The Unfiltered Lens

Text by Patricia Lee
Photography by Joseph Nair

The best art speaks for itself, and the best artists are those who allow their work to speak for them. This, unfortunately, presents something of a challenge for the interviewer. I found myself in this predicament with Wei Leng. A childhood friend of my sister’s, I had heard in passing that she had studied Biology at McGill University and had gone on to become Deputy Picture editor at Time magazine in Hong Kong. I was vaguely aware that she was now a full-time artist, but it was not until her gallerist emailed me images of her work that I wanted to write her story. More than the international awards and exhibitions listed in her biography, what struck me was my visceral reaction to her photographs.

We meet at a bistro on Armenian Street just a couple of hours after she has flown in from Hong Kong. It’s been 20 years since I last saw her. Dry humour still intact, “I look exactly the same, unfortunately,” she deadpans as we make arrangements. And indeed, I would have recognised her angular features and lanky frame straight off.

It strikes me that we tick the same boxes, but at least in conversation, that doesn’t help me understand any better who she is. She’s economical with her answers, and comfortable enough with herself not to feel the need to over-explain her choices. She studied biology because she “was toying with the idea of doing veterinary science, then went to magazines and discovered [she had] a real affinity for photography.” On the topic of how she landed her first job at Asiaweek, she offers: “During the internship they let me work on a summer special. I guess it went well, so they hired me after that.” Her work however is her voice.

Discordant Symmetries. Desultory Landscapes. Where do we go from here?. The titles of her photo projects speak of malaise. The people she turns her lens on are, without exception, middle class. And there’s no doubt about the subjects that interest her. The themes of segregated groups in society, and how that makes individuals think, act and feel are recurring. “It’s the world,” she says.

Indeed, it’s her world. And my world, and what everyday life looks like for a swelling middle class throughout Asia. According to Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the “new middle” in the region will mushroom from 500 million to 1.75 billion between now and 2020. The figures alone are astounding. So even if I’m not particularly concerned about the issue of ethnic identity and the Chinese Diaspora explored in Discordant Symmetries, or disturbed by the contradictions of modernity highlighted in Desultory Landscapes, the images—like it or not—hold up a mirror to the society I live in.

Read more in The U Press N˚10 (Singapore edition).