Arts & Culture

Lenne Chai: Working on the Intersection of Simple and Smart

Art does not need to be difficult to understand.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to fashion photographer Lenne Chai‘s works, I believe that may be an understatement.

Unafraid to explore topics that may invite differing opinions and clashing of perspectives, she captures the essence of her subjects with artistry and grace. Some of her recent works include dreaming up an 1980s lesbian Chinese banquet wedding and creating a new religious cult, The School, for an interactive mixed media installation titled Salvation Made Simple. Her pursuit of her own independent projects gives us a glimpse of her creativity beyond the commercial works for big brands such as Canon and Esquire.

Who is this woman behind these visual stories she has gifted to the world?

Raised in Singapore and currently based in New York, Lenne speaks earnestly about her recent works and what about fashion photography she prides herself in.

Your most recent work was inspired by the 377A Penal and you previously created a fictitious religion or cult. These are things that can be quite sensitive for your audiences. What was your thought process behind them and the doubts you faced while producing them?

Both of the projects you have mentioned were inspired by extremely personal aspects of my life, and while it terrifies me that they are such sensitive topics, I try to approach them in a way that feels truthful to my experience, respectful, and accurate, and I hope for the best.

True stories are the hardest to distill, and they require me to reexamine my behaviour and upbringing in a very uncomfortable way.

I hate sharing such private things in public, but it has been rewarding to see how these sensitive and personal topics resonate with people.

Following on the previous question, your recent work seem to come from an almost journalistic space (culture appropriation, religion, patriotism, LGBTQA+), how do you marry that with something commercial and fantasy-driven like fashion?

While there is a lot of great art out there, a lot of high-brow art sometimes do not reach an audience because of how abstract or contextual it is. As a result, my favourite artworks are the thought-provoking ones that a viewer can instantly “get”. It is like a venn diagram. I like that intersection of simple and smart. How something looks does not correlate to the depth a piece may or may not have, and maybe it is a bonus that the genre my photography falls under — visually — is so digestible and familiar.

I hope it helps to make it easier for the audience to want to engage with the ideas I am trying to communicate.

What do you value most as a fashion photographer?

If we are speaking strictly in terms of fashion, then how much value the image has in the context of fashion. Is it interesting? Does it capture a style or a movement or a trend in a tasteful and timeless way? Does it sell the clothes or the fantasy? Is it beautiful?

But for myself, my goal is to create thought-provoking or witty images while hitting the marks listed above.

How has New York been treating you? How have the audiences there been different from the ones in the other places you have been to (e.g. Tokyo, LA, Singapore)?

New York has been kind to me so far! Three months is not yet enough for me to gauge what New York likes, but I think my recent work definitely resonates better with Asians, just because of very Singapore-centric topics I have been exploring lately. Someone told me that my work was cute in an Asian way, which made me cackle in a very uncute way.

How would you define your place in the local and global fashion-photography industry? Where do you want to head (goal-wise) and how far away are you from that?

I am currently pond scum, and I hope to make it to a low-hanging leaf or branch at some point. While I am grateful to be doing lots of commercial work, I would like to shoot for more international titles and high fashion campaigns someday. Let’s see if I am lucky and persistent enough to get there!

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