Catching up with Lee Chang Ming

I met Lee Chang Ming through his work on Nope Fun, a blog that documented conversations with various creatives. Chang Ming did not come from a visual background as you might expect him to be. More than 10 years later, I am fortunate enough to be able to call Chang Ming to be a friend. He is currently studying to get his MFA at UC Santa Cruz. We caught up a little bit to hear a little more about his current work.

Hi Chang Ming, it’s been a while since we talked. What have you been up to?

Hi Alex, I quit my day job last year and moved to the US to return to school and focus on my art practice. I’m currently doing my MFA at UC Santa Cruz, which has been hectic but I’m learning a lot and meeting new people. Moving across the globe from Singapore has been quite a change! I say “has been” because I still feel like I’m in this process of moving and arriving here. My mind often jumps back to the familiarity of life across the ocean, then I realize my body is here in California. I’ve visited the US several times before but living here is different in many ways.

How has your work evolved since we last spoke? How has it stayed consistent?

Recently I’ve wanted to try out new ideas and mediums beyond photography and publishing, especially since I’m in an environment that allows me the time and space to experiment. For example, I’ve been using video and text, and more recently learning printmaking. Since I’m back in school, I’ve been reading more again, but it can sometimes feel heady and theoretical. At the same time, I still feel most drawn to work that is somehow personal, so I want continue making work that is like that. I guess the challenge I’ve been thinking about is how to bridge the conceptual with the intuitive.

I used to think about having a distinct visual style, but I think that’s too restricting and caters to this perceived need to be easily understood or marketable. I would rather look at issues, questions and feelings I’m genuinely interested in than have a “unique visual voice” or narrowly defined topic. I’m saying this because in the last year, different people have commented about “finding a voice” when looking at my work. I still believe in beauty and I appreciate consistency, but I don’t want that to hold me back.

Can you tell us a little bit about your process in making work?

It depends on the project, but it usually begins with a question or impulse I want to explore. Sometimes I make work by just photographing intuitively and then retrospectively ask myself why I made those images. Other times I have a specific subject in mind, like revisiting the same place repeatedly to observe and document until a line of inquiry emerges.

I also think a collaborative approach to making work has been fun, like when I asked you to collaborate on a small publication project a few years ago. For example, last year I did a project called “Conversations” where I asked two collaborators to respond to my images with text. It was shown at Objectifs as a site-specific work and as a publication.

What tools (cameras, apps, technical process) do you usually use in making your work? Why do you use said tools?

I use a mix of digital (Fujifilm X-T4, Nikon D750, iPhone) and analog cameras (Nikon FE2, Contax T2) and edit the photos on my computer if needed. Again, it depends on the project and the idea behind it.

Do you take photographs with your phone? If so, what kind of images do you take with your phone? How are they different from your projects?

Yes, all the time. I often will just snap photos as a form of note-taking, a way to remember, or just to capture something I find interesting. It’s the camera that’s always on me so I end up using it often. I think the images I take on my phone are a mix of diaristic documentation and rough sketches for ideas. The photos in my projects are often more intentional. For example, setting up an appointment to meet someone to make a portrait I know is for a project, and I bring the relevant cameras along. Or purposely going to a place with the intention that I’m going there for a project. I also use my phone to record videos and audio and write notes.

Have you ever had a project where you utilized images made by your phone camera? Tell us a bit more about the project.

With Beneath the Bodhi & Banyan, a collaborative project with Chu Hao Pei, we used our phone camera to document tree shrines we would encounter daily. Although we didn’t use those phone camera pictures in our exhibitions, those photos were included in the publication of the project to show the many examples we found.

Who are some of your favorite emerging photographers working today?

I haven’t been actively searching, but when I did an open call for Nope Fun’s Instagram takeover, there were some photographers whose work I liked: Dat Vu, Kai Nguyễn, and Lien Pham.

Are there any artists, writers or creators that have been inspiring you lately? How have they influenced your work or thinking?

Many people I’ve met since moving to the US have inspired me, especially my peers in the graduate program. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and practices, and it’s inspiring me to try different approaches too – sound, movement, drawing, etc. I’ve also been challenged to think about what art can be (rather than what it isn’t): walking tours, food, farming and so many other things. My familiarity with photography and visual art is still something I find myself thinking about often and falling back on, but I’m keeping an open door to trying other ways of making work and being in the world.

Portrait by Alex Thebez

What are some of the songs or music that you’ve been listening to lately?

During the pandemic I started going on night walks to nowhere and would listen to music…so here are some artists that soundtracked my nocturnal strolls: Lapalux, Max Cooper, Jon Hopkins, Daniel Avery, Seb Wildblood, and Tom VR. Zazen Boys is always amazing.

I also made a playlist for songs I liked in 2022.

Originally appeared on TAGTAGTAG