography and just eventually became the in-house photographer when there was no budget. So these experiences were my first foray into photography, where I learned the technical aspect. I also got a chance to try fashion shoots which led to my still film photography. And then somehow as I kept doing this by chance I met the director Wong Kar Wai and he asked me if I wanted to be a still photographer for his movie.

Tell us about that experience in Argentina being one of the still photographers for Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together.

Yeah, honestly, I didn't consider myself a professional. I felt more like a student who just graduated. I just didn’t know much about the technical side even though I studied photography. At the time actually, we had three still photographers and I thought that was too many for this movie. These two were more professional and experienced so as someone new I tried to do my own thing during the shoots.

If they were going for a specific angle that was traditionally good, I would try something alternative and get something that was different. At times the other two photographers weren't on set so I had to be the main photographer. It was a learning experience since it was my first time for many things. I learned a lot from cinematographer Christopher Doyle and also from director Wong Kar Wai who would give me advice but also tell me when I was doing something wrong.

Stills from Happy Together

But even if it wasn't the most technical, you were able to bring out a lot of emotion and capture the intensity of the movie through your photos. How do you think you were able to do that?

At that time I just treated it like a normal project. So I wasn't sure if I was doing something right or wrong. Some of the photos are blurred because I was using an automatic point-and-shoot, and their lighting was so dark. So yes there were many mistakes, but when they saw the photos they liked the mood of them. I think it was because the actors were so good, and the set was so good, so it wasn't hard to get a good photo. I wasn't thinking much of this project. I wasn't sure if I was doing well or not, but then they decided to use the photos for the poster so I got even more nervous to see if I got a good photo.

Looking back at it now, it's very iconic. A lot of people like referencing stills from that movie.

I was still young and new so I was mostly shooting by trusting my guts and feelings. In concept, I knew that cross-processing would bring out more fun colors and get stronger results from the film. So I did it. I trusted my feelings and I didn't expect anything. When I got the results, I showed the director and he loved it. Also in Argentina, some of the places where we were shooting didn't have much color so I wanted to bring more colors and make it stronger. So that's why I used a Fujifilm stock to bring the green and blue colors out more. Another thing – the wallpaper inside one of the sets was green, so it was nice to highlight it and make it stronger. Honestly, another factor was that at the time Fuji was much cheaper than Kodak!

After that movie, you did In The Mood For Love. Did you have the same process?

For In the Mood For Love, I did not cross-process but I used slide film from a film company that's not around anymore. Wong Kar Wai wanted the magenta and red color, so that's why I used that film stock. But for the sequel, 2046, I went back to cross-processing.

Credits to Wing Shya

What makes you decide whether to just shoot the film as it is or run it through cross-processing?

This depends on the costume and the set as well. When I looked at the set of In The Mood For Love there were a lot of red colors, especially in the wallpaper. Also, the clothes had a lot of green. So I thought the magentas and the reds of the slide film would match and compliment the colors of the movie. Beyond that, if you know the story of the movie and the period it was set in I think the film stock I chose would complement the story and add more layers. Another example of this was during the sequel 2046, since it was more futuristic I decided to have stronger colors, which is why I cross-processed the film.

What kind of cameras were you using to capture these behind-the-scenes stills?

For 2046 I used the Hassleband X-Pan camera because I wanted to make the photos as if they were on a stage or an opera since it is a panorama. For the other movies, I used a Canon automatic point-and-shoot, so sometimes they turned out well but also there were mistakes because the camera could read the lighting wrong. When I'm shooting, since everything is fast-paced, I don't have time to check all the readings. So I just go automatic and rely on the camera I have with me.

Also when I was starting, I didn't have this box that would allow the camera to not make a sound during filming. So once the director yelled cut I only had a few seconds to get the shots I needed. What's interesting is that even when I got the soundproof box for the camera, I still gravitated to taking still photos as if I didn't have one.

Credits to Wing Shya

Did you have a go-to lab or did you self-develop everything?

I used to go to Japan all the time so I got all my film developed and processed by this one guy. I met him by chance and we got along well and we talked about other things besides photography, like music. He understood me well and we worked together for 10 years. It's important to have someone like that. Someone who understands your work and how you want things colored and processed. Even at times, he would surprise me with how the photos turned out and I think that's good. Sadly he passed away. I currently get everything developed in Hong Kong through a friend who I also trust a lot.

In the past you've said that when you shot for Wong Kar Wai it wasn't your style, or it was mostly for him, but your choices such as using automatic point-and-shoots, cross-processing or manipulating film, also added to the overall aesthetic and feel of the movie. How do you think about that now? Do you still think it was just all him? Or do you feel like it's also your work?

Probably now it's 50/50 because he made me more cinematic. After all, I studied graphic design. How I would approach things in terms of framing would be more in terms of graphic design and not like a movie still. But for me, I wanted to take pictures when they were taking a break or when they were not on the move. I think these kinds of photos also tell something else, and add some mysticism to the whole experience.

Before you worked with him, did you do any research and watch any of his films?

He gave me some new wave films from the 60s like Michelangelo Antonioni's films and other Italian classic films as a way to prepare for working with him. He told me to study those films, especially the lighting, but on set I was able to get the angles he wanted by watching him direct.

Were there any other things that were influencing you at the time like music, art, etc.?

I think after I worked with Mr. Wong, I kind of enjoyed working with film people or working in similar headspaces as them. So I started listening to a lot of movie soundtracks and bringing them with me when I started to shoot more fashion and editorial work. I would play soundtracks like the one of Happy Together which is my favorite on set so people can get into the mood that I would want them to be in. I think it helps the models since they don't know how to act. When they listen to the music, I tell them this is the scene and the story I want to create for the shoot. I create a little script for the shoot and follow it as if it is a screenplay. I enjoy showing the models the script so they can get a feel of what I want and even in production design a lot of the set design is informed by the script that I like.

Credits to Wing Shya

So I think working in film and the teams I've worked with inspired me a lot. People like Christopher Doyle and his cinematography, William Chang as the art director fixing the costumes, and of course Mr. Wong. These people and these teams – learning from them helped me so much when I started my career.

So besides your work for Wong Kar Wai, I want to talk about your other photography work. Your editorial work for A Bathing Ape during the 90s has been seeing a resurgence lately on the internet. How did this come together?

After Happy Together, I actually compiled and collaged the photos from the movie and made a book for Mr. Wong. And then Nigo from Bathing Ape saw the book and loved it so much that he asked me to do the same for his brand. So that's that's why I kind of copied the Happy Together collage style. This happened around 1997. He arranged everything and got around 8-10 models and it felt like making a movie, trying to capture the Hong Kong Vibe.

Besides BAPE are there any other brands you'd like to work for?

After that initial shoot, I worked with them again a few times, then I went to Japan to shoot for some magazines like Men's Non-no and Popeye. We also brought that kind of vibe to the Japanese magazines. I did a 20-page story for Popeye magazine about Hong Kong and I used all the Hong Kong young and cool people, and for me at that time that was a really big story. After this story, I met Terry Jones in Paris. So I started working for I-D magazine for I think around 10 years. I did quite a few stories for I-D magazine. I shot for them in China, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and other parts of Asia.

Wing Shya's work featured on I-D

Speaking about Hong Kong, there was an edition of Wonderland Magazine that featured many of your snapshots of Hong Kong over the years! Can you tell us more about it? How would you compare Hong Kong now to how it was when you first started photography?

I remember it being an issue for Hong Kong, it could have been like an anniversary, like 25 years, but I know they wanted to print 25 front covers so that's why I chose photos from my archives showing Hong Kong over the years. This was a fun job. It wasn't anything new, it's all mostly old photos. I enjoy shooting a lot of snapshots and I always bring my camera wherever I go, even when I'm directing, so I still get those candid and casual photos that I really enjoy capturing.

Currently, most people in Hong Kong have made the switch to digital but there are still a lot of interesting photographers. I enjoy looking at new photographers and artists because the way I see Hong Kong and how cool I find it is different from the way their generation would see it. It's totally different! But I think that's normal. Every few years there's something new. I love that there are many different styles but at the same time, I'm still glad with what I'm doing now.

So what do you have in store for the coming year?

Currently, I'm releasing a new photobook called SOLACE which will mix the different sides of my work from the cinematic, editorial, fashion, and my daily snapshots. I love this bookshop in New York so much called Dashwood, which I went to all the time. I knew those people working there during COVID-19, and they asked me to do this book, so I found an interesting guy to design the book. I told them to curate the book because it's more interesting for someone to curate and put things together that maybe I don't see and I also see a new side of my work. I find it very romantic and interesting. I gave them access to my archive and let them choose. Some of these photos I honestly forgot about and I would always ask "Are you sure it's from me?" I enjoy seeing other people's points of view.

Credits to Wing Shya

Is it the same thing when you have shows in galleries or museums?

In most of my exhibitions, I let the curator choose. I really love this type of thing as they surprise me a lot! So I trust them and let them do it. At the very beginning, I wasn't sure if I liked it, but for example, once I saw a photo properly hung up in a museum or gallery, or a set of photos put together that I would never have thought of, it became a different story that interested me.

Seeing your work laid out now, how would you compare your older work to your newer ones?

The early work is my favorite, especially Happy Together. It felt more pure and natural. Yeah, I've been working for over 30 years you know. You work with many commercial people and you have to report to them and get a lot of comments, you tend to lose the childish and pure gut feeling.

Has there been a project recently that has allowed you to capture that childish and pure feeling again?

Three weeks ago, I was in Japan, and I helped this Hong Kong clothing brand to do their campaign. The brand is big locally and they gave me all my freedom to shoot how I wanted to shoot. So actually, we didn't have a big production team like in commercial shoots, we mostly did it by ourselves. We got people who weren't professional models but fit the brand well. Doing everything ourselves, it felt more natural and more relaxed and I did not feel rushed at all. It was nice to take our time and see what kind of things we could shoot and come up with. I could experiment as well. It just felt like when I started shooting over 20 years ago – just me, my camera, and the people. I like shoots where I can just explore my creativity without much pressure.

Credits to Wing Shya

Why do you decide to use film despite all these new technologies?

I like the texture first and also I like the surprise that shooting on film gives me. When I shoot digitally it gives me exactly what I shoot, but in film sometimes you never know what you will get, especially when you use an automatic camera and it uses a slow shutter speed. I like going back and shooting like when I started, using automatic cameras and just trusting the camera to see what will come out. I enjoy that characteristic. Also film color is so much different from digital. I really prefer the colors of film.

Have you ever encountered Lomography or used any of our products as a photographer?

Yes! When I was studying in the 90s I encountered Lomography, both the movement and the products. I even used some in the early days when I was still shooting album covers. I have a lot of Lomo photos in my archives, especially back in the day.

To end, do you have any words of advice or anything you want to say to the Lomography Community?

I think photography is really personal. You know when you love what you do, that's the most important. And keep enjoying the process.

We thank Wing for his time and for his wonderful photos! Be sure to keep up with him on his Instagram and watch out for his upcoming photobook!

written by rocket_fries0036 on 2024-03-22 #culture #people #places #film #hong-kong #movies #cross-processing #wong-kar-wai #still-photography #apac #wing-shya


  1. bemsha
    bemsha ·

    A truly wonderful interview. Thanks for sharing this with us all!

  2. polaroidlove
    polaroidlove ·

    Great photos!

  3. stages-of-sleep
    stages-of-sleep ·

    I'm so happy to read an interview with Wing Shya! And thanks for including many photos from him.

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